What was ‘the picturesque’ in eighteenth century British art, and where in Britain did artists go to find it? According to a modern dictionary, the definition of the word picturesque is ‘visually pleasing, as in being striking or quaint’1. The definition of picturesque in the eighteenth century was a lot different. The word originated from the Italian word Pittoresco, which meant ‘after the manner of painters’. In the eighteenth century, it became very fashionable in the middle classes to look for and paint the picturesque. Up until then, painters of landscape had been frowned on, and were not very successful.
Landscape and picturesque painting became even more popular during the Romantic period (1780-1830), when literature and other forms of art were also becoming focused on the countryside and nature scenes. The picturesque became popular with the middle class in particular because the lower class did not have the time or means to go off on tours in to the countryside in search of the picturesque, and the upper class were still interested in portraiture: they would much rather have an impressive looking picture of themselves in a historical and noble pose, than a picture of the countryside.
Also, the middle class were not really able to take the time off to go on the grand tour in Europe and discover the classics, and the countryside picturesque tour was more easily accessable. This did gradually change, but when the picturesque first became popular it was mainly restricted to the middle class. We can define what was considered to be picturesque by looking mainly at the work of William Gilpin and Uvedale Price. However, the first guidelines at the time came with the publication of Archibald Alison’s ‘Principles of Taste’ in 1790.
This included a statement about the ‘principle of association’, which said that beauty was not neccessarily contained within an object, and instead that it depended on the feelings of association that were aroused by it. This was linked to the picturesque, as in the eighteenth century picturesque was more likely to refer to something that was not perfect – for example a ruined building, or a fallen down tree. Therefore, the beauty in the picturesque was occasioned by the feelings the scene or object caused.
William Gilpin believed that the picturesque must be split into two categories; the sublime and the beautiful. This was a different view to other artists and theorists, who believed that the sublime, the beautiful and the picturesque were all different. Gilpin said that the picturesque included not only the object’s form and composition, but also the atmostphere. However, if one of these was lacking he believed that the imagination could be used to cover the deficiency.
He also thought that to be picturesque, the scene or object must not be too perfect; he said of Cardiff that it ‘appeared with more of the furniture of antiquity about it, than any other town we had seen in Wales: but on the spot the picturesque eye finds it too intire to be in full perfection. ‘2 When Gilpin visted Tintern Abbey, he described how it was picturesque as it was a ruin, but also said that it was not a dilapitated enough ruin; to be truly picturesque, it would be a good idea to destroy it even more.
Gilpin looked at what was picturesque using a number of rules. This can be seen in his paintings, for example ‘A View into a Winding Valley’. The picture has clear side borders in the valley sides; the castle that can be seen is a ruin, and so is not perfect and therefore picturesque; the ‘atmostphere’, or weather in the painting is not tranquil; and the brightness of the sky is in contrast to the darkness of the foreground. One of the most important rules that Gilpin had for the picturesque was that of contrast and variety.
He said that in a picturesque painting, the background should be smooth, and that the foreground should be varied and textured in contrast. Gilpin’s definition of the picturesque can be summed up best by two paintings he did of the same landscape. One of them is a picturesque view of it, and the other is a non-picturesque. It is not possible to tell which one is actually like the landscape Gilpin saw because of his theories about imagining what is not actually picturesque in a view or object.
The picturesque painting can easily be recognised even without the non-picturesque landscape because it fits into all Gilpin’s rules. Gilpin’s understanding of what was picturesque in the eighteenth century is very important. He published tour guides to different areas of England informing the public where to look for the picturesque, and how to view it. This can be seen also in his Essay on Picturesque Travel (1794). He describes how ‘the first source of amusement to the picturesque traveller, is the pursuit of his object…
After the pursuit we are gratified with the attainment of the object… ‘3 Gilpin’s tour guides and essays on understanding the picturesque were very popular, which means that a lot of the public took the picturesque in British art to be as Gilpin defined it. We can also use Gilpin’s work to help us discover where in Britain artists went to discover the picturesque. Gilpin’s most famous tour guide was his Observations on the River Wye. He also wrote about areas such as Tintern Abbey, Cardiff, North Wales, Cornwall, and Yorkshire.