“HIM WHO FIRST DESCRIBED WHAT PICTURESQUE BEAUTY WAS”: JANE AUSTEN AND WILLIAM GILPIN (2)

Marianne’s sensitivity to the beauty of the landscape (see post “Jane Austen and the Picturesque”) shows her feeling for the picturesque, a pre-Romantic era concept, that developed in popularity through the eighteenth century. That it is a fashionable tendency is due largely to the work of William Gilpin(1724-1804). Gilpin distinguishes picturesque beauty from natural beauty : between those which “please the eye in the natural state, and those which please from some quality, capable of being illustrated in painting.” (Essay on Picturesque Beauty). Jane Austen was once, according to her brother Henry, in his Biographical Notice to the first edition of Persuasion , “enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque”. So her early feelings are probably reflected in the enthusiasm of the young Marianne but, her similar distrust of jargon and her suspicion of affectation, would lead naturally to the kind of satirical approach of Edward. Here for instance is the kind of judgement Gilpin would make which Edward clearly has in mind:
At Fair-Mile hill, a very extensive view opened before us, but nothing can make it pleasing, as it is bounded by a hard edge. A distance should melt into the sky, or terminate in a soft and varied mountain line.” Observations on the Western Parts of England” London (1798).

Gilpin’s work, however, prepared the ground for the kind of appreciation the Romantic poets, like Wordsworth and the Lake poets, and Sir Walter Scott, would develop. Between 1782 and 1809 he wrote six books of Observations on various parts of the United Kingdom, including the Wye Valley, the Lake District and the Highlands of Scotland. Such places were becoming popular tourist sites. During the French wars following the French Revolution the Grand Tour of Europe was becoming less possible and Gilpin’s work undoubtedly developed the early attractions of holidaying in parts of the country which never before would have been found attractive. So in Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet is to go first with the Gardiners to the Lake District on holiday (before it has to be shortened and they limit themselves to Derbyshire) and in the early “Love and Friendship” one of the characters speaks of going a tour of the Scottish Highlands as a result of reading Gilpin’s Observations of 1789.(I’m grateful to Ros Ballaster for details from her Notes as editor of 2014 edition of Sense and Sensibility Penguin Classics)

In her first novel Northanger Abbey Jane Austen also combines sympathetic focus with satire of the modishness of picturesque terminology. She describes the young naive Catherine developing her education in listening to the discussion Tilney and his sister while out for a walk around Beechen Cliff,

that noble hill, whose beautiful verdure and hanging coppice render it so striking an object from almost every opening in Bath……..

The Tilneys were viewing the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing, and decide on its capability of being formed into pictures, with all the eagerness of real taste. Here Catherine was quite lost. She knew nothing of drawing-nothing of taste:- and she listened to them with an attention that brought little profit, for they talked in phrases which conveyed scarcely any idea to her. The little she did understand however appeared to contradict the very few notions she had entertained on the matter before. It seemed as if a good view were no longer to be taken from the top of an high hill, and that a clear sky was no longer proof of a fine day.

Having confessed her ignorance Henry Tilney was very ready to educate her:

a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in every thing admired by him and her attention was so earnest, that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances-side-screens and perspectives-lights and shades- and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar, that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath, as unworthy to make part of a landscape.”

Jane Austen was not the only one to satirise the work of Gilpin. William Combe brought out in “The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque” a verse narrative which was illustrated by the outstanding English caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson. Included are stanzas, like the following, presenting the ridiculed target drawing a landscape while seeking to make the picture adequately picturesque:

"  I've a right-( who dares deny it)
To place a group of asses by it.
Aye, this will do, and now I'm thinking
That self-same pond where Grizzle's drinking,
If hither brought 'twould better seem
And, truth, I'll turn it to a stream.
I'll make this flat a shaggy ridge
And o'er the water throw a bridge
I'll do as other sketchers do
Put anything into the view
And any object recollect,
To add a grace and give effect.

According to Wikipedia, the writer of the Dr. Syntax verses William Combe was a “micellaneous writer” whose “early life was that of an adventurer and his later was passed chiefly within the “rules” of the King’s Bench Prison.” So popular was his first series on Dr Syntax (1809) that two others were written. The illustrator was Thomas Rowlandson well known as a brilliant satirical painter and caricaturist and Dr Syntax is recognised to be our first cartoon character.

Yet despite his excesses the Rev William Gilpin should be remembered with respect. He was one of those doughty Anglican priests who, while ever faithful to their duties, found time for an extraordinary range of achievements. After graduating from Oxford in 1748 Gilpin worked as a teacher, becoming headmaster of Cheam School for Boys in 1755. There he was a very enlightened schoolmaster for the time, refusing to use corporal punishment and instead issuing fines for misbehaviour. He encouraged the boys in sporting activities, as well as interesting them in running school shops and looking after the school gardens. In 1777 he became vicar at Boldre in the New Forest area where he remained until his death in 1804. During his summer vacations he would carry out his tours with observations and drawings which were then published. Three essays on the Picturesque followed which along with the Observations created an enthusiasm for the subject. As well as his art works he published books of sermons and biographies of great figures in the English Church- Hugh Latimer, Wycliffe and Thomas Cranmer. All in all , he was a man who added much to the ongoing cultural and spiritual life of the nation.

Published by alan

As a retired lecturer in English Literature with the Open University I continue to run reading groups on our literary heritage. This blog seeks to interest readers in enjoying and thinking about a wide range of classic novels, plays and poems

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