The Picturesque

The Picturesque: Examining the development and proliferation of the ruin in the British Landscape Painting  (1770-1830)

The Picturesque, from ‘pittoresco’-to have features like those of an artist’s work-was a Movement that emerged in Britain in about 1750. [1] It flourished between 1770-1830 and was developed through the awakening sensibilities of a few who responded to the natural world around them by realising that some things were not just beautiful or sublime but could be a mix of both and still appealed to the senses in an ‘odd yet delightful way’. [2] [3]

The first person to have created the genre of Picturesque was Rev. William Gilpin who albeit was the first to use the word ‘picturesque’ failed to truly define its aesthetic as anything other than beautiful.   [4] [5] It would largely be the contributions of Uvedale Price that would set out to do this along with Richard Payne Knight who further supplemented these contributions by including the ‘theory of association’. [6] [7] Less fundamental  yet still valid were other contributions from parallel subjects that interconnected on certain aspects, particularly those of poetry, philosophy, gardening and architecture. [8]

As previously mentioned, it emerged as a method in which to look at and draw upon the surrounding scenery. Out of the desire to capture the ‘landscape’ emerged two paradoxes; firstly, that the tourist-artist albeit wanting to discover Nature ‘untouched by man’ could not resist improving what lay before him/her-even if only in the imagination. Secondly, (and partially related to the first) the tourist-artist despite his/her acclaim for native beauty in their paintings would do so by ‘invoking upon idealised foreign models’; such as pastoral Augustan poetry and/or works by masters such as Claude, Dughet (for the Academic style) or Ruisdael (for the Dutch). [9] [10]

Although the Academic style of landscape painting would remain ossified until the late nineteenth century, it began to feel increasing pressures by about 1750. [11] [12] [13] This time coincided with the Picturesque Movement’s formative years along with the growth of Britain’s economy and political stability in a time of uncertainty on the continent, which eventually turned into a series of wars. [14] Britain’s impatience for the Academic’s reverence of foreign cultures  manifested alongside several important changes in society all pointing closer to home. [15] Classics such as Virgil and Homer were increasingly moved aside for local genius such as Shakespeare and Milton; and the inability to travel abroad diverted traffic closer to home, not only feeding the economy but also contributing extensively to new sentiments towards local and native scenery. [16] [17]

Picturesque art followed in its predecessors footsteps in that the subject remained the same, whilst the way of seeing and portraying the landscape changed into something other than the rational and realistic. It accommodated various art forms, yet favourites of this period could be limited to oil on canvas and watercolour. As mentioned above, the early styles strongly adopted foreign inspiration, primarily Claude’s and later evolving into a style similar to that of the Dutch school until it would eventually be termed as the English school. [18]

Jacob von Ruisdael, The Jewish Cemetery

Fig.2.1: Jacob von Ruisdael, The Jewish Cemetery, c.1654-55, oil on canvas, 142.2×189.2 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, USA, 26.3 (Bridgeman Images)

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames-Morning after a Stormy Night

Fig.2.2: John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames-Morning after a Stormy Night, 1829, oil on canvas, 121.9 x 164.5 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, USA, B1977.14.42, (image sourced from the public domain)

One British artist who championed the Claudean manner of landscape painting was Richard Wilson; noted by Joshua Reynolds for having said: ‘ruins are the most beautiful architecture in the world’. [19] For an example of his work see CAT.3 Richard Wilson, Okehampton Castle, Devonshire, c.1771-1774, oil on canvas, 171.4 x 265.9 cm, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, Birmingham, 1948P27,  (© Birmingham City Gallery).  No artwork of this period could better show Claude’s manner of landscape painting than Wilson. Here the observer can instantly make out Claude’s well structured composition and his imported warm, bright skies.  The combination of these  ideal presets to native elements-hills and castle-transfigured the landscape into something other; something more English than Italianate, yet still not far removed from the Neoclassical ‘vedute con rovine’ or the Claudean Baroque and Academically approved method of landscape painting. [20]

A later and completely different approach to landscape painting can be seen in Fig.2.2: John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames-Morning after a Stormy Night, 1829, oil on canvas, 121.9 x 164.5 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, USA, B1977.14.42, (image sourced from the public domain). Here, the artist is proudly showing off his love for the native terrain and local meteorology while applying a more appropriate, sombre colour palette not dissimilar to that used by Jacob von Ruisdael,  The Jewish Cemetery, c.1654-55, oil on canvas, 142.2×189.2 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, USA, 26.3 (Bridgeman Images) (Fig.2.1) . Although the subject matter-as implied by the title-is Haleigh Castle; Constable’s obvious love for clouds and landscape transcends the medieval castle. Aesthetic differences aside, both Wilson and Constable ‘could more than double the price’ of their artworks if they included staffage and regardless of how well they depicted a landscape, the genre was still considered to be at the lower end of the hierarchy of genres! [21] [22]

If nothing, research has shown a discrepancy between the original, deep values and rigour that stirred the Romantic Movement (of which the Picturesque formed part of) and the lacking approach applied by the Picturesque to the Ruin in comparison to the concurrent, substance-loaded meaning and value as seen through the Romantic Neoclassical approach. [23] Ruins (due to their intricate nature) ‘posed considerable problems to picturesque theorists’, artists, philosophers and other arbiters of taste alike. [24]

Thomas Whatley in his book On Modern Gardening (1772) states ‘ruins are in a class by themselves, beautiful as objects, expressive as characters…’ [25] [26]  William Gilpin believed ruins to have acquired positive value once the Man made structure had returned to a state of nature were it had been ‘rooted for ages in the soil; assimilated to it; and become, as it were, a part of it.’ [27] He considers the ruin to be more of a work of nature than that of art.’ [28] For Uvedale Price the ruin presented itself with such an ‘encrusted emblematic significance’ that he feared the Picturesque spectator would become confused upon contemplating it. [29] The confusion would arise between not knowing how and where to classify it: was it beautiful or sublime, or perhaps both? Elegant, grand or perhaps both? [30]

The fact that Ruins were so frequently mentioned as a subject by key contributors in their Picturesque treatise corroborates their proliferation in art; however-and quite disappointingly to those enamoured with their innate Being-these sensibilities are only aesthetic. Was it the resistance to all things Neoclassical that caused such an aversion to the innate value of ruins?

The implications of this way of seeing urged the artist-tourist-spectator to glance over the ruin without the skills donned by the Romantic Neoclassical or the Rational Neoclassical ‘archaeoinquiry’ approach. This is best understood when looking at artworks such as CAT.6: Thomas Girtin, Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland, c.1797-9, watercolour, gouache and graphite on paper, 54.9 x 45.1cm, Tate Gallery, London, N04409 (image sourced from the public domain). The watercolour medium lends itself perfectly to the fluidity expected from the spectators gaze; yet simultaneously binds the subject together through the artistic melding of tonal colours into a remnant of what could have once been a formidable structure.

Uvedale Price defined the Picturesque as being stationed ‘between beauty and sublimity’ and stated that it was ‘more happily blended with them both, than they with each other. It is, however, perfectly distinct from either.’ [31] Rightly, the Ruin’s multifaceted nature allows it to sit anywhere in the infinite space between all that is beautiful and sublime whilst also incorporating the two. However, his decision to forgo the subject in detail can be seen as anti-climatic amidst his great, foundational contributions. Malcolm Andrews states he found difficulty in ‘isolating their formal Picturesque qualities’ on the grounds that the responses they stimulated were too complex. [32] Instead Price resorted to discussing humbler subjects such as dilapidated mills, disturbed water surfaces, trees and shaggy goats. [33]

So what are the aesthetic Picturesque qualities of Ruins? Do they differ from the qualities defining all things Picturesque? To address these questions means to revisit Edmund Burke’s foundational work  A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (1757)-all objects contain qualities that arouse sensory responses within the observer.

Beautiful objects were specifically rejected by the Picturesque solely for their defining qualities such as symmetry, cleanliness, smoothness, proportion and harmony; all of which were synonymous with the Classical programmes. Conversely, Payne Knight’s views represented the total opposite side of the spectrum; he exaggerated the definition of Picturesque qualities to include all ‘disagreeable objects in themselves’ which would usually have displeasing associations and would inspire feelings of ‘revulsion should we have come across them in real life.’ [34]

Gilpin approaches the subject with a tamer and seemingly more influential approach by inclining the strange towards the beautiful-the focus being the combination of the two-be they broken, bold, rugged, worn, torn, mangled or stained. The more varied and textured the object or vista-the greater the Picturesque pleasures. Appropriately adapted to this combination of strange and beautiful was the Gothic; primarily, in the form of castles and abbeys.

A few Gilpin-esque qualities of ruins include-but are not limited to-crumbling stones, tensions within the structure, a jagged skyline, labyrinthine passages, obscured paths (preferably by rotting trees), uneven surrounding terrain, encrustations such as lichen, moss, ivy and crumbling plaster. [35]

Such devices became conventions, which in turn would supply the descriptive vocabulary of the artist-tourist-theorist. Below, is an excerpt from  Dorothy Richardson’s travel journal were she is critical of Mr.Aislabie’s attempt at beautifying and preserving the grounds of Fountains Abbey; she also shows how perfectly integrated the canonised and visual conventions mentioned above were at the time. The occasion was a visit to Fountain’s Abbey, to indulge in all things Picturesque; instead she found a ‘defaced’ edifice:

We were told it was formerly almost covered with Ivy, & Shrubs; these Venerable relicks of Time are now all cut down; and where the stones were moulder’d new ones are put in, so that this Grand Ruin…is now a piece of patchwork…[36]

She understands that paramount attention should be given to obscuring the ruin in certain places so as to make it irregular and cause its ‘magical’ effects. As a tourist she is fashionably acquainted with aesthetic conventions relating to the ruins in the picturesque. Whately, on the other hand, proposes his picturesque understanding of ruins by adapting them to fashionable garden design ideas:

…they may for these purposes be separated into detached pieces; continuity is not necessary, not even the appearance of it, if the relation be preserved; but straggling ruins have a bad effect, when the several parts are equally considerable. There should be one large mass to raise an idea of greatness, to attract the others about it, and to be a common centre of union to all…[37]

John Buckler, Ruins of Fonthill Abbey, 1825, lithograph

Fig.2.3: John Buckler, Ruins of Fonthill Abbey, 1825, lithograph, 27.9 x 37.7 cm, British Museum, London, 1912,0319.4 (image sourced from the public domain)

Even the commercially popular The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1825 (and later in The Gardner’s Magazine of 1835)  showed this particular inclination towards the ruin aesthetic, describing the sight as ‘something remarkable’ and ‘very beautiful’. [38] Fig.2.3 is the same  topographical study published in these  magazines.

As briefly mentioned above, a key device simply oozing Picturesque qualities was seen to be the Gothic. As seen in Fig.2.4: Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window, 1794, graphite and watercolour on paper, 35.9 x 25 cm, Tate Gallery, London, D00374, (image sourced from the public domain). The Gothic lent itself serendipitously and unquestionably to all Picturesque sensibilities; and not only had the Gothic become sentimentally associated as a symbol of nationalistic pride, but also offered an architectural solution that was free from the ‘stifling’ order present in Classical or inspired-by architecture.

Joseph Mallord Turner, The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window, 1794

Fig.2.4: Joseph Mallord Turner, The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window, 1794, graphite and watercolour on paper, 35.9 x 25 cm, Tate Gallery, London, D00374 (image sourced from the public domain)

Through its ‘great service in promoting the aesthetic appeal for native ruins, the Gothic Revival-knowingly or unknowingly-sanctified their inclusion into all styles of British landscape painting’. [39]  Amongst the style’s several ardent admirers were Gilpin, Price, Kames and John Ruskin. [40] [41] Ruskin,not only associated the rise of the Gothic to the awakening romantic sensibilities of the eighteenth century Man, but also announced it as the ‘style of Northern hearts’. Its character was a combination of savage, playful (love of change), grotesque, rigid-yet inspired by nature and manifested the ‘disturbed imagination’, all of which lay between the beautiful and the sublime. [42]

The Gothic however, whilst posing as the preferred form for architectural ruins in British Landscape  Art was not simply about aesthetics. Whilst ensuring the intellectual vocabulary and baggage of the Neoclassical was made redundant to its understanding; it still invited the observer’s associations to bolster its strangely beautiful and skeletal remnants-not dissimilar from the mentally creative associations applied to Classical ruins by the Romantic Neoclassical approach. However, whilst it was similar in inspiring mood, it lacked in didactic philosophical value, although it is most likely this feature that made it so appropriate to the Picturesque Movement.

Concluding thoughts: [43]

As a result of this Movement, the ruin lost its didactic, virtuous and romantic mood setting abilities; with only its aesthetic value left remaining. This decrease in the ruin’s value coincides with the shifting of the  ruin’s removal from its exclusive genre paintings it had originally enjoyed in Neoclassical art forms such as the ‘vedute con rovine’ and architectural capriccio. This value of the ruin was further impaired when it found itself contending with a plethora of features in British landscape scenery that had also become Picturesque approved; such as caves, piles of rocks, hills and mountains, village views, meteorological effects in nature, trees, rolling hills and bodies of water. This is reflected in the artworks of this period; and although castles and abbeys are frequent subjects of the Picturesque, they are dwarfed by the varied options available to  the landscape artist. However, despite this decrease in ruin value, a proliferation of the native ruin thanks to the Picturesque Movement and other methods of portraying the local British Landscape.

Whilst the pure Picturesque style continued to remain a preferred one for book illustrations and watercolour drawing, the Picturesque at about the turn of the century (1800) begins to increasingly fuse with Romantic notions as explored in the third essay, sometimes creating a tricky to define landscape style which features equal measures of Picturesque approaches of representation along with narrative, depth and sublimity that are characteristic traits of the Romantic Movement.


[1] ‘work in the manner of painters’ as in R.P. Knight, An Analytical Inquiry In to the Principles of Taste, 4.ed., (London, 1806) (2:17) p.148

[2] is part of the Romantic movement and repeats its Macro dynamics on a micro level in that it moves away from the authority of man and draws closer to nature – also runs parallel to religions such as Deism which taught that all beauty is God..and all things in Nature hence were God

[3] a recently rediscovered field in its own right, the sublime was explored by the Greek philosopher Longinus who’s texts had recently come to light once again in the Georgian Britain

[4] Zoë Kinsley, ‘Dorothy Richardson’s Manuscript Travel Journals (1761-1801) and the Possibilities of Picturesque Aesthetics’, The Review of English Studies, New Series, 56, no. 226 (2005): p.616

[5] Ibid.

[6] Uvedale Price was the first to consider the picturesque as a category distinct from both sublime and beautiful 1794, not only in pictorial delineation but represented through a whole turn of mind-Zoë Kinsley, ‘Dorothy Richardson’s Manuscript Travel Journals (1761-1801) and the Possibilities of Picturesque Aesthetics’, The Review of English Studies, New Series, 56, no. 226 (2005) p.616

[7] as in R.P. Knight, An Analytical Inquiry In to the Principles of Taste, 4.ed., (London, 1806) (2: 24-26) p.152 and Ibid., p.618

[8] as can be seen through the combined program of reform employed by Pope and Addison’s in architecture and gardening associated with the Earl of Burlington-David, Watkin, ’Soane and the Picturesque: The Philosophy of Association’ in The Picturesque in late Georgian England, ed. Dana Arnold (London, 1994), p.49

[9] suggest what a man of taste would be expected to know in imaginative literature: the poetry of county life, largely inherited from the roman poets, which provided idealised models for the tourists assessment of rural life and scenery in Britain-as in Malcolm, Andrews, The Search for the Picturesque (England, 1989) p.4

[10] Ibid., p.3

[11] the author in this work uses this interchangeably with the ‘Neoclassical style’

[12] Ibid., p.33

[13] Ibid., p.4

[14] especially the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of the 1790s and early 1800’s which effectively closed off the continent for the British Grand Tourist- After 1815 when Europe was available to travel again after the wars, new fields for picturesque-hunters opened up in Italy…

[15] The beginnings of picturesque tourism in the middle demands of the eighteenth-century coincide with strong challenges to the cultural authority of Greek and Roman literature, with attempts to give an English vernacular flavour to classical genres of poetry, and with experiments in alternative, native traditions, such as Gothic and Celtic revival- Ibid., p.4

[16] and  increasingly anti-georgic. images of labour and cultivated countryside, so appealing to the Augustan spectator, are repudiated by Gilpin and Uvedale Price-Malcolm, Andrews, The Search for the Picturesque (England, 1989) p.9

[17] contributed to the dwindling of familiarity with later generations to the classics. last half of C18th- writers brought up under the Augustan dispensation could now no longer rely on a readership fluent in classics.

[18] Ibid., p. 36

[19] G.E., Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynold’s Discourses (Chicago, 1891) fourteenth discourse, p.340

[20] ‘vedute con rovine’ : landscape with ruins

[21] Malcolm, Andrews, The Search for the Picturesque (England, 1989)  p.26

[22] Hierarchy of Genres: see glossary

[23] by lacking approach, the author means in the energy invested in ruins as anything other than aesthetic

[24] Malcolm, Andrews, The Search for the Picturesque (England, 1989) p.50

[25] Thomas Whatley (1726 – June 1772) chiefly known as a politician and writer, yet his treatise on gardening was one of most comprehensive work on the theory and practice of English landscape gardening in the naturalistic taste before Horace Walpole‘s brief Essay on Modern Gardening (1782) and the writings of Humphry Repton.

[26] Thomas,Whatley, Observations on modern gardening, 4th edition (London, 1772)

[27] John Sell Cotman’s Llanthony Abbey, (1801) comes to mind- see. Cat X

[28] Gilpin, Lakes II p187-8

[29] Malcolm, Andrews, The Search for the Picturesque (England, 1989) p.59

[30] As seen in the previous essay, Burke’s Enquiry into the Beautiful and Sublime lists a  plethora of possible stimuli that could present themselves simultaneously upon experiencing Ruins making it possible for them to be both Sublime and Beautiful

[31] Uvedale Price:  Essay on the Picturesque, As Compared With The Sublime and The Beautiful; and on the Use of Studying Pictures, for the Purpose of Improving Real Landscape (London: Robson, 1796) p.82

[32] Malcolm, Andrews, The Search for the Picturesque (England, 1989) p.50

[33] Ibid.

[34] here he refers to rotten trees, crumbling plaster, tattered clothes -neither of which in Author’s opinion would cause revulsion however this might be in comparison to the standards that were set by the Neoclassical mainframe and his lordly tastes as seen in R.P.Knight, An Analytical Inquiry In to the Principles of Taste, 4.ed., (London, 1806) p.73

[35] What these would contribute to the overall effects on the senses is subject matter for the third essay- imperfection, obscurity, incongruous

[36] Zoë Kinsley, ‘Dorothy Richardson’s Manuscript Travel Journals (1761-1801) and the Possibilities of Picturesque Aesthetics’, The Review of English Studies, New Series, 56, no. 226 (2005): p. 625

[37] Thomas,Whatley, Observations on modern gardening, 4th edition (London, 1772) p.131

[38] David, Watkin, ‘Soane and the Picturesque: The Philosophy of Association’, in The Picturesque in late Georgian England, ed. Dana Arnold (London, 1994) p.44

[39] [39] Malcolm, Andrews, The Search for the Picturesque (England, 1989) p.36

[40] The observer with a “picturesque eye” prefers “the elegant relics of ancient architecture; the ruined tower, the Gothic arch, the remains of castles, and abbeys” (TE, 2: 5-8; 46) -three essays, essay 2?

[41] Kames’ Elements of Criticism: p446 ‘ruin Gothic or Grecian form: gothic because it represents the triumph of time over strength; a melancholy, but not unpleasant thought: a Grecian (447) triumph of barbarity over taste, a gloomy and discouraging thought

[42] John, Ruskin, On Art and Life (London, 2004) p.3

[43] based on the commonly accepted structure that the European Enlightenment was carried forward by two primary camps, the Liberal and the Radical. The Liberal representing the Rococo in France and the Academic/Neoclassical in Italy and England whilst the Radical represented the Romantic Movement across all parts of Europe. The British Picturesque emerged as a brainchild of this Romantic Movement whereby philosophies aimed to reinstate the power of chaos and creativity of Nature over the previous Rational approach and belief in Man as dominant over Nature.It is no surprise that religions such as Deism were on the increase as a result of such philosophical enquiries

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