What is the picturesque?

A River Landscape with Jacob and Laban and his Daughters, by Claude Lorrain, 1654

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.

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 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’. 

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 — 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.

Our picturesque places and collections

Scotney Old Castle reflected in the moat during summer

Scotney Castle 

The present appearance of Scotney Castle and its gardens are the result of the work undertaken from 1834 to 1843 for its owner, Edward Hussey III, by the architect Anthony Salvin and the gardener William Sawrey Gilpin. Gilpin’s Picturesque garden design aesthetically integrated the ‘new’ mansion and the ruined, original medieval castle with the surrounding landscape.

Rievaulx Terrace temple and wild flower banks

Rievaulx Terrace 

Rievaulx Terrace in Yorkshire was created by Thomas Duncomb as a specific place from which to view a picturesque scene. The main feature of that scene was the ruin of Rievaulx Abbey, one of England's most important Cistercian monasteries.

'Capability' Brown's designed landscape at Croome in Worcestershire

Croome 

Croome in Worcestershire boasts a picturesque landscape created by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Uvedale Price objected to such gardening, which he considered not to be picturesque because it did not exemplify roughness, sudden variation, and irregularity.

Autumn colours in Borrowdale, Lake District

Borrowdale and Derwent Water 

William Gilpin was responsible for the popularisation of picturesque tours to areas of the Lake District such as Borrowdale. His guidebook, 'Observations, relative chiefly to picturesque beauty' (copies of which are in our collections at Dunham Massey and Wimpole) encouraged tourists to seek out specific vantage points from which to view pleasing scenery.

Sophia Anne Delaval, Mrs John Jadis (1755 - 1793), holding a Claude glass to the Landscape attributed to Edward Alcock (fl.1757-1778)

The Claude glass 

This portrait depicts the fashionably-dressed sitter, Anne Delaval (1737 – 1812), holding a Claude glass to the landscape. The work is attributed to the painter Edward Alcock (fl.1757 - 1778) and is in our collection at Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland.