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What is the picturesque?

Written by
Jessica FayTeaching Fellow in English Literature, University of Birmingham
The Water Garden at Lyveden New Bield, Peterborough, Northamptonshire.
The Water Garden at Lyveden New Bield, Peterborough, Northamptonshire. | © National Trust Images/Paul Harris

The picturesque aesthetic style was the popular choice for wealthy estate owners. Find out more about the people who influenced this movement and the places transformed by this fashionable choice. Discover how to see a picturesque view and more about wellbeing in the landscape.

What is the picturesque?

The picturesque is an aesthetic category developed in the 18th century to describe, in the words of artist and author William Gilpin (1724–1804), ‘that peculiar kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture’. It was associated with fashionable landscape gardening, however its cultural significance extended far beyond this.

Political landscapes

Before the 18th century, landscapes were very much about how productive they could be and occasionally reflected religious and political connotations. A good example is seen at Lyveden New Bield in Northamptonshire, which Sir Thomas Tresham designed and built as a testament to his Catholic faith. Lyveden's buildings and landscape symbolically conveyed Tresham’s own spiritual journey as he struggled to reconcile his faith with the changing Elizabethan world.

Picturesque publications

Gilpin published guidebooks to picturesque destinations such as the Wye Valley and the Lake District, and essays explaining how to sketch picturesque scenery. Poetry describing specific landscapes and coffee-table books filled with prints were also popular means of experiencing the picturesque.

The Palladian Bridge at Stowe Landscape Gardens
The Palladian Bridge at Stowe Landscape Gardens | © National Trust Images/John Millar

The picturesque and ‘improvement’

The landscape gardens designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and his followers were considered to be quintessentially picturesque. It was Brown’s famous landscape at Stowe that originally helped to inspire Gilpin. However, following ideas developed in Gilpin’s essays and guidebooks, some picturesque theorists began to take objection to the uniform transformation of English estates into Brownian compositions.

Price’s ‘natural’ gardens

Sir Uvedale Price, for example, argued that garden ‘improvers’ applied Brown’s formulae too mechanically, without paying sufficient attention to the individual character of the place. Price complained that by favouring high polish and flowing lines, the ‘improvers’ neglected the true qualities of the picturesque which were roughness, sudden variation, and irregularity.

Starting with his own estate in the Wye Valley, Price did much to encourage greater appreciation of features such as ancient trees, overgrown bridges, and dilapidated castles which he considered to be more ‘natural’.

Beyond gardening

Price’s criteria for the picturesque were applicable to all works of art, music, architecture, and literature. One of the problems of such criteria, however, is that different people find different things pleasing.

Someone who is familiar with great works of art or poetry is more likely to recognise and enjoy the ‘picturesque’ aspects of nature that resemble those works. In a sense, the picturesque movement imposed an artificial system of taste that left little room for natural or untutored preferences.

Oil painting on canvas, Sophia Anne Delaval, Mrs John Jadis (1755 - 1793, holding a 'Claude glass' to the landscape, attributed to Edward Alcock (fl.1757 - 1778).
Oil painting on canvas, Sophia Anne Delaval, holding a 'Claude glass' to the landscape, attributed to Edward Alcock. | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Sophia Anne Delaval

Holding a 'Claude glass' to help frame the landscape

The paradox of the picturesque

Theories of the picturesque blur boundaries between art and nature. Landscape artists took inspiration from nature, but connoisseurs of the picturesque often appreciated natural scenery based on how closely it resembled those very paintings.

In this context, many amateur artists and tourists used a 'Claude glass' to frame the landscape. These small, tinted, convex mirrors were used to make a natural scene look more like a picture by the celebrated 17th-century landscape painter, Claude Lorraine.

While the picturesque movement perpetuated such attempts to frame, control and orchestrate nature, questions about the problems and benefits of appropriating landscapes for the purposes of pleasure continue to be important in the 21st century.

Nature and wellbeing

We increasingly understand the benefits to our health and wellbeing from being outside and close to nature. But itI's not just nature that can claim such beneficial effects: designed parks and gardens have an equal benefit. In fact, landscapes have always been designed to manipulate our senses, they are often in disguise, posing as natural, wild Britain.


Dudmaston and Croft Castle in Herefordshire are home to Picturesque landscapes and were significant in the spread of the movement in the 18th century. At both places teams have been working to restore these landscapes and reflect the vision of their original designers.

Trusted Source

This is a Trusted Source article created in affiliation with the University of Oxford. This article contains contributions from Jessica Fay. Jessica is a researcher from University of Birmingham who has a special interest in Romantic literature.

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