The Picturesque

Reading: extracts for Tuesday, January 14. Print this! (pages 1-7)

Thomas Whately, Observations on Modern Gardening (1770)
William Gilpin, "On Picturesque Beauty," from Three Essays (1794)
William Gilpin, Observations on the River Wye (1789) and additional Internet extracts
Kim Ian Michasiw, "Nine Revisionist Theses": notes and comments

Thomas Whately, Observations on Modern Gardening, 3rd ed. (1771) -- extracts not on CD

Connection and proportion: "In made ground, the connection is, perhaps, the principal consideration. A swell which wants it is but a heap; a hollow but a hole; and both appear artificial: the one seems placed upon a surface to which it does not belong; the other dug into it. On the great scale of nature, indeed, either may be so considerable in itself, as to make its relation to any other amost a matter of indifference; on the smaller scale of a garden, if the parts are disjointed, the effect of the whole is lost" (7-8)

The eye active in perception: "Though ground all falling the same way requires every attention to its general tendency, yet the eye must not dart down the whole length immediately in one direction, but should be insensibly conducted towards the principal point with some circuity and delay. The channels between hillocks ought never to run in straight, nor even regularly curved lines; but winding gently among them, and constantly varying in form and in dimensions, should gradually find their way." (18)

River gives coherence to a view: "A lustre is from thence diffused on all around; each derives an importance from its relation to this capital feature; those which are near enough to be reflected, immediately belong to it; those at a greater distance still share in the animation of the scene; and objects totally detached from each other, being all attracted toward the same interesting connexion are united into one composition" (77-8). And cf.: "the river in its long varied course, approaching to every object, and touching on every part, spreads its influence over the whole" (81)

Nature's objective correlative: "Certain properties, and certain dispositions, of the objects of nature, are adapted to excite particular ideas and sensations" (153). -- such as the gaiety aroused by the prospect of an orchard, a hayfield being harvested, etc. (154-5); or, the sight of a ruin, its change and decay (155); "even without the assistance of buildings, or other adventitious circumstances, nature alone furnishes materials for scenes, which may be adapted to almost every kind of expression; their operation is general; and their consequences infinite: the mind elevated, depressed or composed, as gaiety, gloom, or tranquility, prevail in the scene" (155).

Cultivation: Unlike Gilpin, Whately doesn't object to signs of cultivation in a "romantic" view, as at Persfield on the Wye: "near the isthmus the ground rises considerably, and thence descends in a broken surface, till it flattens to the water's edge at the other extremity. The whole is divided into corn-fields and pastures; they are separated by hedge-rows, coppices, and thickets; open clumps and single trees stand out in the meadows; and houses and other buildings, which belong to the farms, are scattered amongst them: nature so cultivated, surrounded by nature so wild, compose a most lovely landskip together" (241). [see photo; click image to enlarge]

From CD (1770 Dublin edition):

Middleton dale, emotions: "at other times the brook wreathes in frequent windings, and drops down a step at every turn; or slopes between tufts of grass, in a brisk, though not a precipitate descent; when it is most quiet, a thousand dimples still mark its vivacity; it is every where active: sometimes rapid; seldom silent; but never furious or noisy: the first impressions which it makes are of sprightliness and gaiety, very different from those which belong to the scene all around; but by dwelling upon both, they are brought nearer together; and a melancholy thought occurs, that such a stream should be lost in watering a waste; the wilderness appears more forlorn which so much vivacity cannot enliven; as the idea of desolation is heightened by reflecting that 'the Flower is born to blush unseen, / And waste its sweetness on the desart air'." (101)

Wildness, most notably of rocks: "But too strong a force on the nature of the place always fails; a winding path which appears to be worn, not cut, has more effect than a high road, all artificial and level, which is too weak to overbear and yet contradicts the general idea: the objects therefore to be introduced must be those which hold a mean betwixt solitude and population; and the inclination of that choice towards either extream, should be directed by the degree of wildness which prevails; for though that runs sometimes to an excess which requires correction; at other times it wants encouragement; and at all times it ought to be preserved; it is the predominant character of rocks, which mixes with every other, and to which all the appendages must be accommodated; and they may be applied, so as greatly to encrease it: a licentious irregularity of wood and of ground, and a fantastic conduct of the streams, neither of which would be tolerated in the midst of cultivation, become and improve romantic spots; even buildings, partly by their style, but still more by their position, in strange, difficult, or dangerous situations, distinguish and aggravate the native extravagancies of the scene." (103-4)

Of rocks: "Their most distinguished characters are, dignity, terror, and fancy: the expressions of all are constantly wild; and sometimes a rocky scene is only wild, without pretensions to any particular character." (104)

Nature's variety: "Sometimes a spot, remarkable for nothing but its wildness, is highly romantic; and when this wildness rises to fancy, when the most singular, the most opposite forms and combinations are thrown together, then a mixture also of several characters adds to the number of instances which there concur to display the inexhaustible variety of nature" (117) [Example then discussed is Dovedale]

New Weir:

A scene at the New Weir on the Wye, which in itself is truly great and awful, so far from being disturbed, becomes more interesting and important, by the business to which it is destined. It is a chasm between two high ranges of hill, which rise almost perpendicularly from the water; the rocks on the sides are mostly heavy masses; and their colour is generally brown; but here and there a pale craggy shape starts up to a vast heighth above the rest, unconnected, broken, and bare: large trees frequently force out their way amongst them; and many of them stand far back in the covert, where their natural dusky hue is deepened by the shadow which overhangs them. The river too, as it retires, loses itself in woods which close immediately above, then rise thick and high, and darken the water. In the midst of all this gloom is an iron forge, covered with a black cloud of smoak, and surrounded with half burned ore, with coal, and with cinders; the fuel for it is brought down a path, worn into steps, narrow and steep, and winding among precipices; and near it is an open space of barren moor, about which are scattered the huts of the workmen. It stands close to the cascade of the Weir, where the agitation of the current is encreased by large fragments of rocks, which have been swept down by floods from the banks, or shivered by tempests from the brow; and the sullen sound, at stated intervals, from the strokes of the great hammers in the forge, deadens the roar of the water-fall. Just below it, while the rapidity of the stream still continues, a ferry is carried across it; and lower down the fishermen use little round boats, called truckles, the remains perhaps of the ancient British navigation, which the least motion will overset, and the slightest touch may destroy. All the employments of the people seem to require either exertion or caution; and the ideas of force or of danger which attend them, give to the scene an animation unknown to a solitary, though perfectly compatible with the wildest romantic situations.

But marks of inhabitants must not be carried to the length of cultivation, which is too mild for the ruggedness of the place, and has besides an air of chearfulness inconsistent with the character of terror; a little inclination towards melancholy is generally acceptable, at least to the exclusion of all gaiety and beyond that point, so far as to throw just a tinge of gloom upon the scene. For this purpose, the objects whose colour is obscure should be preferred; and those which are too bright may be thrown into shadow; the wood may be thickened, and the dark greens abound in it; if it is necessarily thin, yews and shabby firs should be scattered about it; and sometimes, to shew a withering or a dead tree, it may for a space be cleared entirely away. All such circumstances are acquisitions, if they can be had without detriment to the principal character; for it must ever be remembered, that where terror prevails, melancholy is but a secondary consideration. (114-7)

Tintern Abbey:

Monkish tomb-stones, and the monuments of benefactors long since forgotten, appear above the greenswerd; the bases of the pillars which have fallen, rise out of it; and maimed effigies, and sculpture worn with age and weather, Gothic capitals, carved cornices, and various fragments, are scattered about, or lie in heaps piled up together. Other shattered pieces, though disjointed and mouldering, still occupy their original places; and a stair-case much impaired, which led to a tower now no more, is suspended at a great heighth, uncovered and inaccessible. Nothing is perfect; but memorials of every part still subsist; all certain, but all in decay; and suggesting, at once, every idea which can occur in a seat of devotion, solitude, and desolation. Upon such models, fictitious ruins should be formed; and if any parts are entirely lost, they should be such as the imagination can easily supply from those which are still remaining. Distinct traces of the building which is supposed to have existed, are less liable to the suspicion of artifice, than an unmeaning heap of confusion. Precision is always satisfactory; but in the reality it is only agreeable; in the copy, it is essential to the imitation. (140-1)

William Gilpin, "On Picturesque Beauty," from Three Essays (1794)

The unusual ruled out: "The curious, and fantastic forms of nature are by no means the favourite objects of the lovers of landscape. . . [The eye] would range with supreme delight among the sweet vales of Switzerland; but would view only with a transient glance, the Glaciers of Savoy." (43-4)

Novelty: "The first source of amusement to the picturesque traveller, is the pursuit of his object -- the expectation of new scenes continually opening, and arising to his view. We suppose the country to have been unexplored. Under this circumstance the mind is kept constantly in an agreeable suspence. The love of novelty is the foundation of this pleasure. Every distant horizon promises something new . . . (47-8). After the pursuit we are gratified with the attainment of the object. Our amusement, on this head, arises from the employment of the mind in examining the beautiful scenes we have found. Sometimes we examine them under the idea of a whole: we admire the composition, the colouring, and the light, in one comprehensive view. When we are fortunate enough to fall in with scenes of this kind, we are highly delighted. But as we have less frequent opportunities of being thus gratified, we are more commonly employed in analyzing the parts of scenes; which may be exquisitely beautiful, tho unable to produce a whole. (48-9)

Enthusiasm: "But it is not from this scientifical employment, that we derive our chief pleasure. We are most delighted, when some grand scene, tho perhaps of incorrect composition, rising before the eye, strikes us beyond the power of thought -- when the vox faucibus hæret; and every mental operation is suspended. In this pause of intellect; this deliquium of the soul, an enthusiastic sensation of pleasure overspreads it, previous to any examination by the rules of art. The general idea of the scene makes an impression, before any appeal is made to the judgment. We rather feel, than survey it." (49-50)

Forms of nature: "Having gained by a minute examination of incidents a compleat idea of an object, our next amusement arises from inlarging, and correcting our general stock of ideas. The variety of nature is such, that new objects, and new combinations of them, are continually adding something to our fund, and inlarging our collection: while the same kind of object occurring frequently, is seen under various shapes; and makes us, if I may so speak, more learned in nature. We get it more by heart. He who has seen only one oak-tree, has no compleat idea of an oak in general: but he who has examined thousands of oak trees, must have seen that beautiful plant in all it's varieties; and obtains a full, and compleat idea of it." (50-1)

Imaginary scenes: "We are, in some degree, also amused by the very visions of fancy itself. Often, when slumber has half closed the eye, and shut out all the objects of sense, especially after the enjoyment of some splendid scene; the imagination, active, and alert, collects it's scattered ideas, transposes, combines, and shifts them into a thousand forms, producing such exquisite scenes, such sublime arrangements, such glow, and harmony of colouring, such brilliant lights, such depth, and clearness of shadow, as equally foil description, and every attempt of artificial colouring." (54)

William Gilpin, Observations on the River Wye

Tintern Abbey (5th ed., 1800):

Such is the situation of Tintern-abbey. It occupies a great eminence in the middle of a circular valley, beautifully screened on all sides by woody hills, through which the river winds its course; and the hills, closing on its entrance and on its exit, leave no room for inclement blasts to enter. A more pleasing retreat could not easily be found. The woods and glades intermixed; the winding of the river; the variety of the ground; the splendid ruin, contrasted with the objects of nature; and the elegant line formed by the summits of the hills which include the whole, make all together a very enchanting piece of scenery. Every thing around breathes an air so calm and tranquil, so sequestered from the commerce of life, that it is easy to conceive, a man of warm imagination, in monkish times, might have been allured by such a scene to become an inhabitant of it.

No part of the ruins of Tintern is seen from the river except the abbey-church. It has been an elegant Gothic pile; but it does not make that appearance as a distant object which we expected. Though the parts are beautiful, the whole is ill-shaped. No ruins of the tower are left, which might give form and contrast to the buttresses and walls. Instead of this a number of gabel-ends hurt the eye with their regularity, and disgust it by the vulgarity of their shape. A mallet judiciously used (but who durst use it?) might be of service in fracturing some of them; particularly those of the cross isles, which are both disagreeable in themselves, and confound the perspective.

But were the building ever so beautiful, incompassed as it is with shabby houses, it could make no appearance from the river. From a stand near the road it is seen to more advantage.

But if Tintern-abbey be less striking as a distant object, it exhibits, on a nearer view, (when the whole together cannot be seen), a very enchanting piece of ruin. The eye settles upon some of its nobler parts. Nature has now made it her own. Time has worn off all traces of the chisel: it has blunted the sharp edges of the rule and compass, and broken the regularity of opposing parts. The figured ornaments of the east-window are gone; those of the west window are left. Most of the other windows, with their principal ornaments, remain.

To these were superadded the ornaments of time. Ivy, in masses uncommonly large, had taken possession of many parts of the wall; and given a happy contrast to the grey-coloured stone of which the building is composed: nor was this undecorated. Mosses of various hues, with lychens, maiden-hair, penny-leaf, and other humble plants, had over-spread the surface, or hung from every joint and crevice. Some of them were in flower, others only in leaf; but all together gave those full-blown tints which add the richest finishing to a ruin. (48-50)

Goodrich Castle, 2nd ed. (1789) -- from additional Internet extracts

<P 30> After sailing four miles from Ross, we came to Goodrich-castle; where a grand view presented itself; and we rested on our oars to examine it. A reach of the river, forming a noble bay, is spread before the eye. The bank, on the right, is steep, and covered with wood; beyond which a bold promontory shoots out, crowned with a castle, rising among trees.

This view, which is one of the grandest on the river, I should not scruple to call <P 31> correctly picturesque; which is seldom the character of a purely natural scene.

Nature is always great in design. She is an admirable colourist also; and harmonizes tints with infinite variety, and beauty. But she is seldom so correct in composition, as to produce an harmonious whole. Either the foreground, or the background, is disproportioned: or some awkward line runs across the piece: or a tree is ill-placed: or a bank is formal: or something or other is not exactly what it should be. The case is, the immensity of nature is beyond human comprehension. She works on a vast scale; and, no doubt, harmoniously, if her schemes could be comprehended. The artist, the mean time, is confined to a span; and lays down his little rules, which he calls the principles of picturesque beauty, merely to adapt such diminutive parts of nature's surfaces to his own eye, as come within it's scope.

Hence therefore, the painter, who adheres strictly to the composition of nature, will rarely make a good picture. His picture must contain a whole: his archetype is but a part.

New Weir:

<P 38> From these rocks we soon approached the New-Weir; which may be called the second grand scene on the Wye.

The river is wider, than usual, in this part; and takes a sweep round a towering promontory of rock; which forms the side-screen on the left; and is the grand feature of the view. It is not a broad, fractured face of rock; but rather a woody hill, from which large projections, in two or three places, burst out; rudely hung with twisting branches, and shaggy furniture; which, like mane round the lion's head, give a more savage air to these wild exhibitions of nature. Near the top a pointed fragment of solitary rock, rising above the rest, has rather a fantastic appearance: but it is not without it's effect in marking the scene.

<P 39> On the right side of the river, the bank forms a woody amphitheatre, following the course of the stream round the promontory. It's lower skirts are adorned with a hamlet; in the midst of which, volumes of thick smoke, thrown up at intervals, from an iron-forge, as it's fires receive fresh fuel, add double grandeur to the scene.

But what peculiarly marks this view, is a circumstance on the water. The whole river, at this place, makes a precipitate fall; of no great height indeed; but enough to merit the title of a cascade: tho to the eye above the stream, it is an object of no consequence. In all the scenes we had yet passed, the water moving with a slow, and solemn pace, the objects around kept time, as it were, with it; and every steep, and every rock, which hung over the river, was solemn, tranquil, and majestic. But here, the violence of the stream, and the roaring of the waters, impressed a new character on the scene: all was agitation, and uproar; and every steep, and every rock stared with wildness, and terror.

Michasiw, Kim Ian. "Nine Revisionist Theses on the Picturesque." Representations 38 (1992): 76-100.
article online (need ID)

76 picturesque disparaged; critique of cultural materialists [New Historicists], post-colonialists blindness to formal qualities that underlie aesthetic of nature; needs disentangling from improvers (e.g., Repton)
78 crisis conditions foster picturesque (Bermingham) work of Whately and Gilpin produced before Napoleonic wars, and mostly before French Revolution
78 veneration of the ancient, abandoned mills and cottages ancient: abbeys and castles are primary focus; anti-catholicism and abuses of aristocracy
79 values poverty and misery unwarranted inference; cf. Gilpin's disgust at Tintern; Warner celebrates industry; Williams on Swiss prosperity vs. Italian misery
79 gap between world and mind, pre-Kantian cf. insistence on emotional power of nature: e.g., Whately 153-5; Gilpin on imagination, Essays 54
80 world disempowered, subjective domination Whately and Gilpin on supremacy or unknowableness of nature (e.g., Whately on genius of nature, 256; Gilpin Wye 31); cf. Michasiw 90
81 Gilpin merely a collector rather itemizing, systematizing, although tentatively
86 the sublime plus the small, the dominable vs. the negative capability of absorption, or role of prospect/refuge by proxy
88 Gilpin's assemblage rather than an organic totality (cf. Vernet vs. Claude) depends on scene; cf. New Weir's "grand scene": implies this is comprehensible because within a narrow compass
89 rules prove nothing about nature of scene unless contrast, variety, etc., have ecological role
94 Gilpin's precepts an abitrary set of rules or ecological, since the rules foreground the freedom of nature to be itself

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Document created January 10th 2003