Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Pursuit of the Picturesque

by M.M. Bennetts

Eh?  The picturesque?  What's that twaddle, you say?  Let me explain...

The Oxford English Dictionary defines picturesque as "like or having the elements of a picture; fit to be the subject of a striking or effective picture; possessing pleasing or interesting qualities of form and colour (but not implying the highest beauty or sublimity): said of landscapes, buildings..."  

Furthermore, the OED tells us that the word didn't enter the English language until 1703 (which is quite late). But by the mid-18th century, the Picturesque was well on its way to being all the rage, and the concept would hold British society rapt until well into the 1830's...which is a very long time for matters of taste and style.  

The whole concept can be traced--sort of--to the Italian landscape paintings of Claude Lorrain, Salvator Rosa and Nicolas Poussin--these same painters who were so influential in formulating the ideal of English Landscape Gardening. Yet these painters and their works also wholly engaged the imaginations of two 18th century British poets, James Thomson (1700-1748) and John Dyer (1699-1757).  

It may seem hard to believe, but before these two, poetry just wasn't about nature.  It didn't extol the beauties of nature, and the idea of poetically rendering the sights, scents or colours of the natural world--well, you can just forget that.  

But these two changed all that--these men were landscape painters in verse, displaying all the delights of sunrises and sunsets and panoramic views as much as if they'd been daubing oils on canvas.  

And this change in poetic emphasis and vision played into the 18th century Enlightenment ideal of the purity and goodness of the natural world as extolled by authors such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Which in turn fed into the nascent Romantic movement and the works of William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge Taylor.  

Hence nature, once just there and untameable, was now viewed as if it might be an infinite sequence of subjects that would make up "a striking or effective picture" with paint, poetry, or in the case of the landscape gardeners, plants and 'picturesque' ruins.

Here's Wordsworth's offering from Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey (written July 1798).

  ...Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage ground, these orchard tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
'Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedgerows, hardly hedgerows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!

And reading about it, reciting it, viewing the paintings of these landscape painters, all encouraged the 18th century population to look at nature and to embrace the landscape with an artistic eye and a new-found sense of gusto.  

So what do they do?  They start touring the country like mad...some visit the many famous landscape gardens, some make walking tours of the Lake District, Wales was popular too, and some travel farther to see the beauties of Scotland as did Dr. Johnson. 

Obviously, it's not just the landscape of Great Britain which has travellers so entranced--up until 1789, the beauties of France, Italy and Greece are well within the well-heeled tourists' reach.  But with the coming of the French Revolution in 1789, and France's rapid descent into turbulence and war, the natural wonders of the Continent cease to be viable destinations and the British travellers turn inward, their journeys confined to their own little island.  

Jane Austen writes of Elizabeth Bennet and her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner visiting the Peak District of Derbyshire--an activity many of her readers would have considered quite normal.  She likewise sends Anne Elliot down to Lyme Regis to visit the seaside and walk along the Cobb to view the seething grey waves of the Atlantic coast.  What are they doing? They are indulging in a very British pastime; they are--like everyone else of taste and discernment--indulging their passion for the picturesque.  

And so much a part of the English psyche was this hobby of seeking out the lofty peaks, cascades, cliffs, woods, ruined castles by midnight and other such scenic prospects, that beginning in 1809, William Combe and Thomas Rowlandson published a verse parody with pictures of the whole pastime in The Poetical Magazine, called The Tour of Dr. Syntax in search of the Picturesque.  

The verse story tells the tale of Dr. Syntax--a down-at-heel scarecrow of a curate and schoolmaster in a rusty black suit and scratch wig--who conceives of a trip round England.  Penny-pinched and hen-pecked, he aims to make money out of recording his experiences and the sights he encounters.  As Syntax describes his plan:

I’ll make a TOUR—and then I’ll WRITE IT.
You well know what my pen can do,
And I’ll employ my pencil too:—
I’ll ride and write, and sketch and print,
And thus create a real mint;
I’ll prose it here, I’ll verse it there,
And picturesque it ev’ry where.
I’ll do what all have done before;
I think I shall—and somewhat more...

Syntax's subsequent adventures bumbling through the English countryside on Grizzle, his equally dubious horse, make Don Quixote look like James Bond.  The illustrated comic poem was a runaway success.

Still, even amidst the well-aimed mockery, the fashion for the picturesque was far from running its course.  On the contrary.  The new generation of Romantic poets--Keats, Scott, Shelley and Byron--were busily adding to the picturesque canon in poetry.

And the new star of the artistic firmament, J.M.W. Turner, capitalised on the craze, embarks on painting a series of commissioned watercolours for "Picturesque Views of the Southern Coast of England (completed in 1826).  In 1818, he was again commissioned to paint a series of watercolours of Italian subjects for "A Picturesque Tour in Italy".

Still later, from 1827-1838, he painted another 96 views for "Picturesque Views in England and Wales".  And all of the above were turned into engravings, which sold in their thousands--making Turner a very rich man...though this last group of works really signalled the end of the dominance of the picturesque.

Britain had a new, young queen, and, it would seem, a new outlook.  Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Rowlandson were old hat, remembrances of a bygone age.  So at last, the craze that had captivated generations was at an end...

(Except, of course, we're still at it...Just ask to see the visitor numbers of the National Trust or English Heritage...)

M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early 19th century British history and the Napoleonic wars, as well as the author of two novels set in the period:  May 1812 and Of Honest Fame.  For further information please visit www.mmbennetts.com 



  1. I love the English countryside and Keats' poetry will always be popular with me: "Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness."

  2. That one, Keats wrote whilst living in Winchester. And (if you're interested in viewing the picturesque...) there are still walking tours starting in the city which will take you along the route he preferred to walk up onto the hills above the city...

  3. I have just finished a great historical fiction, "Kincaid and the Legal Massacre" by Curtis D. Carney, and have been blog hopping around all night trying to find a great book to read. I am so glad I stumbled across your site. Loved your post. Interesting details with beautiful pictures!


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