We can see from his paintings, and from his writing, that the places Gilpin visited for the study of the picturesque were all mountainous, that they were reasonably uninhabited, and that they were in the countryside. Uvedale Price also wrote about the picturesque. A lot of his descriptions of what was picturesque were similar to Gilpin’s. He was a firm believer that in their complete and perfect state things could be beautiful, but it was only when ruined, or decayed, that they could be said to be picturesque.
Price thought that beauty and the picturesque were opposites – smooth and young were beautiful, whereas rough and old were picturesque. Like Gilpin he had ‘rules’ about what made a picture picturesque; it must have boundaries, it should not be uniform, it should have no connection with dimension, and it could be either gay or sombre. These opinions help us to understand what the picturesque was in eighteenth century British art as they are written by a writer of the time; someone whose work was being read by people of the eighteenth century and helping to influence their opinions and ideas.
They are primary resources and are therefore very reliable and useful in defining picturesque. Some of the most famous eighteenth century picturesque painters are Girtin, Turner, Constable and Gainsborough. By briefly looking at some of their work and their lives we can learn more about the picturesque in eighteenth century art. Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) was one of the first artists to travel around the British countryside, going through small towns and villages so that he could paint on the spot.
However Girtin also painted towns, and one of his most famous studies was of the effect of light on the River Thames in 1800. He worked in watercolours, and therefore was not greatly respected at the Royal Academy. He concentrated a lot on the effect of light, and worked with Turner for a while. He often painted ruins with big gloomy skies, which fits into the picturesque painting category. His work is important as being one of the first artists to travel around and study the picturesque, we can use his work to see where the picturesque developed from.
Joseph William Mallord Turner (1775-1851) was one of the most famous artists in his time. He was admitted to the academy as a student in 1789, and then during the years of 1797 and 1798 toured England. He painted mainly in the West Country and the Lake District, and it was at this time that he became interested in the picturesque. Turner also went on foreign tours in search of the pictutresque. As Romanticism grew, Turner was in great demand as an illustrator. Literature was becoming more romantic and so Turner’s paintings of the picturesque fitted in well.
His picture Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps was actually based on a storm he had witnessed on the Yorkshire moors. Turner also painted the tranquil picturesque, and grew interested in the effects of light and colour in different places. Price’s rule that the picturesque could be either tranquil or stormy is therefore backed up by Turner painting both sides, and Gilpin’s theory that the picturesque is as much about the atmostphere as the object itself is also then backed up by Turner. Althought the picturesque was becoming more popular, a lot of Turner’s contemporaries criticised his work.
They did not like the fact that his work was based on scenes from real life – from real places in England. When Turner named his paintings after what they were supposed to be (for example Abergavenny Bridge) they found it difficult to accept that Turner was not basing his work on anything classical. Turner’s critics did not like the way that Turner’s paintings of nature were not always exactly true to nature. When Gilpin talked about the picturesque he described how a certain amount of imagination should be used to make up for any picturesque deficiencies lacking in the real life object.
Turner’s critics did not agree; Northcote has been quoted as saying ‘that Turner’s pictures were too much compounded of art and too little of nature’4. By looking at the work of Turner we can see that the way Turner interpreted the picturesque was similar to Gilpin. Therefore we can have more of an idea of exactly what the picturesque was in eighteenth century British art. John Constable (1776-1837) was a very famous British picturesque painter, and during his life he never went abroad – he studies the picturesque soley in Britain.
In the eighteenth century when the picturesque was established, it became normal for every painter to experience a mountainous countryside as part of his education. In 1806 Constable visited the Lake District, and started his picturesque painting. Constable did not agree with the way Turner painted – he thought Turner was not attentive enough to nature. Constable’s picturesque paintings were very experimental; he tried to be more exact and true to nature, and was criticised for having grass that was too green, and snow that was too white on his paintings, instead of the usual brown shades.
This style of picturesque painting is a bit different to that described by Gilpin and Price; they argued that the picturesque was non-perfect things, ruins, or decayed old trees etc. Constable’s fresh new green grass would not have fitted into their views, and this shows that although Gilpin and Prices’ work described the picturesque how most people in the eighteenth century viewed it, their were points that were disputed. Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) was not in particular a picturesque painter; he worked on a lot of portraiture, and his landscapes were not often picturesque.
However, there were elements of the picturesque in them, and more importantly, his work was often an inspiration to artists looking for the picturesque. His pictures of Suffolk captured the beauty of the countryside, and encouraged artists to go there on their picturesque tours. By looking at a range of picturesque paintings by different painters of the eighteenth century we can identify some definite similarities, and using these features we can define the picturesque. A lot of the features are suggested in the rules laid down by Gilpin and Price; the background should be smooth, but the foreground varied.
The main object in the picture should be interesting and varied, such as a ruin or a fallen down decaying tree. The atmostphere, or weather of the picture should be emphasised. The picture should ideally be set in the countryside, and should be attractive to look at, not because of it’s beauty but rather because it is interesting. We can see where in Britain the artists went to find the picturesque by again looking at the tourguides and paintings. The publication of tourguides by Gilpin and others increased the popularity of certain places, for example the River Wye.
These tourguides were produced to help the public in their search of the picturesque, and some examples of other eighteenth century authors of tourguides are: Stebbing Shaw (Tour of the West of England, 1788); Henry Moore (Picturesque Excursions from Derby, 1818); and Joseph Craddock (Tour through the Northern Counties of Wales, 1770). The paintings by the artists I have looked at in this essay were mainly done in the English countryside. Turner did go abroad in his search but he also studied the picturesque in Britain.
Suffolk was a very popular place for the picturesque followers, as well as Scotland, the Lake District and Wales. As mentioned earlier, when the picturesque grew popular it became expected for painters to visit a mountainous region as part of their training. This suggests that the picturesque was often to be found around mountains. Another feature often found in picturesque paintings is water. This agrees with the rules by Gilpin and Price as water is a very varied and changing substance, and therefore makes a suitable object for the foreground of a picture.
This also explains why the areas mentioned were popular, as they are all mountainous with areas of water, and it also explains Gilpin’s extended writing on the River Wye as it contains all his listed features of the picturesque.
Bibliography S. Copley, ‘Gilpin on the Wye: Tourists, Tintern Abbey and the Picturesque’ in M. Rosenthal, C. Payne, and S. Wilcox (eds). , Prospects for the Nation; Recent Essays in British Landscape, 1750-1880 (1997) S. Daniels, S. Seymour and C. Watkins, ‘Border Country: The Politics of the Picturesque in the Middle Wye Valley’, in M.
Rosenthal, C. Payne, and S. Wilcox (eds). , Prospects for the Nation; Recent Essays in British Landscape, 1750-1880 (1997) William Gilpin, Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales etc. relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the Summer of the Year 1770 (London 1782) R. W. Harris, Romanticism and the Social Order, 1780-1830, (London 1969) Jean Raimond and J. R. Watson, A Handbook to English Romanticism, (Macmillan Press Ltd. 1992) William Vaughan, British Painting The Golden Age, (Thames and Hudson Ltd. 1999)
Collins New English Dictionary, ( HarperCollins Publishers, 1999), p. 578 http://lwr. uwe. ac. uk/thelrw/uwe/fac/HUM/module/UHHO54C3/content/gilpin. htm (05/09/02) 1Collins New English Dictionary, ( HarperCollins Publishers, 1999), p. 578 2William Gilpin, Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales etc. relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the Summer of the Year 1770 (London 1782), p. 83 3http://lwr. uwe. ac. uk/thelrw/uwe/fac/HUM/module/UHHO54C3/content/gilpin. htm (05/09/02) 4R. W. Harris, Romanticism and the Social Order 1780-1830, (London 1969), p. 376.