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.
A love affair with nature
The 18th century witnessed the beginnings of a British love affair with landscape and with natural scenery that continues to the present day.
In earlier centuries writers and artists sometimes admired fertile countryside for its productivity; there was also frequent praise for the intricate, highly formal gardens of the period, in which nature is firmly controlled by human artifice. Yet in medieval and early modern times few people expressed any aesthetic appreciation of the wider landscape. Nor was there much enthusiasm for nature in its more rugged, wild aspects, such as mountains, cliffs and ravines.
By 1800, however, tastes had changed dramatically. Both at home and abroad, many Britons were now hungry for what was dubbed ‘picturesque’ scenery, and fine ‘prospect’ views had become staple subject-matter for paintings, prints and poems. Increasingly, moreover, people sought to see such scenery for themselves, taking advantage of new opportunities for travel in Georgian Britain and its burgeoning overseas empire.
These were developments which had a bearing on more than just matters of aesthetic taste. The vogue for the picturesque had social, political and economic ramifications, and helped to usher in new, distinctively modern attitudes to nature, nation and the wider world.
The term ‘picturesque’ indicates a paradox at the heart of this new fashion. Devotees of the picturesque were enamoured of nature, and in comparison with earlier eras, the views and scenes they admired were far more natural in appearance, less obviously shaped and organised by human intervention. Yet the landscapes most celebrated were nevertheless those which conformed to rules of composition, tonality and balance established by artists like Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa. There was thus a complex interplay between nature and art in the picturesque enterprise.
Aficionados sought out scenes that resembled paintings, and that might themselves be sketched or painted to produce new pictures (hence, ‘picturesque’). Where a vista fell short of the artistic ideal, enthusiasts often felt licensed to edit out nature’s imperfections to improve the final image. A popular tool was the so-called ‘Claude glass’, a type of convex mirror. Viewed through these mirrors, landscapes became more tightly composed and better suited to sketching. In this way the picturesque tradition celebrated nature – but usually nature in an idealised form, subtly shaped and manipulated by artifice.
The originators of this new enthusiasm for landscape and landscape art – Poussin, Claude and Rosa – were active in Italy in the 17th century. Their influence spread to Britain through paintings brought back by 18th-century Grand Tourists. Reflecting the new taste, James Thomson made descriptions of natural scenery a central feature of his popular long poem The Seasons (1726).
British artists trained on the continent similarly began to depict their native countryside, initially in the classicising style associated with Poussin and Claude but increasingly in a more naturalistic manner. It was above all the Welsh painter Richard Wilson who inaugurated a British landscape tradition in art; his Maecenas’ Villa is shown here. Wilson, in turn, inspired Thomas Gainsborough, William Turner, John Constable and many lesser known figures, whose paintings were often quickly reproduced as print engravings, and so circulated to a large, nation-wide audience.
Maecenas’ Villa (Tivoli)
Maecenas’ Villa (Tivoli) was published in W.B. Cooke’s The Gems of Art: a series of mezzotints after works by famous 16th, 17th, and 18th-century artists
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The same influences led to a growing preference, among aristocrats and large land-owners, for less formal, ‘landscaped’ grounds and gardens, where again, natural features were often adjusted to improve the views and vistas. As with British landscape art, the first exercises in this vein made extensive reference to classical models, and can seem to modern eyes rather formulaic. Again, however, a more naturalistic style emerged over the course of the century, with the style of early innovators like William Kent and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown giving way to the less regular, more variegated designs of Humphrey Repton and Uvedale Price.
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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Picturesque tourism and literature
The very rich could create picturesque landscapes on their estates. The less wealthy had to content themselves with visiting sites of great natural beauty. Wilder regions of the British countryside such as the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands and Snowdonia in Wales had for centuries been reviled as bleak and barren by travellers and commentators. They now received a steadily escalating influx of tourists, inspired by figures like the Reverend William Gilpin, who from the 1780s published a series of picturesque guides to different parts of Britain.
Such picturesque tourism was cheaper than the traditional Grand Tour of Europe, and so feasible for the middle as well as upper classes. Reaching a zenith of popularity in the decades either side of 1800, the new fashion for picturesque tours launched the British travel industry, producing guidebooks, souvenir prints and other tourist paraphernalia and generating in previously undeveloped regions an ever-growing infrastructure of transport links and accommodation.
As the concept of the picturesque gained wider currency, lively theoretical debates broke out as to the basis of our attraction to natural scenery, the prerequisites of a truly picturesque view, and the moral and intellectual benefits supposedly deriving from such vistas. Most commentators drew on the distinction established by Edmund Burke between the sublime and the beautiful.
Sublimity was the effect created by mountains, cliffs or a stormy sea: a blend of awe and amazement tinged with fear at the vast power of natural forces. Beauty derived from the smaller, more obviously pretty elements of nature, such as flowers, trees or a pleasing patchwork of fields; it was characterised by order, pattern and regularity, whereas the sublime hinted at disorder, even violence.
The picturesque was seen as a mediating category between these two poles, ideally offering a blend of beautiful and sublime features. In this way, any excessive prettiness or patterning in a scene would be broken up by pleasing irregularities and by long perspectives which suggested rugged terrain in the middle- to long-distance. Yet such suggestions of wildness and danger were carefully framed and contained within a harmonious overall composition.
Within these general parameters however, Gilpin, Repton, Price and other theorists squabbled over the precise ingredients required for true picturesque beauty. By the 1790s, having a knowledge of these debates, and engaging in them oneself, was a mark of distinction for any aspiring man or woman of taste. It is this fashion, and the pretentiousness it could produce, that Jane Austen satirises in her novel Northanger Abbey (1817), when she has Henry Tilney lecture the protagonist Catherine Morland on the deficiencies of the views around Bath.
The tour of Doctor Syntax
TheTour of Doctor Syntax satirises the aesthetic ideals lying behind the picturesque and its frequently pompous followers
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Another notable satire of the picturesque and its devotees was William Combe’s comic poem The Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque, published in 1812 with accompanying prints by the caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson. The latter’s images show a traveller who seems myopic, enfeebled and emasculated. Mindful that picturesque tourism was hugely popular among women as well as men, Combe and Rowlandson clearly mean to suggest that it is not a properly manly form of travel, but rather a silly, frivolous exercise serving no useful purpose.
Today it seems strange that something as innocuous as admiring a landscape could produce such animosity and ridicule. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, these debates and travels had resonances that went beyond just the pleasure occasioned by a fine view. The fashion for the picturesque intersected with a variety of political, social and gender issues, in ways that were often controversial.
Patriotism of the picturesque
Many commentators insisted there was a patriotic dimension to seeking out the picturesque beauties of the British Isles. Native landscape was now elevated to the same level as the Italian campagna – previously the benchmark of ideal natural beauty. The vogue for the picturesque was also felt to assist the unification and modernisation of the different regions and nations of newly formed ‘Great Britain’, the political entity created after the 1707 Act of Union linking Scotland to England and Wales. The extensive circulation of both tourists and prints helped generate a new national consciousness, heightening the perception of the British Isles as an interlinked whole.
The Georgian political system and the picturesque
If the picturesque had in this way a unifying aspect, it also touched more problematically on fault-lines and divisions in 18th-century British society. Land ownership was key to the political system in this period; it was principally through the ownership of large estates that men – and at this date, only men – gained the right to vote and exercise political power.
The prevailing ideology taught that by living off their estates, the ruling male elite were freed from the narrow self-interest of those who followed a specific trade. Instead, great landowners were able to take a wider perspective, balancing the different interests and factions which comprised the nation as a whole. The beautifully composed picturesque landscapes and long vistas many fashioned in their grounds were intended to symbolise this harmonious political balance and the ruling class’ careful stewardship of the country.
This was the mythology of the dominant elite in Georgian Britain. Increasingly, however, expertise in the aesthetic appreciation and evaluation of landscape was claimed by the middle classes, as they accumulated picturesque prints and toured the country in search of natural beauty.
Good taste in this regard was implicitly a mark of discrimination, fine judgement and exposure to nature’s benign moral influence. Subliminally, if not always consciously, it was to assert one’s fitness to join the ruling class and exercise political power.
Women were similarly excluded from the Georgian political system; their enthusiasm for the picturesque implicitly made the same claim on behalf of their sex. It was partly for this reason that middle-class and female devotees of the picturesque were much mocked by conservative commentators.
The picturesque abroad
The picturesque also aroused animosity in other quarters. For radical observers such as the young Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the picturesque ideal was dubious because it viewed the countryside solely through an aesthetic lens. As well as judging the grandeur of nature by petty rules derived from art, this was problematic because it ignored the poverty and hardship afflicting many who worked the land.
The harmonious balance evoked by the picturesque scene, they suggested, was often an illusion – an illusion masking, and sometimes created by, the more naked exercise of power. They pointed to notorious cases where whole villages had been demolished by landowners, just to improve the views available from their grounds.
The Motee Girna or Fall of Pearls in the Rajemaha
The Moti Jharna waterfall in the Rajmahal Hills is depicted in Charles Ramus Forrest's A Picturesque Tour along the Rivers Ganges and Jumna (1824)
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The picturesque also had complex political implications abroad. As the British Empire expanded during the Georgian period, artists like William Hodges, Thomas and William Daniell, and David Roberts supplied the British public with plentiful images of picturesque scenery in India, America, Africa and other regions of the world. As in the domestic context, the circulation of these prints and paintings helped breed a new global consciousness, making the British familiar with the furthest reaches of their empire.
Filtered through the norms of picturesque beauty, the wider world and the very different environments it contained became less alien and threatening. As at home, the beautiful landscapes presented often masked the power relations of the colonial system, erasing any marks of suffering, struggle or discontent.
On his picturesque tour of the Caribbean, for example, James Hakewill kept a tasteful distance from the brutalities of contemporary slave plantations, or else presented slaves as a seemingly contented, colourful addition to the landscape. When depicted, the local population in Thomas Sutherland’s views of India seem similarly happy and untroubled by colonial rule – thereby reassuring both colonists and the public back in Britain that their empire was benign, committed to the careful stewardship of both landscapes and communities.
Trinity Estate, St Mary’s
This plate from Hakewill’s A Picturesque Tour in the Island of Jamaica depicts Trinity Estate, one of four adjoining plantations owned by Zachary Bayly
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The picturesque today
Today a fascination with picturesque scenery is widespread and taken for granted, although we deploy cameras rather than Claude glasses and sketch pads to record fine views. The political tensions originally associated with this taste have faded, along with the technical debates and terms that accompanied the picturesque in its heyday. Yet our ongoing enthusiasm for sites of natural beauty can still have complex ramifications, often encouraging conservation of these scenes whilst simultaneously generating the tourism and accompanying development which threatens to destroy them.