Why A Crooked Tree Is Beautiful

The Picturesque Movement: an 18th century re-evaluation of nature and the beauty of the rustic

The last work published of the Rev. William Gilpin, M.A., prebendary of Salisbury, and vicar of Boldre, near Lymington : representing the effect of a morning, a noon tide, and an evening sun, in thirty designs from nature (1810). Source Wikimedia Commons

We tend to think of the natural world as a place where life exists before the effects of human interference. Phrases like “unspoiled nature” indicate our attachment to the idea of an untouched realm, and perhaps also implicate humans in a grave process of desecration and plunder.

It can be difficult for us — living in the 21st century — to reach beyond this ideal image of nature to a time when the symbolism of the natural world was in flux.

It was during the 18th century that irreversible changes took place in the way most people interacted with nature. Fewer and fewer people worked on the land as urbanisation proceeded apace, and scientific advancements revised the perspective of nature as a bearer of superstitious symbols into a classifiable system.

These changes meant that the operations of mainstream society were growing increasingly remote from nature, a detachment that provided the necessary distance for the natural environment to be a domain upon which new ideals might be projected, and art was one place where these visions were inscribed.

The Picturesque

The Picturesque was one such ideal: an aesthetic model — based mainly in Britain — that projected a version of beauty onto the natural landscape. It became a standard of judging a “beautiful view” and therefore an indication of good taste in educated society. It would give rise to ‘picturesque tourism’ and provide many of the foundations of taste and beauty that still pertain today.

It is especially significant as an aesthetic theory because of the fact that, in time, the Picturesque filtered down from the elitist discussions of the few to enter the common vocabulary of the many, principally through travel literature. In spirit at least, it spoke to the amateur enthusiast and the everyday traveller alike. Whilst in its heyday it was aimed foremost at ‘men of liberal education’, its rapid popularisation was a crucial aspect in the aestheticisation of the general populous.

The invocation of a painterly model with which natural scenery might be compared was a key feature of the transformation of the landscape into an aesthetic object. For such an invocation assured the educated aesthete that his musings over the beauties and immensities of a landscape had a high-art precedence.

The landed classes and their labourers

The evolution of the Picturesque was intimately bound up with the the upper classes of society and their desire to see a harmonious relationship between the labourers who worked their land and the land itself. Rusticity was a key hallmark, an ideal of man living happily within the elements of nature.

It was an ideal that placed emphasis not just on the appeal of natural landscapes but on certain features which we thought to be especially characteristic of the organic side of nature, such as the withered bough of an ancient tree, for instance, or even the ruinous form of an old castle embedded in a mountainside.

At the beginning of the 18th century, Joseph Addison published a series of essays in The Spectator newspaper concerning the ‘Pleasures of the Imagination’ (1712) in which he contrasted the aesthetic prospects of Nature with those of Art. Addison celebrated the ‘Vastness and Immensity’ of the natural world, suggesting that while art lies “in a narrow Compass”, the “wide Fields of Nature […] is fed with an infinite variety of Images.”

In the previous century, Dutch landscape artists such as Jan van Goyen and Jacob van Ruisdael had begun to explore the artistic possibilities of rustic textures in paintings by juxtaposing gnarled trees and tumbledown buildings alongside grand weather effects, such as in Landscape with Two Oaks, painted by Van Goyen in 1641. These images paved the way for theorists who linked the ‘spontaneous’ aspects of nature with a higher realm of aesthetic appreciation.

Landscape with Two Oaks (1641) by Jan van Goyen. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Source Wikimedia Commons

Nature as a bearer of social values

As the era progressed, the landed classes, though still attached to the countryside, were primarily connected in terms of power, management and economic interests. For this class of people, the economic value of land added fresh political and social significance to the category of ‘nature’.

‘Nature’ and ‘naturalness’ became the province in and through which social change might be justified. The values that could be expressed through nature were multifarious. As the historian John Brewer notes, “The countryside could be a place of Arcadian rest, even indolence, the home of social harmony and virtuous self-sufficient work, a site of aesthetic pleasure, or a place in which to realise oneself through confronting ‘nature’.”

This emphasis on diversity in nature was celebrated by poets such as John Dyer and James Thomson, who drew on Greek and Roman pastoral literature and on the classical images of Italian landscape painting to evoke an a-historical picture of nature. Thomson made explicit reference to the three artists — Claude Lorrain, Salvator Rosa and Nicolas Poussin — whose names would be called upon time and time again in the appreciation of natural scenery:

“Whate’ver Lorrain light-touched with softening hue,
Or savage Rosa dashed, or learned Poussin drew.”

Whilst diversity and grandeur were celebrated for their ‘sublime qualities, the taming of nature became equally valued. Some possibility of assuming painterly control over natural scenery was offered by landscape gardening, defined by the poet and garden designer William Shenstone as consisting in “pleasing the imagination by scenes of grandeur, beauty or variety.”

Shenstone’s methods anticipated some of the themes of the Picturesque movement, as in the following suggestion for the arrangement of objects in a garden:

“Objects should indeed be less calculated to strike the immediate eye, than the judgement of well-formed imagination; as in painting.”

A quest for good taste

The cultural context in which these discussions occurred concerned the question of taste. Theories of taste, as exemplified by Archibald Alison’s Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (1790), indexed the growing importance attached to the appreciation of art as a sign of learning and cultural distinction.

One of the key features of ‘taste’ as extolled by Alison was the theory of association. As the historian Andrew Hemingway surmises: “Association theory offered an explanation of aesthetic pleasure as a particular function of the imagination, a disinterested pleasure produced by certain trains of associated ideas, stimulated either by objects in the world or by their representations in works of art that act as signs for these ideas.”

The free association of ideas in the imagination is not available to everyone, however, as Alison remarks: “It is only in the higher station […] or in the liberal professions of life, that we expect to find men either of delicate or comprehensive taste.”

Thus, an individual’s exposure to education and leisure provided far more favourable conditions for the association of ideas, and in this regard the theory acted to normalise the wealthy, educated spectator as of superior taste compared to the menial labourer.

Travel and picturesque

It was the appreciation of natural scenery without the distraction of human cultivation and labour that stood at the apex of the sensibility of taste. Thus, “the power which the landowner has physically to order his property means that he can exclude those mundane objects which would remind him of the real world of labour and the competition of his social inferiors and disturb the aesthetic reverie.”

Other methods of displaying estimable taste repeatedly involved the ability to locate beauty amid non-agricultural environments. The more remote regions of the British landscape offered the perfect domain for these discriminations to take place, as evidenced by the writings of such men as Thomas Gray and Arthur Young, who produced narrative descriptions of their travels through dramatic regions of Northern Britain.

The Picturesque movement was the apogee in the taste for nature and the natural during the eighteenth century. A decisive contribution to the formation of the Picturesque was made by William Gilpin in the form of series of tour guides which attempted to codify the practice of Picturesque tourism.

In his first such handbook, Observations of the River Wye (1782), Gilpin seeks to define the rules of the Picturesque: “that of not merely describing; but of adapting the description of the natural scenery to the principles of artificial landscape; and of opening the sources of those pleasures, which are derived from comparison.”

‘Observations, relative chiefly to picturesque beauty, made in the year 1772, on several parts of England; : particularly the mountains, and lakes of Cumberland, and Westmoreland.’ (1788) by William Gilpin. Source Wikimedia Commons

For Gilpin, the chief consideration when viewing a landscape was whether the scene was fit to be made into a picture. Clearly, a prior notion of how a picture should look informs this criterion. Picturesque tourists — at least in the first generation of Picturesque tourism — were trained in classical literature and were familiar with the landscapes of Claude and Rosa. As such, it gave picturesque tourism an elitist underpinning. In this regard, it was in the projection of an artistic or literary prototype upon the viewed landscape that offered that sharpest pleasure. “Thus,” as Malcolm Andrews points out, “a Welsh valley acquired a higher aesthetic value if it looked like a Gaspard Dughet painting.”

For example, Dr John Brown, a friend of William Gilpin, in a letter to Lord Lyttelton, goes to some lengths to describe the “vast amphitheatre” of Keswick (in the Lake District) during his visit there, but concedes with a degree of satisfaction that only the combined powers of the three artists mentioned previously, Claude, Rosa, and Poussin, could “give you a complete idea” of the beauty of the landscape.

It can be seen how Picturesque tourism became “a kind of intellectual recreation favoured by a self-confident elite”, providing an orthodox method of art appreciation for the display of a taste. Moreover, it satisfied the romantic sensibility for subjective experience since landscapes had to be viewed from a particular place, from a single point of view.

For Gilpin, the Picturesque was located through process of searching, such that the landscape stood before the beholder at just the right distance, with just the right aspects coming in and out of view, the various parts at once receding, converging, obscuring and revealing.

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Christopher P Jones is a writer and artist. He blogs about culture, art and life at his website.


A magazine of literature, arts, culture, and opinion

Christopher P Jones

Written by

Art historian, critic, novelist, artist. Author of How To Read Paintings: https://www.chrisjoneswrites.co.uk/how-to-read-paintings/


A magazine of literature, arts, culture, and opinion

Christopher P Jones

Written by

Art historian, critic, novelist, artist. Author of How To Read Paintings: https://www.chrisjoneswrites.co.uk/how-to-read-paintings/


A magazine of literature, arts, culture, and opinion

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