A view of Fountains Abbey by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm.

British topography: ‘Our real national art form’?

Felicity Myrone explores how topographical art has been defined and categorised since the 18th century – by artists, critics, art historians and collectors.

The term ‘topography’ has had a crucial if over-simplified role to play in art-historical narratives of watercolour and landscape painting. It is both value-laden and open to dispute. Definable as a representation of place (‘topos’) that could be taken as in some sense ‘accurate’, the term raises questions about the relative value of images and texts, the role of perspective (literal and metaphorical) and material evidence in the creation of historical understanding, and the aesthetics of history itself. Usually commissioned or created in relation to antiquarian projects, but increasingly, in the 18th century, a commercial product that was widely disseminated through the expanding market for print, topography needs to be analysed in relation to larger structures of knowledge and value and the changing technologies and communication systems of this nascent consumer society. In these contexts, the meaning of ‘topography’ is far from simple or self-evident.

Despite, or, perhaps, because of, topography being created over centuries and found in almost every public collection in Britain (including national and local museums, galleries and libraries), it is taken for granted. It is known, yet unknown, cited as evidence for primarily text-based and historical or geographical research, but seldom studied or acknowledged as art. Examples appear in most major texts on 18th-century art, but authors rarely give them critical attention and often actively dismiss them using a restrictive narrative of topography as a precursor to the more imaginative interpretations of the landscape which were to follow.

Rosslyn Castle

Sketch of a tower

Joseph Farington produced this view on a visit to Roslin Castle in September 1801

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Held by© British Library

Do we tend to accept topographical images without analysis, feeling invited to explore views as a spectator, and unwittingly accepting values which they project? As David Lowenthal and Hugh C Prince wrote in an essay published in 1965: 'Landscapes are formed by landscape tastes. People in any country see their terrain through preferred and accustomed spectacles… The English landscape, as much as any other, mirrors a long succession of such idealized images and visual prejudices. What we describe here as characteristically English landscape taste is not necessarily what a majority of the English people would select, favour, or even understand… But the points of view that we deal with are expressed again and again in literature, in speeches, at public hearings, in newspaper articles, and in letters. If they are not the attitudes of the common man, they are, we think, representative of that minority who have been most active in creating English landscape taste and in moulding the landscape itself'.[1]

The art historian John Harris’s 1988 plea for an exhibition on topography, which he defined as ‘our real national art form’ remains unanswered. Can the range and nature of topography be properly accounted for without an expansion of the history and interpretation of British art? Images defined as ‘topographical’ can be and have been interpreted in a multitude of different ways. The type of views which have come to have this label attached to them may have been categorised in various ways in the 18th and 19th centuries. For instance, views exhibited at the Royal Academy were listed alongside portraits and models in the ‘Marine Subjects, Naval Portraits &c’ of interest to the readers of the Naval Chronicle.[2]

Topography was a vast and varied field, collected and created by a wide range of amateurs and professionals in various capacities. The late 18th-century antiquarian Richard Gough provided a contemporary history of the genre, stating that 'the pencil is as essential as the pen to illustrate antiquities'. He lists 'Our modern artists, who have chosen this walk' to favourable criticism (Gravelot, Smith, Vivares, Bellers, Sandby, Hearne) and that due to public demand the Bucks’ views still being re-issued from 'worn-out plates'.[3] Views were in demand, actively collected and prized, and we know of high-profile and respected collectors such as George III, Samuel Pepys, or later Richard Colt Hoare and Dawson Turner. What has come to be seen as a definition between topography and landscape was very blurred in practice: views put forward for the Society of Arts’s prize for Landscape required artists to record where the view was taken from, for example, and drawing books often picture actual places as well as stock trees, cottages and staffage which could be added to complete one’s own views, with an emphasis on time of day as much as locality. We must be careful not to assess topographical images with hierarchies which did not exist at the time of the works’ creation. John Barrell has recently questioned the very existence of the genre of topography as relating to the visual, pointing out that references in 18th century texts are overwhelmingly textual.

Description of Tintern Abbey from Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales by William Gilpin

Description of Tintern Abbey from Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales by William Gilpin

William Gilpin travelled widely throughout Britain, noting those aspects of the landscape that tended towards the picturesque

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But topography and creativity or imagination came to be seen as incompatible. Topography took on negative connotations, most famously in the words of the artist Henry Fuseli, who claimed in his fourth Royal Academy lecture on ‘Invention’ (published in 1810) that many landscapes were no more than a ‘tame delineation of a given spot; an enumeration of hill and dale, clumps of trees, shrubs, water, meadows, cottages and houses' and that this amounted to ‘little more than topography… [a] kind of map-work’.

Topography was now being seen as an inferior branch of landscape painting, and the opinion grew, partly based on a misreading of William Pyne’s articles on the ‘Rise and Progress of Water-Colour Painting in England.’ published in 1823 and 1824. Pyne describes earlier landscapes in watercolour as ‘tinted drawings’, their makers first drawing their outlines, shading them through in black or grey, and finally ‘staining’ or ‘tinting’ them. He sees Paul Sandby as the most important of those who created these ‘tinted drawings’, but his importance was that he had laid a foundation for a practice of watercolour painting that had made this method obsolete. The modern school, of Turner, Girtin and their followers, worked like painters in oils, ‘laying in the object … with the local colour, and shadowing the same with the individual tint of its own shadow’. ‘It was this new practice … that acquired for designs in watercolours upon paper, the title of paintings'.

In the same series of essays, Pyne distinguished between the ‘topographical’ and ‘landscape’, whether in tinted drawings or in true watercolour paintings. For Pyne, whether the views represented by artists were ‘real’ views of particular places was actually of no particular importance, and though he presumed that ‘topographical’ images were of real places, it did not follow that ‘landscapes’ were expected not to be. Topographical images were pictures of ‘abbeys, castles, ancient towns, and noblemen’s seats’ and suchlike, that when represented in ‘tinted drawings’ appealed especially to those with antiquarian tastes. Landscapes were images where the main interest was in rural scenes in which buildings were incidental or at least not the primary object of attention.

Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire

A view of Fountains Abbey by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm.

The romantic ruins of Fountains Abbey became a favourite subject for artists in the late eighteenth century.

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Art historians tended to take Pyne’s distinction between ‘tinted drawings’ and ‘watercolour painting’, and conflate it with a division between topography and landscape which they presumed to be his but was in fact their own. This enabled them to associate topography with tinted drawings and the followers of Sandby, and to represent them as all obsolete, second-rate and now fortunately superseded by landscape, watercolour painting and the followers of Turner. The influence of this hypothesis can be traced through 19th and 20th centuries. In his monumental survey of watercolour painting (1966-8), Martin Hardie argued against ‘a continuous tradition of landscape based strictly upon topography, or what may be called the recognisable “view”, from Hollar and Place, through Sandby, Dayes, Rooker, and Hearne to a culminating point with Girtin and Turner’ but concluded that this is because in fact ‘two tempers and systems exist side by side… the one relying for its main interest on a careful and realistic recording of places and buildings; the other depending not so much on topographical interest as on the sentiments aroused by the painter’s personal interpretation of some aspect of Nature seen or imagined’.[4] Maurice Barley’s Guide to British Topographical Collections (1974) aimed to re-dress this imbalance, but the emphasis is still on topographical works being taken at face value as evidence of what a place looked like - while his introduction states 'For the student of the past, whether of the landscape or of the buildings, the values of a Martin Hardie are reversed' this is for the pictures’ value as 'pictorial evidence'.[5]

John Harris, quoted above, was writing in the catalogue accompanying Prospects of Town and Park, A Loan Exhibition of View Paintings to Mark the 85th Year of the National Art Collections Fund.[6] This one-month long exhibition, open to the public two days a week, could be assumed to be modest by many standards. But it gathered 36 (and catalogued 38) of 'the finest examples of views of town, country house, park and garden...[creating] an exhibition of unusual fascination, rich in insights into three centuries of changing taste in garden design, park planning, urban layout, costume and pastimes' from across Britain. Topography was presented as an accessible genre of fine art, and the prestigious National Art Collections Fund (now Art Fund) actively wanted to support its acquisition by local collections. 'Although many are significant works of art in their own right, these paintings have usually been acquired for their historical, social or topographical interest to the institution where they hang'; the show encapsulates the NACF’s 'enhancing of a representative local history by the acquisition of works... which transform it into an art collection'.[7]

John Harris explained that local museums were financially unable to compete for old master paintings and topography might in any case be more suitable subject matter 'There is a feeling that the public does not have to be educated by its local museum in high art, but that it is more sensible and appropriate to display what was created in the county in times past and present. Thus, there is a growing interest in portraits of local people, in the topographical record of the county, and in particular in the art forms generated by the Industrial Revolution…This is all surely wonderful for it makes for an affinity between the visitor and the picture on display'. 'The National Art Collections Fund/Colngahi exhibition may stimulate some national museum to organise a full-scale show of British topographical art. It is extraordinary, and I think saddening, that there has never been one. Let us hope that this Bond Street exhibition will lead one day to a display of our real national art form'.[8]

Topography is still the largest area of new acquisitions supported by the Art Fund, according to the categories of works of art published by that body, and topographical paintings, prints and drawings are found across the country in public collections of all kinds and sizes. But they remain under- researched and, arguably, undervalued. They are subject to faint praise - as ‘sensible and appropriate’ acquisitions – rather than the sort of enthusiasm associated with ‘high art’ by familiar names from the art historical canon. While landscape art thus defined is frequently exhibited in public and commercial exhibitions, no national exhibition surveying topography has been attempted since the display of drawings Views of the Past at the British Library in 1988. Picturing Places aims to redress this imbalance, and explore the history of topographical production through the national collection. But it does so with the aim that our very conception of topography is altered. Rather than an artistic genre, aesthetic, or quality within art, we aim to see ‘topography’ considered anew as a complexly organised field of highly variegated visual and textual activity, reproduction and categorisation.


[1] David Lowenthal and Hugh C. Prince, 'English landscape tastes', Geographical Review, vol.55, no.2, (1965), pp.186-222.

[2] Volume 18, 1809, pp 47-53

[3] British Topography; or, an historical account of what has been done for illustrating the topographical antiquities of Great Britain and Ireland (London: T. Payne, etc., 1780), pp xxxiv, xxxix.

[4] Martin Hardie, Watercolour in Britain: The Eighteenth Century, vol.1, (London: Batsford, 1967), p. 74

[5] M. W. Barley, A guide to British topographical collections (London: Council for British Archaeology, 1974), p. 5.

[6] Prospects of Town and Park, A Loan Exhibition of View Paintings to Mark the 85th Year of the National Art Collections Fund, P&D Colnaghi & Co, 15 July -20 August 1988.

[7] Sir Nicholas Goodison, Chairman of the National Art Collections Fund.

[8] Prospects of Town and Park,  pp. 9-10.

Felicity Myrone
  • Felicity Myrone
  • Felicity Myrone is an art historian and curator with a particular interest in 17th-19th-century works on paper, their collecting histories, and the historical relationships between the image collections at the British Library and British Museum.

    She worked as a Curatorial Assistant at the British Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings before joining the British Library as Curator of Topography in 2006. In 2015 she became Lead Curator, Western Prints and Drawings, with sole responsibility for prints and drawings in the printed books, maps and manuscripts collections.

    She led an externally funded team cataloguing and digitising George III’s maps and views, the King’s Topographical Collection, and managed a related research project, Transforming Topography. One outcome of the latter is the British Library webspace, Picturing Places. Other projects include ongoing cataloguing of prints and drawings, and incorporation of Mark McDonald’s catalogue of Cassiano dal Pozzo’s print collection and the BL satires described by Stephens and George.

    She has hosted PhD placements on Charles I's Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, William Blake, the King's Maritime Collection and the King's Topographical Collection.  

    Her research on the history and scope of the collections has also involved hosting invited workshops in 2013 and 2015, and an international conference in 2016. She was awarded the Ian Willison Fellowship to the Rare Book School, University of Virginia in 2009, a Georgian Papers Fellowship in 2016, and most recently a Paul Mellon Centre Mid-Career Fellowship for 'Art in the Library', investigating how the fused and intertwined institutional histories of the British Museum, Natural History Museum and British Library have shaped attitudes to prints and drawings.

    She is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and a Trustee of the Walpole Society.