What is the picturesque?
The picturesque is an aesthetic category developed in the eighteenth-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.
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 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; but 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’.
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 — and in the habit of deriving pleasure from them — 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.
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 seventeenth-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 twenty-first century.