William Gilpin Essays Picturesque

Page  [unnumbered]


Page  [unnumbered]ESSAY I.

DISPUTES about beauty might perhaps be involved in less confusion, if a distinction were established, which certainly exists, between such objects as are beautiful, and such as are picturesque—between those, which please the eye in their natural state; and those, which please from some quality, capable of being illustrated in painting.

Ideas of beauty vary with the object, and with the eye of the spectator. Those arti∣ficial forms appear generally the most beau∣tiful, with which we have been the most conversant. Thus the stone-mason sees beau∣ties in a well-jointed wall, which escape the architect, who surveys the building under a different idea. And thus the painter, who Page  4 compares his object with the rules of his art, sees it in a different light from the man of general taste, who surveys it only as simply beautiful.

As this difference therefore between the beau∣tiful, and the picturesque appears really to exist, and must depend on some peculiar construction of the object; it may be worth while to ex∣amine, what that peculiar construction is. We inquire not into the general sources of beauty, either in nature, or in representation. This would lead into a nice, and scientific discussion, in which it is not our purpose to engage. The question simply is, What is that quality in objects, which particularly marks them as picturesque?

In examining the real object, we shall find, one source of beauty arises from that species of elegance, which we call smoothness, or neatness; for the terms are nearly synonymous. The higher the marble is polished, the brighter the silver is rubbed, and the more the maho∣gany shines, the more each is considered as an object of beauty: as if the eye delighted in gliding smoothly over a surface.

In the class of larger objects the same idea prevails. In a pile of building we wish to Page  5 see neatness in every part added to the elegance of the architecture. And if we examine a piece of improved pleasure-ground, every thing rough, and slovenly offends.

Mr. Burke, enumerating the properties of beauty, considers smoothness as one of the most essential. "A very considerable part of the effect of beauty, says he, is owing to this quality: indeed the most considerable: for take any beautiful object, and give it a broken, and rugged surface, and however well-formed it may be in other respects, it pleases no longer. Whereas, let it want ever so many of the other constituents, if it want not this, it becomes more pleasing, than almost all the others without it."*— How far Mr. Burke may be right in making smoothness the most considerable source of beauty, I rather doubt†. A considerable one it cer∣tainly is.

Page  6Thus then, we suppose, the matter stands with regard to beautiful objects in general. But in picturesque representation it seems somewhat odd, yet we shall perhaps find it equally true, that the reverse of this is the case; and that the ideas of neat and smooth, instead of being picturesque, in fact disqualify the object, in which they reside, from any pre∣tensions to picturesque beauty.—Nay farther, we do not scruple to assert, that roughness forms the most essential point of difference between the beautiful, and the picturesque; as it seems to be that particular quality, which makes objects chiefly pleasing in paint∣ing.—I use the general term roughness; but properly speaking roughness relates only to Page  7 the surfaces of bodies: when we speak of their delineation, we use the word ruggedness. Both ideas however equally enter into the picturesque; and both are observable in the smaller, as well as in the larger parts of nature—in the outline, and bark of a tree, as in the rude summit, and craggy sides of a mountain.

Let us then examine our theory by an ap∣peal to experience; and try how far these qualities enter into the idea of picturesque beauty; and how far they mark that dif∣ference among objects, which is the ground of our inquiry.

A piece of Palladian architecture may be elegant in the last degree. The proportion of it's parts—the propriety of it's ornaments—and the symmetry of the whole, may be highly plea∣sing. But if we introduce it in a picture, it immediately becomes a formal object, and ceases to please. Should we wish to give it picturesque beauty, we must use the mallet, instead of the chissel: we must beat down one half of it, deface the other, and throw the mutilated members around in heaps. In short, from a smooth building we must turn it into a Page  8rough ruin. No painter, who had the choice of the two objects, would hesitate a moment.

Again, why does an elegant piece of garden-ground make no figure on canvas? The shape is pleasing; the combination of the objects, harmonious; and the winding of the walk in the very line of beauty. All this is true; but the smoothness of the whole, tho right, and as it should be in nature, offends in picture. Turn the lawn into a piece of broken ground: plant rugged oaks instead of flowering shrubs: break the edges of the walk: give it the rude∣ness of a road: mark it with wheel-tracks; and scatter around a few stones, and brush-wood; in a word, instead of making the whole smooth, make it rough; and you make it also picturesque. All the other ingredients of beauty it already possessed.

You sit for your picture. The master, at your desire, paints your head combed smooth, and powdered from the barber's hand. This may give it a more striking likeness, as it is more the resemblance of the real object. But is it therefore a more pleasing picture? I fear not. Leave Reynolds to himself, and he will make it picturesque: he will throw the hair dishevelled about your shoulders. Virgil would Page  9 have done the same. It was his usual practice in all his portraits. In his figure of Ascanius, we have the fusos crines; and in his portrait of Venus, which is highly finished in every part, the artist has given her hair,

— diffundere ventis.*

That lovely face of youth smiling with all it's sweet, dimpling charms, how attractive is it in life! how beautiful in representation! It is one of those objects, that please, as many do, both in nature, and on canvas. But Page  10 would you see the human face in it's highest form of picturesque beauty, examine that pa∣triarchal head. What is it, which gives that dignity of character; that force of expression; those lines of wisdom, and experience; that energetic meaning, so far beyond the rosy hue, or even the bewitching smile of youth? What is it, but the forehead furrowed with wrinkles? the prominent cheek-bone, catching the light? the muscles of the cheek strongly marked, and losing themselves in the shaggy beard? and, above all, the austere brow, projecting over the eye—that feature which particularly struck Homer in his idea of Jupiter*, and which Page  11 he had probably seen finely represented in some statue? in a word, what is it, but the rough touches of age?

As an object of the mixed kind, partaking both of the beautiful, and the picturesque, we admire the human figure also. The lines, and surface of a beautiful human form are so in∣finitely varied; the lights and shades, which it receives, are so exquisitely tender in some parts, and yet so round, and bold in others; it's proportions are so just; and it's limbs so fitted to receive all the beauties of grace, and contrast; that even the face, in which the charms of intelligence, and sensibility reside, is almost lost in the comparison. But altho the human form, in a quiescent state, is thus Page  12 beautiful; yet the more it's smooth surface is ruffled, if I may so speak, the more pictu∣resque it appears. When it is agitated by passion, and it's muscles swoln by strong ex∣ertion, the whole frame is shewn to the most advantage.—But when we speak of muscles swoln by exertion, we mean only natural exer∣tions, not an affected display of anatomy, in which the muscles, tho justly placed, may still be overcharged.

It is true, we are better pleased with the usual representations we meet with of the human form in a quiescent state, than in an agitated one: but this is merely owing to our seldom seeing it naturally represented in strong action. Even among the best masters we see little knowledge of anatomy. One will inflate the muscles violently to produce some trifling effect: another will scarce swell them in the production of a laboured one. The eye soon learns to see a defect, tho unable to remedy it. But when the anatomy is perfectly just, the human body will always be more picturesque in action, than at rest. The great difficulty indeed of representing strong muscular motion, seems to have struck the ancient masters of sculpture: for it is certainly much harder to Page  13 model from a figure in strong, momentary action, which must, as it were, be shot flying; than from one, sitting, or standing, which the artist may copy at leisure. Amidst the variety of statues transmitted from their hands, we have only three, or four in very spirited ac∣tion.* Yet when we see an effect of this kind well executed, our admiration is greatly in∣creased. Who does not admire the Laocoon more than the Antinous?

Animal life, as well as human, is, in gene∣ral, beautiful both in nature, and on canvas. We admire the horse, as a real object; the elegance of his form; the stateliness of his Page  14 tread; the spirit of all his motions; and the glossiness of his coat. We admire him also in representation. But as an object of pictu∣resque beauty, we admire more the worn-out cart-horse, the cow, the goat, or the ass; whose harder lines, and rougher coats, exhibit more the graces of the pencil. For the truth of this we may examine Berghem's pictures: we may examine the smart touch of Rosa of Tivoli. The lion with his rough mane; the bristly boar; and the ruffled plumage of the eagle*, are all objects of this kind. Smooth-coated Page  15 animals could not produce so pictu∣resque an effect.

But when the painter thus prefers the cart-horse, the cow, or the ass to other objects more beautiful in themselves, he does not cer∣tainly recommend his art to those, whose love of beauty makes them anxiously seek, by what means it's fleeting forms may be fixed.

Suggestions of this kind are ungrateful. The art of painting allows you all you wish. You desire to have a beautiful object painted— your horse, for instance, led out of the stable Page  16 in all his pampered beauty. The art of paint∣ing is ready to accommodate you. You have the beautiful form you admired in nature ex∣actly transferred to canvas. Be then satisfied. The art of painting has given you what you wanted. It is no injury to the beauty of your Arabian, if the painter think he could have given the graces of his art more forcibly to your cart-horse.

But does it not depreciate his art, if he give up a beautiful form, for one less beautiful, merely because he could have given it the graces of his art more forcibly—because it's sharp lines afford him a greater facility of execu∣tion? Is the smart touch of a pencil the grand desideratum of painting? Does he dis∣cover nothing in picturesque objects, but qualities, which admit of being rendered with spirit?

I should not vindicate him, if he did. At the same time, a free execution is so very fascinating a part of painting, that we need not wonder, if the artist lay a great stress upon it.—It is not however intirely owing, as some imagine, to the difficulty of master∣ing an elegant line, that he prefers a rough one. In part indeed this may be the case; Page  17 for if an elegant line be not delicately hit off, it is the most insipid of all lines: whereas in the description of a rough object, an error in delineation is not easily seen. However this is not the whole of the matter. A free, bold touch is in itself pleasing.* In elegant figures indeed there must be a delicate outline—at least a line true to nature: yet the surfaces even of such figures may be touched with freedom; and in the appen∣dages of the composition there must be a mixture of rougher objects, or there will be a want of contrast. In landscape universally the rougher objects are admired; which give the freest scope to execution. If the pencil be timid, or hesitating, little beauty results. The execution then only is pleasing, when the hand firm, and yet decisive, freely touches the characteristic parts of each object.

Page  18If indeed, either in literary, or in pic∣turesque composition you endeavour to draw the reader, or the spectator from the subject to the mode of executing it, your affectation* dis∣gusts. At the same time, if some care, and pains be not bestowed on the execution, your slovenliness disgusts, as much. Tho perhaps the artist has more to say, than the man of let∣ters, for paying attention to his execution. A truth is a truth, whether delivered in the lan∣guage of a philosopher, or a peasant: and the intellect receives it as such. But the artist, who deals in lines, surfaces, and colours, which are an immediate address to the eye, con∣ceives the very truth itself concerned in his mode of representing it. Guido's angel, and Page  [unnumbered]


Page  [unnumbered]


Page  19 the angel on a sign-post, are very different beings; but the whole of the difference con∣sists in an artful application of lines, surfaces, and colours.

It is not however merely for the sake of his execution, that the artist values a rough object. He finds it in many other respects accommodated to his art. In the first place, his composition requires it. If the history-painter threw all his draperies smooth over his figures, his groups, and combinations would be very awkward. And in landscape-painting smooth objects would produce no composition at all. In a mountain-scene what composition could arise from the corner of a smooth knoll coming forward on one side, intersected by a smooth knoll on the other; with a smooth plain perhaps in the middle, and a smooth mountain in the distance. The very idea is disgusting. Picturesque compo∣sition consists in uniting in one whole a variety of parts; and these parts can only be obtained from rough objects. If the smooth moun∣tains, and plains were broken by different objects, the composition might be good, on a supposition the great lines of it were so before.

Page  20Variety too is equally necessary in his com∣position: so is contrast. Both these he finds in rough objects; and neither of them in smooth. Variety indeed, in some degree, he may find in the outline of a smooth object: but by no means enough to satisfy the eye, without including the surface also.

From rough objects also he seeks the effect of light and shade, which they are as well disposed to produce, as they are the beauty of composition. One uniform light, or one uniform shade produces no effect. It is the various surfaces of objects, sometimes turn∣ing to the light in one way, and sometimes in another, that give the painter his choice of opportunities in massing, and graduating both his lights, and shades.—The richness also of the light depends on the breaks, and little recesses, which it finds on the surfaces of bodies. What the painter calls richness on a surface, is only a variety of little parts; on which the light shining, shews all it's small inequalities, and roughnesses; and in the painter's language, inriches it.—The beauty also of catching lights arises from the roughness of objects. What the painter calls a catching light is a strong touch of light Page  21 on some prominent part of a surface, while the rest is in shadow. A smooth surface has no such prominences.

In colouring also, rough objects give the painter another advantage. Smooth bodies are commonly as uniform in their colour, as they are in their surface. In glossy objects, tho smooth, the colouring may sometimes vary. In general however it is otherwise; in the objects of landscape, particularly. The smooth side of a hill is generally of one uniform colour; while the fractured rock presents it's grey surface, adorned with patches of greensward running down it's guttered sides; and the broken ground is every where varied with an okery tint, a grey gravel, or a leaden-coloured clay: so that in fact the rich colours of the ground arise generally from it's broken surface.

From such reasoning then we infer, that it is not merely for the sake of his execution, that the painter prefers rough objects to smooth. The very essence of his art requires it.

Page  22As picturesque beauty therefore so greatly depends on rough objects, are we to exclude every idea of smoothness from mixing with it? Are we struck with no pleasing image, when the lake is spread upon the canvas; the mar∣moreum aequor, pure, limpid, smooth, as the polished mirror?

We acknowledge it to be picturesque: but we must at the same time recollect, that, in fact, the smoothness of the lake is more in reality, than in appearance. Were it spread upon the canvas in one simple hue, it would certainly be a dull, fatiguing object. But to the eye it appears broken by shades of various kinds; by the undulations of the water; or by reflections from all the rough objects in it's neighbourhood.

It is thus too in other glossy bodies. Tho the horse, in a rough state, as we have just observed, or worn down with labour, is more adapted to the pencil, than when his sides shine with brushing, and high-feeding; yet in this latter state also he is certainly a pictu∣resque object. But it is not his smooth, and shining coat, that makes him so. It is the apparent interruption of that smoothness by a variety of shades, and colours, which produces Page  23 the effect. Such a play of muscles appears, every where, through the fineness of his skin, gently swelling, and sinking into each other— he is all over so lubricus aspici, the reflections of light are so continually shifting upon him, and playing into each other, that the eye never considers the smoothness of the surface; but is amused with gliding up, and down, among these endless transitions, which in some degree, supply the room of roughness.

It is thus too in the plumage of birds. Nothing can be softer, nothing smoother to the touch; and yet it is certainly picturesque. But it is not the smoothness of the surface, which produces the effect—it is not this we admire: it is the breaking of the colours: it is the bright green, or purple, changing perhaps into a rich azure, or velvet black; from thence taking a semitint; and so on through all the varieties of colour. Or if the colour be not changeable, it is the harmony we admire in these elegant little touches of na∣ture's pencil. The smoothness of the surface is only the ground of the colours. In itself we admire it no more, than we do the smooth∣ness of the canvas, which receives the colours of the picture. Even the plumage of the swan, Page  24 which to the inaccurate observer appears only of one simple hue, is in fact varied with a thousand soft shadows, and brilliant touches, at once discoverable to the picturesque eye.

Thus too a piece of polished marble may be picturesque; but it is only, when the polish brings out beautiful veins, which in appearance break the surface by a variety of lines, and colours. Let the marble be perfectly white, and the effect vanishes. Thus also a mirror may have picturesque beauty; but it is only from it's reflections. In an unreflecting state, it is insipid.

In statuary we sometimes see an inferior artist give his marble a gloss, thinking to atone for his bad workmanship by his excellent polish. The effect shews in how small a degree smoothness enters into the idea of the picturesque. When the light plays on the shining coat of a pampered horse, it plays among the lines, and muscles of nature; and is therefore founded in truth. But the polish of marble-flesh is unnatural*. The lights Page  25 therefore are false; and smoothness being here one of the chief qualities to admire, we are disgusted; and say, it makes bad, worse.

After all, we mean not to assert, that even a simple smooth surface is in no situation pic∣turesque. In contrast it certainly may be: nay in contrast it is often necessary. The beauty of an old head is greatly improved by the smoothness of the bald pate; and the rougher parts of the rock must necessarily be set off with the smoother. But the point lies here: to make an object in a peculiar man∣ner picturesque, there must be a proportion of roughness; so much at least, as to make an opposition; which in an object simply beau∣tiful, is unnecessary.

Some quibbling opponent may throw out, that wherever there is smoothness, there must also be roughness. The smoothest plain con∣sists of many rougher parts; and the roughest rock of many smoother; and there is such a variety of degrees in both, that it is hard to Page  26 say, where you have the precise ideas of rough, and smooth.

To this it is enough, that the province of the picturesque eye is to survey nature; not to anatomize matter. It throws it's glances around in the broad-cast stile. It comprehends an extensive tract at each sweep. It examines parts, but never descends to particles.

Having thus from a variety of examples en∣deavoured to shew, that roughness either real, or apparent, forms an essential difference be∣tween the beautiful, and the picturesque; it may be expected, that we should point out the reason of this difference. It is obvious enough, why the painter prefers rough objects to smooth*: but it is not so obvious, why the quality of roughness should make an essential difference between the objects of nature, and the objects of artificial representation.

To this question, we might answer, that the picturesque eye abhors art; and delights solely in nature: and that as art abounds with regularity, which is only another name Page  27 for smoothness; and the images of nature with irregularity, which is only another name for roughness, we have here a solution of our question.

But is this solution satisfactory? I fear not. Tho art often abounds with regularity, it does not follow, that all art must necessarily do so. The picturesque eye, it is true, finds it's chief objects in nature; but it delights also in the images of art, if they are marked with the characteristics, which it requires. A painter's nature is whatever he imitates; whether the object be what is commonly called natural, or artificial. Is there a greater ornament of landscape, than the ruins of a castle? What painter rejects it, because it is artificial?—What beautiful effects does Vandervelt produce from shipping? In the hands of such a master it furnishes almost as beautiful forms, as any in the whole circle of picturesque objects?—And what could the history-painter do, without his draperies to combine, contrast, and harmonize his figures? Uncloathed, they could never be grouped. How could he tell his story, with∣out arms; religious utensils; and the rich furniture of banquets? Many of these con∣tribute Page  28 greatly to embellish his pictures with pleasing shapes.

Shall we then seek the solution of our question in the great foundation of picturesque beauty? in the happy union of simplicity and variety; to which the rough ideas essentially contribute. An extended plain is a simple object. It is the continuation only of one uniform idea. But the mere simplicity of a plain produces no beauty. Break the sur∣face of it, as you did your pleasure-ground; add trees, rocks, and declivities; that is, give it roughness, and you give it also variety. Thus by inriching the parts of a united whole with roughness, you obtain the combined idea of simplicity, and variety; from whence results the picturesque.—Is this a satisfactory answer to our question?

By no means. Simplicity and variety are sources of the beautiful, as well as of the picturesque. Why does the architect break the front of his pile with ornaments? Is it not to add variety to smplicity? Even the very black-smith acknowledges this prin∣ciple by forming ringlets, and bulbous circles on his tongs, and pokers. In nature it is the same; and your plain will just as much Page  29 be improved in reality by breaking it, as upon canvas.—In a garden-scene the idea is dif∣ferent. There every object is of the neat, and elegant kind. What is otherwise, is in∣harmonious, and roughness would be disorder.

Shall we then change our ground; and seek an answer to our question in the nature of the art of painting? As it is an art strictly imi∣tative, those objects will of course appear most advantageously to the picturesque eye, which are the most easily imitated. The stronger the features are, the stronger will be the effect of imitation; and as rough objects have the strongest features, they will conse∣quently, when represented, appear to most advantage.—Is this answer more satisfactory?

Very little, in truth. Every painter, knows that a smooth object may be as easily, and as well imitated, as a rough one.

Shall we then take an opposite ground, and say just the reverse (as men pressed with dif∣ficulties will say any thing) that painting is not an art strictly imitative, but rather deceptive —that by an assemblage of colours, and a peculiar art in spreading them, the painter gives a semblance of nature at a proper dis∣tance; which at hand, is quite another thing Page  30 —that those objects, which we call picturesque, are only such as are more adapted to this art —and that as this art is most concealed in rough touches, rough objects are of course the most picturesque.—Have we now at∣tained a satisfactory account of the matter?

Just as much so, as before. Many painters of note did not use the rough stile of painting; and yet their pictures are as admirable, as the pictures of those, who did: nor are rough objects less picturesque on their canvas, than on the canvas of others: that is, they paint rough objects smoothly.

Thus foiled, shall we in the true spirit of inquiry, persist; or honestly give up the cause, and own we cannot search out the source of this difference? I am afraid this is the truth, whatever airs of dogmatizing we may assume. Inquiries into principles rarely end in satisfac∣tion. Could we even gain satisfaction in our present question, new doubts would arise. The very first principles of our art would be ques∣tioned. Difficulties would start up vestibulum ante ipsum. We should be asked, What is beauty? What is taste?—Let us step aside a moment, and listen to the debates of the learned on these heads. They will at least Page  31 shew us, that however we may wish to six principles, our inquiries are seldom satisfactory.

One philosopher will tell us, that taste is only the improvement of our own ideas. Every man has naturally his proportion of taste. The seeds of it are innate. All depends on culti∣vation.

Another philosopher following the analogy of nature, observes, that as all mens faces are different, we may well suppose their minds to be so likewise. He rejects the idea there∣fore of innate taste; and in the room of this makes utility the standard both of taste, and beauty.

Another philosopher thinks the idea of utility as absurd, as the last did that of innate taste. What, cries he, can I not admire the beauty of a resplendent sun-set, till I have investigated the utility of that peculiar radiance in the at∣mosphere? He then wishes we had a little less philosophy amongst us, and a little more common sense. Common sense is despised like other common things: but, in his opinion, if we made common sense the criterion in matters of art, as well as science, we should be nearer the truth.

Page  32A fourth philosopher apprehends common sense to be our standard only in the ordinary affairs of life. The bounty of nature has furnished us with various other senses suited to the objects, among which we converse: and with regard to matters of taste, it has supplied us with what, he doubts not, we all feel within our∣selves, a sense of beauty.

Pooh! says another learned inquirer, what is a sense of beauty? Sense is a vague idea, and so is beauty; and it is impossible that any thing determined can result from terms so inaccurate. But if we lay aside a sense of beauty, and adopt proportion, we shall all be right. Proportion is the great principle of taste, and beauty. We admit it both in lines, and colours; and indeed refer all our ideas of the elegant kind to it's standard.

True, says an admirer of the antique; but this proportion must have a rule, or we gain nothing: and a rule of proportion there cer∣tainly is: but we may inquire after it in vain. The secret is lost. The ancients had it. They well knew the principles of beauty; and had that unerring rule, which in all things adjusted their taste. We see it even in their slightest vases. In their works, proportion, tho varied Page  33 through a thousand lines, is still the same; and if we could only discover their principles of proportion, we should have the arcanum of this science; and might settle all our disputes about taste with great ease.

Thus, in our inquiries into first principles, we go on, without end, and without satis∣faction. The human understanding is unequal to the search. In philosophy we inquire for them in vain—in physics—in metaphysics—in morals. Even in the polite arts, where the subject, one should imagine, is less recondite, the inquiry, we find, is equally vague. We are puzzled, and bewildered; but not informed. All is uncertainty; a strife of words; the old contest,

Empedocles, an Stertinii deliret acumen?

In a word, if a cause be sufficiently understood, it may suggest useful discoveries. But if it be not so (and where is our certainty in these disquisitions) it will unquestionably mislead.


The Reverend
William Gilpin

An engraving of Gilpin from 1869

Born4 June 1724 (1724-06-04)
Died5 April 1804 (1804-04-06) (aged 79)
OccupationBritish artist

William Gilpin (4 June 1724 – 5 April 1804) was an English artist, Anglican cleric, schoolmaster and author, best known as one of the originators of the idea of the picturesque.[1]


Gilpin was born in Cumberland, the son of Captain John Bernard Gilpin, a soldier and amateur artist. From an early age he was an enthusiastic sketcher and collector of prints, but while his brother Sawrey Gilpin became a professional painter, William opted for a career in the church, graduating from Queen's College, Oxford in 1748.

While still at Oxford, Gilpin anonymously published A Dialogue upon the Gardens ... at Stow in Buckinghamshire (1748). Part guidebook to Stowe, part essay on aesthetics, this shows that Gilpin had already begun to develop his ideas on the picturesque. Unusually for the time, Gilpin showed an appreciation of wild and rugged mountain scenery, perhaps rooted in his Cumbrian upbringing; even more unusually, he expressed ideas about the perception of beauty which were purely aesthetic and often divorced from other qualities of the object viewed, such as morality or utility.

After working as curate, Gilpin became master, and from 1755 headmaster, at Cheam School. He was an enlightened educationist, instituting a system of fines rather than corporal punishment and encouraging the boys to keep gardens and in-school shops. His broad intention was to promote "uprightness and utility" and give his pupils "a miniature of the world they were afterwards to enter."[2] Gilpin stayed at Cheam until 1777 when he moved, with his wife Margaret, to become Vicar of Boldre in the New Forest in Hampshire. While there he took as a child pupil the future poet Caroline Anne Bowles. Another pupil was his nephew, the painter William Sawrey Gilpin. He was succeeded at Cheam by his son, another William Gilpin.

William Gilpin died at Boldre, Hampshire, on 5 April 1804 and was buried there on 13 April. He was survived by his wife, Margaret (1725–14 July 1807), to whom he was married for over 50 years.[3] His older son, John Bernard, became British consul for Rhode Island. His younger, William, had taken over at Cheam School. His two daughters predeceased him.[1]

The picturesque[edit]

See also: Picturesque

In 1768 Gilpin published his popular Essay on Prints where he defined the picturesque as '"that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture" and began to expound his "principles of picturesque beauty", based largely on his knowledge of landscapepainting. During the late 1760s and 1770s Gilpin travelled extensively in the summer holidays and applied these principles to the landscapes he saw, committing his thoughts and spontaneous sketches to notebooks.

Gilpin's tour journals circulated in manuscript to friends, such as the poet William Mason, and a wider circle including Thomas Gray, Horace Walpole and King George III. In 1782, at the instigation of Mason, Gilpin published Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales, etc. relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770 (London 1782). This was illustrated with plates based on Gilpin's sketches, etched by his nephew William Sawrey Gilpin using the new aquatint process. There followed Observations on the Lake District and the West of England and, after his move to Boldre Remarks on Forest Scenery, and other woodland Views ... (London 1791).

Gilpin's watercolour technique has been compared to that of Alexander Cozens.[5] Both texture and composition were important in a "correctly picturesque" scene. The texture should be "rough", "intricate", "varied", or "broken", without obvious straight lines. The composition should work as a unified whole, incorporating several elements: a dark "foreground" with a "front screen" or "side screens", a brighter middle "distance", and at least one further, less distinctly depicted, "distance". A ruined abbey or castle would add "consequence". A low viewpoint, which tended to emphasise the "sublime", was always preferable to a prospect from on high. While Gilpin allowed that nature was good at producing textures and colours, it was rarely capable of creating the perfect composition. Some extra help from the artist, perhaps in the form of a carefully placed tree, was usually required.

In contrast to other contemporary travel writers, such as Thomas Pennant, Gilpin included little history, and few facts or anecdotes. Even Gilpin's descriptions can seem quite vague, concentrating on how scenery conformed to picturesque principles rather than its specific character. In one much-quoted passage, Gilpin takes things to an extreme, suggesting that "a mallet judiciously used" might render the insufficiently ruinous gable of Tintern Abbey more picturesque. In the same work he criticises John Dyer's description of the view from Grongar Hill for describing a distant object in too much detail. Such passages were easy pickings for satirists such as Jane Austen demonstrated in Northanger Abbey as well as many of her other novels and works. (Elizabeth Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice, notably refuses to join Mr. Darcy and the Bingley sisters in a stroll with the teasing observation, "You are charmingly group'd, and...The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth.")

Although he came in for criticism, Gilpin had published at exactly the right time. Improved road communications and travel restrictions on continental Europe saw an explosion of British domestic tourism in the 1780s and 1790s. Many of these picturesque tourists were intent on sketching, or at least discussing what they saw in terms of landscape painting. Gilpin's works were the ideal companions for this new generation of travellers; they were written specifically for that market and never intended as comprehensive travel guides.


Although Gilpin sometimes commented on designed landscapes, for him the picturesque was always essentially just a set of rules for depicting nature. It was left to others, most notably Richard Payne Knight, Uvedale Price and Thomas Johnes, to develop Gilpin's ideas into more comprehensive theories of the picturesque and apply these more generally to landscape design and architecture. Ultimately, these grand theories of wild natural beauty gave way to the tamer and more commercialised picturesque of the mid 19th century. But Gilpin's works remained popular and several new editions, with additions by John Heaviside Clark, were brought out.

Gilpin also lives on as the model for the satirist William Combe's clever but cruel Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque (1809), brilliantly illustrated by Thomas Rowlandson. This poor curate sets off on his straggly mare Grizzle in a quest for picturesque scenery, often (and usually to his discomfort) oblivious to the realities of the world around him.

As well as his picturesque writing, Gilpin published numerous works on moral and religious subjects, including biographies of Hugh Latimer, Thomas Cranmer and John Wicliff. A proportion of the profit from his writing went on good works in his parish, including the endowment of the school at Boldre which now bears his name. Many of the manuscripts of his tours, including unpublished or only recently published material, are now housed in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Gilpin is one of eight travellers included in Nicholas Crane's Great British Journeys.


On the picturesque[edit]

  • Dialogue upon the gardens of the Right Honourable the Lord Viscount Cobham, at Stow in Buckinghamshire (1748)
  • An essay on prints: containing remarks upon the principles of picturesque beauty; the different kinds of prints; and the characters of the most noted masters (1768)
  • Observations on the River Wye, and several parts of South Wales, etc. relative chiefly to picturesque beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770 (1782)
  • 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 (1786)
  • Observations, relative chiefly to picturesque beauty, made in the year 1776, on several parts of Great Britain; particularly the High-lands of Scotland (1789)
  • Remarks on forest scenery, and other woodland views (relative chiefly to picturesque beauty), illustrated by the scenes of New Forest in Hampshire (1791)
  • Three essays: on picturesque beauty; on picturesque travel; and on sketching landscape: to which is added a poem, On landscape painting (1792)
  • Observations on the Western parts of England, relative chiefly to picturesque beauty; to which are added a few remarks on the picturesque beauties of the Isle of Wight (1798)
  • Observations on the coasts of Hampshire, Sussex, and Kent, relative chiefly to picturesque beauty, relative to Picturesque Beauty, made in the Summer of the year 1774 (1804)
  • Two essays: one on the author's mode of executing rough sketches; the other on the principles on which they are composed. To these are added, three plates of figures by S. Gilpin (1804)
  • Observations on several parts of the counties of Cambridge, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex. Also on several parts of North Wales, relative to picturesque beauty in two tours, the former made in ... 1769, the latter in ... 1773 (1809)


  • The life of Bernard Gilpin: collected from his life written by George Carleton, bishop of Chichester, from other printed accounts of the times he lived in, from original letters, and other authentic records (1752)
  • The life of Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester (1755)
  • The lives of John Wicliff; and of the most eminent of his disciples; Lord Cobham, John Huss, Jerome of Prague, and Zisca (1765)
  • The life of Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury (1784)
  • Memoirs ofJosias Rogers, Esq., Commander of his Majesty's Ship, Quebec (1808)

Religious works[edit]

  • Lectures on the catechism of the Church of England (1779)
  • Two sermons (1788)
  • An exposition of the New Testament, intended as an introduction to the study of the Scriptures, by pointing out the leading Sense and Connection of the sacred writers (1790)
  • Three dialogues on the amusements of clergymen (1796)
  • Moral contrasts; or, the power of religion, exemplified under different characters (1798)
  • Sermons to a country congregation; to which are added, a few hints for sermons, intended chiefly for the use of the younger clergy (1799)
  • Dialogues, on various subjects (1807)


  1. ^ abMalcolm Andrews, "Gilpin, William (1724–1804)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, UK: OUP, 2004) Retrieved 20 March 2016. Pay-walled.
  2. ^W. Gilpin, Memoirs of Dr. Richard Gilpin... ed. W. Jackson (1879), pp. 127–28. Quoted in ODNB.
  3. ^A New Guide to Lymington, by a Resident. London: R. King. 1828. p. 62. 
  4. ^Gilpin, William (1786), Observations relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, Made in the year 1772 ..... Cumberland & Westmoreland. Pub. R.Blamire, London. Facing P. 85
  5. ^H. L. Mallalieu (1986). The Dictionary of British Watercolour Artists up to 1920. Antique Collectors' Club. p. 144. ISBN 1-85149-025-6. 
  6. ^National Portrait Gallery, London

Further reading[edit]

  • Malcolm Andrews, The search for the picturesque: landscape aesthetics and tourism in Britain, 1760–1800 (Scholar Press, 1989)
  • Francesca Orestano 'Gilpin and the Picturesque' in Garden History vol 31:2 (Garden History Society 2004)
  • Joan Percy, In pursuit of the picturesque: William Gilpin's Surrey excursion (Surrey Gardens Trust, 2001)
  • Michael Symes, William Gilpin at Painshill (Painshill Park Trust, 1994)

External links[edit]

William Gilpin by Henry Walton[6]
Categories: 1

0 Replies to “William Gilpin Essays Picturesque”

Leave a comment

L'indirizzo email non verrà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *