On Picturesque Beauty

William Gilpin, from Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty, 2nd edition (1794). Essay II. On Picturesque Travel.

Enough has been said to shew the difficulty of assigning causes: let us then take another course, and amuse ourselves with searching after effects. This is the general intention of picturesque travel. We mean not to bring it into competition with any of the more useful ends of travelling. But as many travel without any end at all, amusing themselves without being able to give a reason why they are amused, we offer an end, which may possibly engage some vacant minds; and may indeed afford a rational amusement to such as travel for more important purposes.

In treating of picturesque travel, we may consider first it's object; and secondly it's sources of amusement.

It's object is beauty of every kind, which either art, or nature can produce: but it is chiefly that species of beauty, which we have endeavoured to characterize in the preceding essay under the name of picturesque. This great object we pursue through the scenery of nature. We seek it among all the ingredients of landscape -- trees -- rocks -- broken-grounds -- woods -- rivers -- lakes -- plains -- vallies -- mountains -- and distances. These objects in themselves produce infinite variety. No two rocks, or trees are exactly the same. They are varied, a second time, by combination; and almost as much, a third time, by different lights, and shades, and other aerial effects. Sometimes we find among them the exhibition of a whole; but oftener we find only beautiful parts.

That we may examine picturesque objects with more ease, it may be useful to class them into the sublime, and the beautiful; tho, in fact, this distinction is rather inaccurate. Sublimity alone cannot make an object picturesque. However grand the mountain, or the rock may be, it has no claim to this epithet, unless it's form, it's colour, or it's accompaniments have some degree of beauty. Nothing can be more sublime, than the ocean: but wholly unaccompanied, it has little of the picturesque. When we talk therefore of a sublime object, we always understand, that it is also beautiful: and we call it sublime, or beautiful, only as the idea of sublimity, or of simple beauty prevail.

The curious, and fantastic forms of nature are by no means the favourite objects of the lovers of landscape. There may be beauty in a curious object; and so far it may be picturesque: but we cannot admire it merely for the sake of it's curiosity. The lusus naturæ is the naturalist's province, not the painter's. The spiry pinnacles of the mountain, and the castle-like arrangement of the rock, give no peculiar pleasure to the picturesque eye. It is fond of the simplicity of nature; and sees most beauty in her most usual forms. The Giant's causeway in Ireland may strike it as a novelty; but the lake of Killarney attracts it's attention. It would range with supreme delight among the sweet vales of Switzerland; but would view only with a transient glance, the Glaciers of Savoy. Scenes of this kind, as unusual may please once; but the great works of nature, in her simplest and purest stile, open inexhausted springs of amusement.

But it is not only the form, and the composition of the objects of landscape, which the picturesque eye examines; it connects them with the atmosphere, and seeks for all those various effects, which are produced from that vast, and wonderful storehouse of nature. Nor is there in travelling a greater pleasure, than when a scene of grandeur bursts unexpectedly upon the eye, accompanied with some accidental circumstance of the atmosphere, which harmonizes with it, and gives it double value.

Besides the inanimate face of nature, it's living forms fall under the picturesque eye, in the course of travel; and are often objects of great attention. The anatomical study of figures is not attended to: we regard them merely as the ornament of scenes. In the human figure we contemplate neither exactness of form; nor expression, any farther then it is shewn in action: we merely consider general shapes, dresses, groups, and occupations; which we often find casually in greater variety, and beauty, than any selection can procure.

In the same manner animals are the objects of our attention, whether we find them in the park, the forest, or the field. Here too we consider little more, than their general forms, actions, and combinations. Nor is the picturesque eye so fastidious as to despise even less considerable objects. A flight of birds has often a pleasing effect. In short, every form of life, and being may have it's use as a picturesque object, till it become too small for attention.

But the picturesque eye is not merely restricted to nature. It ranges through the limits of art. The picture, the statue, and the garden are all the objects of it's attention. In the embellished pleasure ground particularly, tho all is neat, and elegant -- far too neat and elegant for the use of the pencil; yet, if it be well laid out, it exhibits the lines, and principles of landscape; and is well worth the study of the picturesque traveller. Nothing is wanting, but what his imagination can supply -- a change from smooth to rough.

But among all the objects of art, the picturesque eye is perhaps most inquisitive after the elegant relics of ancient architecture; the ruined tower, the Gothic arch, the remains of castles, and abbeys. These are the richest legacies of art. They are consecrated by time; and almost deserve the veneration we pay to the works of nature itself.

Thus universal are the objects of picturesque travel. We pursue beauty in every shape; through nature, through art; and all it's various arrangements in form, and colour; admiring it in the grandest objects, and not rejecting it in the humblest.

After the objects of picturesque travel, we consider it's sources of amusement -- or in what way the mind is gratified by these objects.

We might begin in moral stile; and consider the objects of nature in a higher light, than merely as amusement. We might observe, that a search after beauty should naturally lead the mind to the great origin of all beauty; to the

-- first good, first perfect, and first fair.

But tho in theory this seems a natural climax, we insist the less upon it, as in fact we have scarce ground to hope, that every admirer of picturesque beauty, is an admirer also of the beauty of virtue; and that every lover of nature reflects, that

Nature is but a name for an effect,
Whose cause is God. --

If however the admirer of nature can turn his amusements to a higher purpose; if it's great scenes can inspire him with religious awe; or it's tranquil scenes with that complacency of mind, which is so nearly allied to benevolence, it is certainly the better. Apponat lucro. It is so much into the bargain; for we dare not promise him more from picturesque travel, than a rational, and agreeable amusement. Yet even this may be of some use in an age teeming with licentious pleasure; and may in this light at least be considered as having a moral tendency.

The first source of amusement to the picturesque traveller, is the pursuit of his object -- the expectation of new scenes continually opening, and arising to his view. We suppose the country to have been unexplored. Under this circumstance the mind is kept constantly in an agreeable suspence. The love of novelty is the foundation of this pleasure. Every distant horizon promises something new; and with this pleasing expectation we follow nature through all her walks. We pursue her from hill to dale; and hunt after those various beauties, with which she every where abounds.

The pleasures of the chace are universal. A hare started before dogs is enough to set a whole country in an uproar. The plough, and the spade are deserted. Care is left behind; and every human faculty is dilated with joy. -- And shall we suppose it a greater pleasure to the sportsman to pursue a trivial animal, than it is to the man of taste to pursue the beauties of nature? to follow her through all her recesses? to obtain a sudden glance, as she flits past him in some airy shape? to trace her through the mazes of the cover? to wind after her along the vale? or along the reaches of the river.

After the pursuit we are gratified with the attainment of the object. Our amusement, on this head, arises from the employment of the mind in examining the beautiful scenes we have found. Sometimes we examine them under the idea of a whole: we admire the composition, the colouring, and the light, in one comprehensive view. When we are fortunate enough to fall in with scenes of this kind, we are highly delighted. But as we have less frequent opportunities of being thus gratified, we are more commonly employed in analyzing the parts of scenes; which may be exquisitely beautiful, tho unable to produce a whole. We examine what would amend the composition; how little is wanting to reduce it to the rules of our art; how trifling a circumstance sometimes forms the limit between beauty, and deformity. Or we compare the objects before us with other objects of the same kind:-- or perhaps we compare them with the imitations of art. From all these operations of the mind results great amusement.

But it is not from this scientifical employment, that we derive our chief pleasure. We are most delighted, when some grand scene, tho perhaps of incorrect composition, rising before the eye, strikes us beyond the power of thought -- when the vox faucibus haeret; and every mental operation is suspended. In this pause of intellect; this deliquium of the soul, an enthusiastic sensation of pleasure overspreads it, previous to any examination by the rules of art. The general idea of the scene makes an impression, before any appeal is made to the judgment. We rather feel, that survey it.

This high delight is generally indeed produced by the scenes of nature; yet some times by artificial objects. Here and there a capital picture will raise these emotions: but oftener the rough sketch of a capital master. This has sometimes an astonishing effect on the mind; giving the imagination an opening into all those glowing ideas, which inspired the artist and which the imagination only can translate. In general however the works of art affect us coolly; and allow the eye to criticize at leisure.

Having gained by a minute examination of incidents a compleat idea of an object, our next amusement arises from inlarging, and correcting our general stock of ideas. The variety of nature is such, that new objects, and new combinations of them, are continually adding something to our fund, and inlarging our collection: while the same kind of object occurring frequently, is seen under various shapes; and makes us, if I may so speak, more learned in nature. We get it more by heart. He who has seen only one oak-tree, has no compleat idea of an oak in general: but he who has examined thousands of oak trees, must have seen that beautiful plant in all it's varieties; and obtains a full, and compleat idea of it.

From this correct knowledge of objects arises another amusement; that of representing, by a few strokes in a sketch, those ideas, which have made the most impression upon us. A few scratches, like a short-hand scrawl of our own, legible at least to ourselves, will serve to raise in our minds the remembrance of the beauties they humbly represent; and recal to our memory even the splendid colouring, and force of light, which existed in the real scene. Some naturalists suppose, the act of ruminating, in animals, to be attended with more pleasure, than the act of grosser mastication. It may be so in travelling also. There may be more pleasure in recollecting, and recording, from a few transient lines, the scenes we have admired, than in the present enjoyment of them. If the scenes indeed have peculiar greatness, this secondary pleasure cannot be attended with those enthusiastic feelings, which accompanied the real exhibition. But, in general, tho it may be a calmer species of pleasure, it is more uniform, and uninterrupted. It flatters us too with the idea of a sort of creation of our own; with the idea of a sort of creation of our own; and it is unallayed with that fatigue, which is often a considerable abatement to the pleasures of traversing the wild, and savage parts of nature. -- After we have amused ourselves with our sketches, if we can, in any degree, contribute to the amusement of others also, the pleasure is surely so much inhanced.

There is still another amusement arising from the correct knowledge of objects; and that is the power of creating, and representing scenes of fancy; which is still more a work of creation, than copying from nature. The imagination becomes a camera obscura, only with this difference, that the camera represents objects as they really are: while the imagination, impressed with the most beautiful scenes, and chastened by rules of art, forms it's pictures, not only from the most admirable parts of nature; but in the best taste.

Some artists, when they give their imagination play, let it loose among uncommon scenes -- such as perhaps never existed: whereas the nearer they approach the simple standard of nature, in it's most beautiful forms, the more admirable their fictions will appear. It is thus in writing romances. The correct taste cannot bear those unnatural situations, in which heroes, and heroines are often placed: whereas a story, naturally, and of course affectingly told, either with a pen, or a pencil, tho known to be a fiction, is considered as a transcript from nature; and takes possession of the heart. The marvellous disgusts the sober imagination; which is gratified only with the pure characters of nature.

              -- Beauty best is taught
By those, the favoured few, whom heaven has lent
The power to seize, select, and reunite
Her loveliest features; and of these to form
One archetype compleat, of sovereign grace.
Here nature sees her fairest forms more fair;
Owns them as hers, yet owns herself excelled
By what herself produced. --

But if we are unable to embody our ideas even in a humble sketch, yet still a strong impression of nature will enable us to judge of the works of art. Nature is the archetype. The stronger therefore the impression, the better the judgment.

We are, in some degree, also amused by the very visions of fancy itself. Often, when slumber has half closed the eye, and shut out all the objects of sense, especially after the enjoyment of some splendid scene; the imagination, active, and alert, collects it's scattered ideas, transposes, combines, and shifts them into a thousand forms, producing such exquisite scenes, such sublime arrangements, such glow, and harmony of colouring, such brilliant lights, such depth, and clearness of shadow, as equally foil description, and every attempt of artificial colouring.

It may perhaps be objected to the pleasureable circumstances, which are thus said to attend picturesque travel, that we meet as many disgusting, as pleasing objects; and the man of taste therefore will be as often offended, as amused.

But this is not the case. There are few parts of nature, which do not yield a picturesque eye some amusement.

              -- Believe the muse,
She does not know that unauspicious spot,
Where beauty is thus niggard of her store.
Believe the muse, through this terrestrial waste
The seeds of grace are sown, profusely sown,
Even where we least may hope. --

It is true, when some large tract of barren country interrupts our expectation, wound up in quest of any particular scene of grandeur, or beauty, we are apt to be a little peevish; and to express our discontent in hasty exaggerated phrase. But when there is not disappointment in the case, even scenes the most barren of beauty, will furnish amusement.

Perhaps no part of England comes more under this description, than that tract of barren country, through which the great military road passes from Newcastle to Carlisle. It is a waste, with little interruption, through a space of forty miles. But even here, we have always something to amuse the eye. The interchangeable patches of heath, and green-sward make an agreeable variety. Often too on these vast tracts of intersecting grounds we see beautiful lights, softening off along the sides of hills: and often we see them adorned with cattle, flocks of sheep, heath-cocks, grous, plover, and flights of other wild fowl. A group of cattle, standing in the shade on the edge of a dark hill, and relieved by a lighter distance beyond them, will often make a compleat picture without any other accompaniment. In many other situations also we find them wonderfully pleasing; and capable of making pictures amidst all the deficiences of landscape. Even a winding road itself is an object of beauty; while the richness of the heath on each side, with the little hillocs, and crumbling earth give many an excellent lesson for a foreground. When we have no opportunity of examining the grand scenery of nature, we have every where at least the means of observing with what a multiplicity of parts, and yet with what general simplicity, she covers every surface.

But if we let the imagination loose, even scenes like these, administer great amusement. The imagination can plant hills; can form rivers, and lakes in vallies; can build castles, and abbeys; and if it find no other amusement, can dilate itself in vast ideas of space.

But altho the picturesque traveller is seldom disappointed with pure nature, however rude, yet we cannot deny, but he is often offended with the productions of art. He is disgusted with the formal separations of property -- with houses, and towns, the haunts of men, which have much oftener a bad effect in Landscape, than a good one. He is frequently disgusted also, when art aims more at beauty, than she ought. How flat, and insipid is often the garden-scene! how puerile, and absurd! the banks of the river how smooth, and parallel! the lawn, and it's boundaries, how unlike nature! Even in the capital collection of pictures, how seldom does he find design, composition, expression, character, or harmony either in light, or colouring! and how often does he drag through saloons, and rooms of state, only to hear a catalogue of the names of masters!

The more refined our taste grows from the study of nature, the more insipid are the works of art. Few of it's efforts please. The idea of the great original is so strong, that the copy must be pure, if it do not disgust. But the varieties of nature's charts are such, that, study them as we can, new varieties will always arise and let our taste be ever so refined, her works, on which it is formed (at least when we consider them as objects,) must always go beyond it; and furnish fresh sources both of pleasure and amusement.

Return to "Tintern" course
Document created January 3rd 1999