William Combe’s The Tour of Doctor Syntax in search of the picturesque was begun in 1809 and published in book form in 1812. Together with the accompanying aquatints by Thomas Rowlandson that inspired the poem, it satirises the aesthetic ideals lying behind the picturesque and its frequently pompous followers. The poem tells how Dr Syntax, a curate, sets off in search of the ideal picturesque landscape only to be continually thwarted by bathetic and farcical inconveniences. During the course of the poem the unfortunate Dr Syntax stumbles into a lake while attempting to reach the perfect location from which to sketch a suitably ruined castle, is chased by a bull and driven to distraction by the incessant bleating of sheep.
The aesthetic concept of the picturesque had evolved in late 18th-century Britain. It favoured the rough, varied and irregular forms of nature over the more rationalist Enlightenment ideas of aestheticism, taking much of its inspiration from the work of 17th-century landscape painters such as Salvator Rosa and Claude Lorrain. Its popularity, however, owed a great deal to a series of essays by the artist William Gilpin who transplanted the ideal of the picturesque from the Romantic paintings of European artists and applied it to the landscapes of Britain. Ironically, while the picturesque emulated organic and natural forms it prescribed a landscape adapted and altered by human intervention. In a much-quoted passage Gilpin commented, without humour, that ‘a mallet judiciously used’ would considerably improve the picturesque qualities of the insufficiently ruined gable of Tintern Abbey. This pursuit of the picturesque, even at the expense of common sense, made it a ripe target for satirists.
The picturesque in the novels of Jane Austen
Jane Austen, who owned a copy of the 1812 edition of Combe’s poem, frequently mocked the picturesque in her novels. In Pride and Prejudice Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst oust Elizabeth Bennet from a walk with Darcy by placing themselves in a way that monopolises a garden path. Darcy attempts to offset their rudeness by inviting Elizabeth to join them once again, only to receive the reply: ‘You are charmingly group’d, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth’ (ch. 10). This plays upon a comment of Gilpin’s relating to the grouping of cattle in which he considers three to be the optimum number for a picturesque composition. Elizabeth Bennet is mocking the picturesque and simultaneously slyly comparing Caroline and Louisa to cows.
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- Carl Thompson
The ‘picturesque’ – an aesthetic ideal introduced in the 18th century – was one of Britain’s most influential cultural movements. Picturesque places were depicted widely in prints and drawings, published in engraving series and as illustrations to books, poems or travel guides. With reference to selected British Library collection items, Carl Thompson explores how the picturesque was employed to depict Britain’s domestic and imperial landscapes.