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63 - Picturesque

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 July 2019

Zoë Kinsley
Affiliation:
Liverpool Hope University.
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Summary

Picturesque aesthetics emerged from a long tradition of writing exploring questions of ‘taste’, and in relation to the increasing popularity of travel in Britain in the eighteenth century. The picturesque responded to the binary aesthetics of Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), suggesting that there were kinds of landscape observers would experience pleasurably, yet which fell outside the definitions of both sublime and beautiful.

William Gilpin, a schoolmaster and clergyman from Cumberland in North West England, was the originator of the picturesque. He published Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty; On Picturesque Travel; and On Sketching Landscape in 1792, but as early as the 1760s he had defined the picturesque as ‘expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture’ (Gilpin 1768, 2). His early ideas were refined through experience during a series of home tours made from the late 1760s. The first published account of one of those tours was Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, &c. Relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty (1782), and each subsequent narrative followed the same titular formula. Gilpin's picturesque emulated the paintings of artists such as Salvator Rosa and the Poussins, identified roughness and variety as its distinguishing characteristics and demonstrated a touristic appetite for travelling ‘knick-knacks’ such as the Claude Glass (Andrews 1989, 67–73).

The claims Gilpin (Gilpin 1792) made for his travel writing were modest. In his essay ‘On Picturesque Travel’, he stated that his intention was not to bring the picturesque ‘into competition with any of the more useful ends of travelling’. Instead, he claimed his model for picturesque travel could be of value in two ways: first, it would provide purpose and direction for those with ‘vacant minds’ who otherwise travel without ‘any end at all’, and second, it would offer ‘a rational amusement to such as travel for more important purposes’ (41). Mary Wollstonecraft (Wollstonecraft 1989 [1789]) was one of many readers who approved of the picturesque precisely because it offered a method for organizing travelling experience. She celebrated Gilpin as an ‘ingenious author’ who offered readers ‘a grand object of pursuit to concentrate their thoughts’ (161). Gilpin's theoretical precepts were developed by Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight, and the picturesque maintained its popularity into the early decades of the nineteenth century.

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Chapter
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Keywords for Travel Writing Studies
A Critical Glossary
, pp. 184 - 186
Publisher: Anthem Press
Print publication year: 2019

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