Gilpin’s Theory of the Picturesque

Gilpin’s Essay on Prints (1768) defined picturesque as “a term expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture” (p. xii).  Gilpin began to expound his “principles of picturesque beauty”, based largely on his knowledge of landscape painting. During the late 1760s and 1770s Gilpin travelled extensively in the summer holidays and applied these principles to the landscapes he saw, committing his thoughts and spontaneous sketches to notebooks. William Gilpin’s work was a direct challenge to the ideology of the well established Grand Tour, showing how an exploration of rural Britain could compete with classically oriented tours of the Continent. The irregular, anti-classical, ruins became sought after sights.

Gilpin’s views were articulated particularly in his guide to Observations on the River Wye 1770:

“We travel for various purposes – to explore the culture of soils, to view the curiosities of art, to survey the beauties of nature, and to learn the manners of men, their different politics, and modes of life. The following little work proposes a new object of pursuit; that of examining the face of the country by the rules of picturesque beauty; opening the sources of those pleasures which are derived from the comparison.”introduction (Gilpin, [1782] 2005, p.17)

While Gilpin allowed that nature was good at producing textures and colours, it was rarely capable of creating the perfect composition. Some extra help from the artist, perhaps in the form of a carefully placed tree, was usually required.

‘Nature is always great in design; but unequal in composition…Nature gives us the material of landscape: woods, rivers, trees, lakes, ground, and mountains; but leaves us to work them up into pictures, as our fancy leads…I am so attached to my picturesque rules, that if nature gets it wrong, I cannot help putting her right…the picture is not so much the ultimate end, as it is the medium, through which the ravishing scenes of nature are excited in the imagination.’

Gilpin’s work on watercolour technique emphasised both texture and composition were important in a “correctly picturesque” scene:

  • The texture should be “rough”, “intricate”, “varied”, or “broken”, without obvious straight lines.
  • The composition should work as a unified whole, incorporating several elements: a dark “foreground” with a “front screen” or “side screens”, a brighter middle “distance”, and at least one further, less distinctly depicted, “distance”.
  • A ruined abbey or castle would add “consequence”.
  • A low viewpoint, which tended to emphasise the “sublime”, was always preferable to a prospect from on high.

In contrast to other contemporary travel writers, such as Thomas Pennant, Gilpin included little history, and few facts or anecdotes. He described ways that the scenes could be improved upon, according to his vision of picturesque beauty. He directed readers to the specific spots he believed would yield the most picturesque vantage point of a given location.

Although he came in for criticism and satire eg in Jane Austen, Gilpin’s views were very influential in painting and related media, and particularly  garden design, encouraging landscape architects to introduce more organic shapes to views and structures such as follies and grottos. Others, most notably Richard Payne Knight, Uvedale Price (1794  An Essay on the Picturesque as Compared with the Sublime and Beautiful) and Thomas Johnes, developed Gilpin’s ideas into more comprehensive theories of the picturesque and apply these more generally to landscape design and architecture.

Improved road communications and travel restrictions on continental Europe saw an explosion of British domestic tourism in the 1780s and 1790s. Many of these picturesque tourists were intent on sketching, or at least discussing what they saw in terms of landscape painting. Some sketched freehand the scenes Gilpin described, and others employed the camera lucida – the precursor to the compact camera – as an aid to responding visually to Gilpin’s picturesque descriptions.  Gilpin’s works were the ideal companions for this new generation of travellers; they were written specifically for that market and never intended as comprehensive travel guides.

Gilpin asked: “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?”. The little brown ‘viewpoints’ icons on Ordnance Survey maps are a legacy of Gilpin.

Lake District photographers

Photographers found from a Google Search on Lake District Photography.

Brian Kerr

These ones are my favourites from the search. Particularly the misty lakes and sunsets are beautiful. Colours have been altered but not over contrasty or just standard use of warm up filters. The images are very sharp. Subjects are often placed centrally using wide angle lens, instead of conventionally on rule of thirds. Probably done with a medium or large format camera?

Matthew Priestley

A photographer from Manchester who goes out fell walking with colleagues a few times a year. He uses a digital compact because of its portability and processes in Photoshop and Lightroom. He produces images focusing particularly on plays of light. Some of the views are very appealing, but the images are less sharp and sometimes over-contrasty. Possibly because of the use of a compact camera.

Dave Lawrence

These are picturesque postcard images, rather than beautiful.   Slow shutter speed waterfalls. Zig zag compositions of walls on dale hillsides with sheep. Blue lilac colours, and free use of warm up filters. Pretty touristy and unnatural colours.

He is really strong on marketing with dowloadable screensavers. Photobox Pro Galleries. Zazzle for other merchandise eg mugs. Greetings Cards. Red Bubble for calendars etc.

Heart of the lakes photography holidays website has a lot of rather standard sunny, but rather washed out panoramas of Castlerigg and well-known vantage points.

Fay Godwin

Fay Godwin (17 February 1931 – 27 May 2005) was a British photographer known for her black-and-white landscapes of the British countryside and coast.

Official website

British Library archive:  including approximately 11,000 exhibition prints, the entire contents of her studio, and correspondence with some of her subjects.

Google images

 detailed overview of her work from her books still to be done

Landscape

 

Rebecca the Lurcher (1973)

The Oldest Road: An Exploration of the Ridgeway (1975), co-authored with J.R.L. Anderson—working mainly in the landscape tradition she aimed to communicate the sense of ecological crisis present in late 1970s and 1980s England.

Remains of Elmet: A Pennine Sequence (1979, with Ted Hughes). Hughes called the 1994 Elmet the “definitive” edition. Godwin also said, in a 2001 interview, that this was the book she would like to be most remembered for.

Land (1985, with John Fowles and designed by Ken Garland) described by The Guardian art critic Ian Jeffrey  the “book for which she will be most remembered”. What sets Land apart is the care that Fay gave to the combining and sequencing of its pictures. Working with contact prints on a board, she put together a picture of Britain as ancient terrain—stony, windswept and generally worn down by the elements….[a work] in the neo-romantic tradition…[that] gives an oddly desolate account of Britain, as if reporting on a long abandoned country.  A retrospective book, Landmarks, was published by Dewi Lewis in 2002.

Glassworks & Secret Lives (1999) She also began taking close-ups of natural forms. A major exhibition of that work was toured by Warwick Arts Centre from 1995 to 1997  Glassworks & Secret Lives (ISBN 0953454517) is Godwin’s self-published  small book of that work  which was distributed from a small local bookshop in her adopted hometown of Hastings in East Sussex.

Our Forbidden Land

 Portraiture

Through her husband, Godwin was introduced to the London literary scene. She produced portraits of dozens of well-known writers, photographing almost every significant literary figure in 1970s and 1980s England, as well as numerous visiting foreign authors. Her subjects, typically photographed in the sitters’ own homes, included Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Saul Bellow, Angela Carter, Margaret Drabble, Günter Grass, Ted Hughes, Clive James, Philip Larkin, Doris Lessing, Edna O’Brien, Anthony Powell, Salman Rushdie, Jean Rhys, and Tom Stoppard.

Life

1931 Born Berlin, Germany, father a British diplomat, mother an American artist, Stella MacLean. Educated at various schools all over the world.

1958 Settled down to live in London.

1961 married publisher Tony Godwin; the couple had two sons, Jeremy and Nicholas.

 

1966 Became interested in photography through photographing her young children. No training.

“ My way into photography was through family snaps in the mid-1960s. I had no formal training, but after the snaps came portraits, reportage, and finally, through my love of walking, landscape photography, all in black and white. A Fellowship with the National Museum of Photography in Bradford led to urban landscape in colour, and very personal close-up work in colour has followed. ”
—Fay Godwin, ca. 2000,

 

1975 Publication of first co-author book, The Oldest Road, with writer J.R.L. Anderson. Exhibitions from the series toured nationally.

1978 Recipient of major award from Arts Council of Great Britain to continue landscape work in British Isles, much of which is included in Land.

1984 Start of British Councils overseas tour of Landscape Photographs.

1985 Publication of Land. Major exhibition of Land at the Serpentine Gallery, London.

1986 South Bank Show their first full-length documentary to feature a photographer.

1986/7 Fellow at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, Bradford.

1987/90 President of the Ramblers’ Association, UK. Then life vice president. “long-running right-to-roam campaign was turned up to the full-strength pressure which ultimately resulted in the access provisions enshrined in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.”

1990 Awarded Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society.

1990 six week lecture and workshop tour of New Zealand.

In the 1990s she was offered a Fellowship at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (now the National Media Museum) in Bradford, which pushed her work in the direction of colour and urban documentary.

 

Major retrospective at the Barbican Centre in London 2001, with accompanying publication, Landmarks.

Honorary Doctotorate of Arts at De Montfort University, 2002.

Godwin was less active in her final years; in a December 2004 interview for Practical Photography, she blamed “the NHS. They ruined my life by using some drugs with adverse affects that wrecked my heart. The result is that I haven’t the energy to walk very far.”

 

Died, May 2005 aged 74.

No Man’s Land – Fay Godwin’s last interview, from ePHOTOzine.com

 

Fay Godwin is a familiar name in British landscape photography, celebrated for her critical approach to the landscape genre (see Part Three) and for being one of the most successful female photographers of the twentieth century. Like Pollard, Godwin had – albeit in a very different way – a strained relationship with the British landscape. Whilst she was clearly quite at home trekking around the more remote parts of the countryside (e.g. the Lake District, Forest of Dean), throughout the 1970s and 80s Godwin became increasingly concerned with the degree to which access to the land was becoming restricted. She allied herself with the Ramblers Association, becoming president in 1987. Fences, wire and cautionary signposts (some polite and others less so) are familiar motifs within Godwin’s photographs. Her image Stonehenge Summer Solstice (1988), in which the stones are obscured by barbed wire more typical of a military base than a heritage site, is a visual expression of the frustration she felt at being unable to gain access to the site to make a more considered set of images than a few snapshots (see Taylor, 1994, pp.276–83). Like John Davies and others, Godwin paid careful attention to light conditions and ordered her compositions along traditional, pictorial conventions, which is one of the reasons why her photographs have remained so appealing. This stealth tactic allows the viewer to be taken in by the aesthetics of the image; once the viewer is engaged, Godwin is able to pose more challenging questions about the landscape.

Listen to Fay Godwin on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 2002.