From Essays on the Picturesque 1794

The actual consolidation of picturesque theory took place in the 1790s and was tackled by three individuals: a landscape architect and two exceptional writers. The gardener was Humphry Repton, a disciple of Brown; the two promulgators of picturesque theory were Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight.

Price was the first to put his ideas into print and his three-volume study is not only monumental in size but also in ambition, as he seeks to elevate the notion of the picturesque to an aesthetic category equal to the headings of the beautiful and the sublime. In this regard this book follows directly upon Burke's A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, of which Price was a keen admirer. And Price, like his mentor, was a parliamentarian, a man of enormous wealth, and a classical scholar. He was also a lover of art and possessed an especial affinity for the landscape paintings of Claude Lorraine, Nicolas Poussin, and Jean-Antoine Watteau. What is more, Price attempted to put his picturesque theories into practice on his own estate - Foxley - in Herefordshire, where he allowed a certain ''neatness'' only in those areas surrounding the house.

In spirit, Essays on the Picturesque is closer to the natural and rough picturesque sensibilities of Gilpin than to the more refined garden tradition that had evolved from the hands of Capability Brown, who had died in 1783. Price is in fact highly critical of the tradition of Brown because he feels that his formulaic use of serpentine driveways, walks, and ponds was not only monotonous but also substituted an artificial informality for the earlier formality of geometric designs. Price prefers nature untamed - trees with natural undergrowth and accidental effects. The following passages are from chapters 3 and 4 of the first volume, where Price first compares the idea of the picturesque with Burke's conception of the beautiful and the sublime. Price wants to posit the picturesque as a

Uvedale Price (1747-1829), from Essays on the Picturesque, as Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful, Vol. I (1794). J. Mawman, 1810, pp. 43-53, 87-92.

middle ''station between beauty and sublimity.'' The (anticlassical) association of the picturesque with ruins and with Gothic architecture also falls in with a trend that was hastening the Gothic Revival in Britain.

The principles of those two leading characters in nature, the sublime and the beautiful, have been fully illustrated and discriminated by a great master; but even when I first read that most original work, I felt that there were numberless objects which give great delight to the eye, and yet differ as widely from the beautiful, as from the sublime. The reflections which I have since been led to make, have convinced me that these objects form a distinct class, and belong to what may properly be called the picturesque.

That term, as we may judge from its etymology, is applied only to objects of sight; and indeed in so confined a manner, as to be supposed merely to have a reference to the art from which it is named. I am well convinced, however, that the name and reference only are limited and uncertain, and that the qualities which make objects picturesque, are not only as distinct as those which make them beautiful or sublime, but are equally extended to all our sensations by whatever organs they are received; and that music (though it appears like a solecism) may be as truly picturesque, according to the general principles of picturesqueness, as it may be beautiful or sublime, according to those of beauty or sublimity.

But there is one circumstance particularly adverse to this part of my essay; I mean the manifest derivation of the word picturesque. The Italian pittoresco is, I imagine, of earlier date than either the English or the French word, the latter of which, pittoresque, is clearly taken from it, having, no analogy to its own tongue. Pittoresco is derived, not like picturesque, from the thing painted, but from the painter; and this difference is not wholly immaterial. The English word refers to the performance, and the objects most suited to it: the Italian and French words have a reference to the turn of mind common to painters; who, from the constant habit of examining all the peculiar effects and combinations, as well as the general appearance of nature, are struck with numberless circumstances, even where they are incapable of being represented, to which an unpractised eye pays little or no attention. The English word naturally draws the reader's mind towards pictures; and from that partial and confined view of the subject, what is in truth only an illustration of picturesqueness, becomes the foundation of it. The words sublime and beautiful have not the same etymological reference to any one visible art, and therefore are applied to objects of the other senses: sublime indeed, in the language from which it is taken, and in its plain sense, means high, and therefore, perhaps, in strictness, should relate to objects of sight only; yet we no more scruple to call one of Handel's chorusses sublime, than Corelli's famous pastorale beautiful. But should any person simply, and without any qualifying expressions, call a capricious movement of Scarlatti or Haydn picturesque, he would, with great reason, be laughed at, for it is not a term applied to sounds; yet such a movement, from its sudden, unexpected, and abrupt transitions, - from a certain playful wildness of character and appearance of irregularity, is no less analogous to similar scenery in nature, than the concerto or the chorus, to what is grand or beautiful to the eye.

There is, indeed, a general harmony and correspondence in all our sensations when they arise from similar causes, though they affect us by means of different senses; and these causes, as Mr. Burke has admirably pointed out, can never be so clearly ascertained when we confine our observations to one sense only.

I must here observe, and I wish the reader to keep it in his mind, that the inquiry is not in what sense certain words are used in the best authors, still less what is their common, and vulgar use, and abuse; but whether there be certain qualities, which uniformly produce the same effects in all visible objects, and, according to the same analogy, in objects of hearing and of all the other senses; and which qualities, though frequently blended and united with others in the same object or set of objects, may be separated from them, and assigned to the class to which they belong.

If it can be shewn that a character composed of these qualities, and distinct from all others, does universally prevail; if it can be traced in the different objects of art and of nature, and appears consistent throughout, - it surely deserves a distinct title; but with respect to the real ground of inquiry, it matters little whether such a character, or the set of objects belonging to it, be called beautiful, sublime, or picturesque, or by any other name, or by no name at all.

Beauty is so much the most enchanting and popular quality, that it is often applied as the highest commendation to whatever gives us pleasure, or raises our admiration, be the cause what it will. Mr. Burke has given several instances of these ill-judged applications, and of the confusion of ideas which result from them; but there is nothing more ill-judged, or more likely to create confusion, if we at all agree with Mr. Burke in his idea of beauty, than the mode which prevails of joining together two words of a different, and in some respects of an opposite meaning, and calling the character by the title of Picturesque Beauty.

I must observe, however, that I by no means object to the expression itself; I only object to it as a general term for the character, and as comprehending every kind of scenery, and every set of objects which look well in a picture. That is the sense, as far as I have observed, in which it is very commonly used; consequently, an old hovel, an old cart horse, or an old woman, are often, in that sense, full of picturesque beauty; and certainly the application of the last term to such objects, must tend to confuse our ideas: but were the expression restrained to those objects only, in which the picturesque and the beautiful are mixed together, and so mixed, that the result, according to common apprehension, is beautiful; and were it never used when the picturesque (as it no less frequently happens) is mixed solely with what is terrible, ugly, or deformed, I should highly approve of the expression, and wish for more distinctions of the same kind.

In reality, the picturesque not only differs from the beautiful in those qualities which Mr. Burke has so justly ascribed to it, but arises from qualities the most diametrically opposite.

According to Mr. Burke, one of the most essential qualities of beauty is smoothness: now as the perfection of smoothness is absolute equality and uniformity of surface, wherever that prevails there can be but little variety or intricacy; as, for instance, in smooth level banks, on a small, or in open downs, on a large scale. Another essential quality of beauty is gradual variation; that is (to make use of Mr. Burke's expression) where the lines do not vary in a sudden and broken manner, and where there is no sudden protuberance: it requires but little reflection to perceive, that the exclusion of all but flowing lines cannot promote variety; and that sudden protuberances, and lines that cross each other in a sudden and broken manner, are among the most fruitful causes of intricacy.

I am therefore persuaded, that the two opposite qualities of roughness,1 and of sudden variation, joined to that of irregularity, are the most efficient causes of the picturesque.

This, I think, will appear very clearly, if we take a view of those objects, both natural and artificial, that are allowed to be picturesque, and compare them with those which are as generally allowed to be beautiful.

A temple or palace of Grecian architecture in its perfect entire state, and with its surface and colour smooth and even, either in painting or reality is beautiful; in ruin it is picturesque. Observe the process by which time, the great author of such changes, converts a beautiful object into a picturesque one. First, by means of weather stains, partial incrustations, mosses, &c. it at the same time takes off from the uniformity of the surface, and of the colour; that is, gives a degree of roughness, and variety of tint. Next, the various accidents of weather loosen the stones themselves; they tumble in irregular masses, upon what was perhaps smooth turf or pavement, or nicely trimmed walks and shrubberies; now mixed and overgrown with wild plants and creepers, that crawl over, and shoot among the fallen ruins. Sedums, wall-flowers, and other vegetables that bear drought, find nourishment in the decayed cement from which the stones have been detached: birds convey their food into the chinks, and yew, elder, and other berried plants project from the sides; while the ivy mantles over other parts, and crowns the top. The even, regular lines of the doors and windows are broken, and through their ivy-fringed openings is displayed in a more broken and picturesque manner [ . . . ]

Gothic architecture is generally considered as more picturesque, though less beautiful than Grecian; and upon the same principle that a ruin is more so than a new edifice. The first thing that strikes the eye in approaching any building, is the general outline, and the effect of the openings: in Grecian buildings, the general lines of the roof are strait; and even when varied and adorned by a dome or a pediment, the whole has a character of symmetry and regularity. But symmetry, which, in works of art particularly, accords with the beautiful, is in the same degree adverse to the picturesque; and among the various causes of the superior picturesqueness of ruins compared with entire buildings, the destruction of symmetry is by no means the least powerful.

In Gothic buildings, the outline of the summit presents such a variety of forms, of turrets and pinnacles, some open, some fretted and variously enriched, that even where there is an exact correspondence of parts, it is often disguised by an appearance of splendid confusion and irregularity. [ . . . ]

According to Mr. Burke, the passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended with some degree of horror: the sublime also, being founded on ideas of pain and terror, like them operates by stretching the fibres beyond their natural tone. The passion excited by beauty, is love and complacency; it acts by relaxing the fibres somewhat below their natural tone, and this is accompanied by an inward sense of melting and languor. I have heard this part of Mr. Burke's book criticized, on a supposition that pleasure is more generally produced from the fibres being stimulated, than from their being relaxed. To me it appears, that Mr. Burke is right with respect to that pleasure which is the effect of beauty, or whatever has an analogy to beauty, according to the principles he has laid down.

If we examine our feelings on a warm genial day, in a spot full of the softest beauties of nature, the fragrance of spring breathing around us - pleasure then seems to be our natural state; to be received, not sought after; it is the happiness of existing to sensations of delight only; we are unwilling to move, almost to think, and desire only to feel, to enjoy. In pursuing the same train of ideas, I may add, that the effect of the picturesque is curiosity; an effect, which, though less splendid and powerful, has a more general influence. Those who have felt the excitement produced by the intricacies of wild romantic mountainous scenes, can tell how curiosity, while it prompts us to scale every rocky promontory, to explore every new recess, by its active agency keeps the fibres to their full tone; and thus picturesqueness when mixed with either of the other characters, corrects the languor of beauty, or the tension of sublimity. But as the nature of every corrective, must be to take off from the peculiar effect of what it is to correct, so does the picturesque when united to either of the others. It is the coquetry of nature; it makes beauty more amusing, more varied, more playful, but also,

''Less winning soft, less amiably mild.''

Again, by its variety, its intricacy, its partial concealments, it excites that active curiosity which gives play to the mind, loosening those iron bonds, with which astonishment chains up its faculties.2

Where characters, however distinct in their nature, are perpetually mixed together in such various degrees and manners, it is not always easy to draw the exact line of separation: I think, however, we may conclude, that where an object, or a set of objects are without smoothness or grandeur, but from their intricacy, their sudden and irregular deviations, their variety of forms, tints, and lights and shadows, are interesting to a cultivated eye, they are simply picturesque. Such, for instance, are the rough banks that often inclose a bye-road, or a hollow lane: imagine the size of these banks, and the space between them to be increased, till the lane, becomes a deep dell; the coves, large caverns; the peeping stones, hanging rocks, so that the whole may impress an idea of awe and grandeur; - the sublime will then be mixed with the picturesque, though the scale only, not the style of the scenery would be changed. On the other hand, if parts of the banks were smooth and gently sloping; or if in the middle space the turf were soft and close-bitten; or if a gentle stream passed between them, whose clear, unbroken surface reflected all their varieties - the beautiful and the picturesque, by means of that softness and smoothness, would then be united.

I may here observe, that as softness is become a visible quality as well as smoothness, so also, from the same kind of sympathy, it is a principle of beauty in many visible objects: but as the hardest bodies are those which receive the highest polish, and consequently the highest degree of smoothness, there must be a number of objects in which smoothness and softness are for that reason incompatible. The one however is not unfrequently mistaken for the other, and I have more than once heard pictures, which were so smoothly finished that they looked like ivory, commended for their softness.

The skin of a delicate woman, is an example of softness and smoothness united; but if by art a higher polish be given to the skin, the softness, and in that case I may add the beauty, is destroyed. Fur, moss, hair, wool, &c. are comparatively rough; but they are soft, and yield to pressure, and therefore take off from the appearance of hardness, and also of edginess. A stone or rock, when polished by water, is smoother, but less soft than when covered with moss; and upon this principle, the wooded banks of a river have often a softer general effect, than the bare, shaven border of a canal. There is the same difference between the grass of a pleasureground mowed to the quick, and that of a fresh meadow; and it frequently happens, that continual mowing destroys the verdure, as well as the softness. So much does excessive attachment to one principle destroy its own ends.


1 I have followed Mr. Gilpin's example in using roughness as a general term; he observes, however, that, ''properly speaking, roughness relates only to the surface of bodies; and that when we speak of their delineation we use the word ruggedness.'' In making roughness, in this general sense, a very principal distinction between the beautiful and the picturesque, I believe I am supported by the general opinion of all who have considered the subject, as well as by Mr. Gilpin's authority.

2 This seems to be perfectly applicable to tragicomedy, and is at once its apology and condemnation. Whatever relieves the mind from a strong impression, of course weakens that impression.

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