An aesthetic revolution that occurred in Britain in the eighteenth century revolved around several main theories, but the most important theory that applied to landscape was that of “the Picturesque”, most often associated with the writings of William Gilpin. Originally an ordained minister in the Church of England, he began writing these popular treatises as a means to raise funds for his school.
The picturesque emphasized roughness over smoothness, boldness over elegance, and variety over uniformity. These concepts were initially influential in painting and then to landscape design. Gilpin’s defining ideas influenced friends such as Horace Walpole and the royal family, including King George. While the wealthy could afford to indulge themselves with the Grand Tour (the traditional travel of Europe undertaken by upper-class European society), appreciating and purchasing great paintings and ultimately contracting landscape designers such as Lancelot “Capability” Brown and Humphrey Repton, Gilpin was instrumental in influencing the rising upper-middle, the minor gentry and tradesmen. By leading tours through the countryside and publishing aquatint landscape prints he created an aristocratic taste level among the rest of the public.
anonymous engraving, Ackerman's Repository of Arts, The Strand 1809
Edward Austen (Jane's brother) on the Grand Tour
unknown creator, the Jane Austen trust
His concept of "the Picturesque," which first appeared in the Essay on Prints as an additional concept to "sublime" and "beautiful," was intended to formulate an appreciation for landscape in the paintings of Nicolas Poussin or Claude Lorrain. Essay II: On Picturesque Travel is a manual for appreciating travel and sketching the landscape as a way to preserve the beauty in one’s mind.
Lorrain: The Marriage of Isaac and Rebekah, 1660
Meanwhile, Jane Austin’s novels (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Emma) used the picturesque as a backdrop. While a fan of her writings illuminated his concepts to a larger audience, although at time it has been suggested that she satirized him.
Throughout each of these novels the landscape holds a defining and center-stage role. Her heroines are brought up in well-established homes and were receptive to the matters and opinions of current taste. Her novels reflect the social and landscape history of England.
Her novels assimilate and promote the ideals of Gilpin, yet also satirize them. In one of Gilpin’s publications he provided instructions for the groupings of cows in a pasture – “to unite three and remove the fourth.” Many landscape painters followed suit. But, in Pride and Prejudice, one character refuses to join in a stroll with the teasing observation, "You are charmingly group'd, and...The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth."
William Gilpin illustrations of how to group cows
In Sense and Sensibility, one character is dismayed that another is apparently ignorant on picturesque theory and promptly instructs him… “ I shall call the hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged: and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the sift medium of a hazy atmosphere. It unites beauty and utility – and I dare say it is a picturesque one too.” When Elinor Dashwood teases her sister about her passion for “dead leaves” she responds by reminding Elinor that it is her appreciation of the picturesque.
Humphrey Repton, General View of Longleat, Stapelton Collection
While Gilpin had his detractors, his picturesque ideal can be found to have far reaching influence. From travelers who sketch the landscapes they encounter to the Hudson River School of painters that depicted the romantic landscapes of the United States.
Thomas Cole (Hudson River School), The Garden of Eden 1828