14 May 2020

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A theme of Emmanuel Library’s Graham Watson Collection, as of the times when its hand-coloured books were created, are books illustrating travels in search of the picturesque. But what was the picturesque?

In 1782 William Gilpin published his Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales, relative to Picturesque Beauty, illustrated with plates based on Gilpin’s sketches. Later publications focussed on the Lake District and West of England. These are not conventional guidebooks: they are guides to reading real landscapes in terms of ‘that peculiar kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture’. The principles of picturesque beauty in landscape derived from interpretations of landscape painting (as in the plate above depicting a sunset from a guide to painting scenery).

It is sometimes suggested that a simplifying Western misreading of Chinese and Japanese landscape-painting and garden-design had prepared the way for the taste for the picturesque. This may go back to the writings of Emmanuel’s Sir William Temple (1628-99), who gave the College the furniture still in use in the Hall. It is the perception of a tastefully asymmetrical disorder, a contrived and artful irregularity in Chinese landscape art.

For Gilpin, nature excelled in providing colour and texture, but nature did not create picturesque compositions on its own. These had to be selected by the viewer, and an artistic eye might well improve on nature by adding some components and modifying others. A ruined abbey or castle would add implication and consequence to the composition, and Gilpin famously remarked that the judicious use of a mallet might make the ruins of Tintern Abbey more picturesque than they actually were.


Another trick was that the chosen viewpoint tended to be low down, which emphasizes the drama in differences of height represented within the composition.

Textures should preferably be rough and broken, structures dilapidated, and any straight lines were to be shunned. Objects possessing the requisite roughness and irregularity include ruins, Gothic architecture, hovels, broken stretches of water, shattered trees, worn-out and shaggy beasts, and the sorts of gypsies, beggars and bandits then familiar from the paintings of Salvator Rosa. Anything in efficient working order was in theory excluded. Appreciation of the picturesque is implicitly a symptom of special cultivation, almost a connoisseurship, and is to be acquired by discerning acquaintance with paintings.

In the 1790s, with travel on the Continent disrupted by the French Revolution, there was a growth in domestic tourism by those travelling to take pleasure in scenes and views, with a growing appreciation of uncultivated scenery in such upland places as the Lake District, the Highlands and North Wales. Many tourists were sketching, relating what they viewed and drew to what they knew of landscape painting, and striving to identify the viewpoint from which scenery becomes picturesque and accommodated to the rules of picture-making. Discerning tourists of the Picturesque peered at the landscape by means of ‘Claude glasses’ – named after the French artist Claude Lorrain, whose landscape paintings were an inspiration for the picturesque. Claude glasses were pocket-size convex mirrors, often tinted, which both framed and darkened the view. The glass’s convexity modified features of the reflected landscape – it might tend to distort foreground trees so that they appeared to curve inwards slightly, so framing the middle distance. The glass was often backed with a coloured foil which gave the composition a consistent tonality. The Claude glass could reduce a sprawling view to a compact composition but, to use one, you had to turn your back on what you were pictorializing. Scenic places became congested with view-junkies turning their backs on the view in order to frame it in their new-fangled device (does this sound familiar?). Falls, sprains and broken bones ensued, and pursuit of the picturesque became an object of satire, as in The tour of Dr Syntax, in search of the picturesque (1812), where Dr Syntax, a would-be connoisseur of the picturesque, is depicted falling backwards into a lake while sketching a picturesque ruin.


Yet the picturesque exerted too powerful a hold on the imagination not to continue to develop long into the nineteenth century and still to shape our own expectations of a ‘view’. After Waterloo ended twenty-five years of war, foreign travels in search of picturesque scenes and views were again a possibility. Books in the Graham Watson Collection reflect this taste, with tours not only of picturesque Europe – the Alps, the Rhine, and Italy – but also the Ottoman Empire, India, the Americas and other far flung places. As late as 1870, while visiting Italy, the novelist Henry James could remark: ‘I have talked of the picturesque all my life, and now at last I see it’.

Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)

Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)

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