The Picturesque Movement

There were two types of landscape painters in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain; topographical artists (photographers today) and picturesque artists who produced romantic and sublime paintings.

Tintern Abbey by William Havell 1804

At this time ‘Picturesque’ meant literally, a scene which would make a painting, but it came to be used outside the context of art and painting, having a major influence on garden design, landscape fashions and ornamental walks. Designers were encouraged to think like artists, especially when planning ‘enhancements’ to the landscape on country estates such as Piercefield, one of the most famous landscape parks in eighteenth century Wales and a highlight of the Wye Tour.

Gilpin was a pioneer in the appreciation of landscape in Britain and his ideas had a lasting effect on the way we came to view the landscape. He developed a set of rules for the Picturesque movement:

… the most perfect river-views are composed of four grand parts: the area, which is the river itself; the two side-screens, which are the opposite banks, and lead the perspective; and the front-screen, which points out the winding of the river….. They are varied by… the contrast of the screens….the folding of the side-screen over each other……the ornaments of the Wye…. ground, wood, rocks, and buildings..and colour”.

William Gilpin, Observations on the River Wye, 1770 / 1782

Travellers in search of the Picturesque had some essential items in their luggage, which were deemed necessary to control the untamed landscapes they encountered! A piece of tinted glass, called a Claude Glass, a pedometer, a telescope, a barometer, maps, memorandum books, tour journals, sketch books, drawing pads, a watercolour set, pens and pencils, and a pocket edition of William Cowper’s poems were the essential requisites for a tour.

The Claude Glass was a convex mirror about four inches wide on a black foil. It miniaturized the reflected landscape, so that detail was lost except in the foreground, thereby helping painters to simplify what they saw. Many tourists used the glasses to manipulate the landscape: a sunrise glass when used at midday gave a dawn view! As Gilpin wrote, Picturesque practice always involved some ‘improvement’ of the landscape.

%d bloggers like this: