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.

Martin Parr

Martin Parr (born 1952) trained in photography at Manchester Polytechnic.

Described in the past as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite  photographer, Parr caused a stir when he tried to join

Magnum Photos. The issue was one of integrity. Photographers within Magnum’s ranks guarded their territory jealously and felt that the work that Parr offered was voyeuristic, titillating and
meaningless. Parr was eventually accepted at Magnum in 1994 and went on to become one of the leading authorities on photography in the UK.

Parr has an ability to turn the snapshot into art. There is however something of the satirical about this work – many of the images raise a smile. Parr worked mainly in colour and his approach was to over-light with fill-in flash, causing a frozen moment in time to be even more false yet far more real.  His work is quirky and opportunistic. He makes no bones about the latter; invited to an event, he takes the opportunity to produce images that will lead to further projects. His approach is direct. He doesn’t ask permission and if someone sees that he is photographing them he will continue on the basis that it’s his job to photograph them, record their reaction, etc. The characteristic Parr style is still there 30 years on.

Listen to Martin Parr talking about his images and practice:

 

Parr has produced a wide range of work.

  • Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton (1986). One of his first
    major colour pieces.This style was to become synonymous with Parr and his ability to create from the ordinary. The little girl could be the focus of the image but the boy is also interesting. The car and the lighthouse are both essential to the composition.
  • A recent project in the suburbs of Paris depicts ordinary
    life within a diverse, mainly immigrant, community.
  • St Moritz series shows the rich at play in a way that only people who work there would normally get to see.
  • Luxury – a recent Martin Parr project where he looks at the rich and their pastimes.

The Parrworld (2008) show exhibited some of Parr’s extensive collection of kitsch souvenirs and other disparate paraphernalia: a watches with pictures of Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, bubblegum pop pin-up wallpaper. He compares photography to collecting: the world is out there for the having.

Parr has edited three volumes of his collections of postcards:

  • Boring Postcards (1999)
  • Boring Postcards USA (2000)
  • Langweilige Postkarten (2001).

The subjects within Boring Postcards are what we judge to be mundane or prosaic, such as motorways, service stations, tower blocks, school and other modernist municipal buildings – structures that we take for granted and might even consider to be ‘eyesores’. They weren’t necessarily photographed for their beauty in any traditional sense, but because of their novelty value as photographic subjects. [Many of the images in the UK edition are attributed to the Frith photographic company.] They are in fact often quite unusual and remarkably intriguing.

 Exercise: Getting the Parr ‘feel’

For this exercise, photograph people engaged in a fun or social activity outdoors. For example, you could go to a seaside resort and photograph people having a good time. Or photograph people at an outdoor party or function. Try to capture the Martin Parr ‘feel’.
Use your camera flash or a flash gun to balance the daylight. You need to take light readings from the ambient light and then set the flash gun to produce a small amount of flash – not enough to turn the scene into night – running the camera at a slower speed than the flash would normally synch at.
Getting the flash /ambient light balance right is the key to the technical side of the whole look.
This is the camera’s reaction under normal circumstances. A slower shutter speed than the recommended flash setting may help a lot.
This will work very differently for a range of cameras and you may need individual support and advice for this relative to your personal camera equipment.
Produce a set of eight colour images. Ensure that the colour is bright and reflects the nature of Martin Parr’s work. How does this lighting effect change the nature of your images? Make
some notes in your learning log.

Francis Frith

Francis Frith postcards website

edited from Wikipedia article

Francis Frith Images

Francis Frith  (1822 –1898) was an English photographer of the Middle East and many towns in the United Kingdom. Frith was born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire.  In 1850 he started a photographic studio in Liverpool, known as Frith & Hayward. A successful grocer, and later, printer, Frith fostered an interest in photography, becoming a founding member of the Liverpool Photographic Society in 1853. Frith sold his companies in 1855 in order to dedicate himself entirely to photography.

Frith was “recorded” as a Quaker minister in 1872 (at this time there were little more than 250 recorded ministers in England and Wales). He served on numerous committees, and frequently spoke in favour of pacifism and abstinence.  In 1884, he published (with William Pollard and William Turner) A Reasonable Faith, a highly controversial pamphlet which challenged evangelical orthodoxy by questioning the factuality of the Bible. Francis Frith and his co-authors who began the liberalisation of the Quaker movement and paved the way for the philanthropic and educational reforms for which the movement is well known today.

Middle East Travels

He journeyed to the Middle East on three occasions, the first of which was a trip to Egypt in 1856 with very large cameras (16″ x 20″). He used the collodion process, a major technical achievement in hot and dusty conditions.

During his travels he noted that tourists were the main consumers of the views of Italy, but armchair travellers bought scenes from other parts of the world in the hope of obtaining a true record, “far beyond anything that is in the power of the most accomplished artist to transfer to his canvas.” These words express the ambitious goal that Frith set for himself when he departed on his first trip to the Nile Valley in 1856.

Restored albumen print of the Suez Canal at Ismailia, c. 1860

The Hypaethral Temple, Philae, by Francis Frith, 1857; from the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland

 

He also made two other trips before 1860, extending his photo-taking to Palestine and Syria.

In addition to photography, he also kept a journal during his travels elaborating on the difficulties of the trip, commenting on the “smothering little tent” and the collodion fizzing – boiling up over the glass. Frith also noticed the compositional problems regarding the point of view from the camera. According to Frith, “the difficulty of getting a view satisfactorily in the camera: foregrounds are especially perverse; distance too near or too far; the falling away of the ground; the intervention of some brick wall or other common object… Oh what pictures we would make if we could command our point of views.” An image he took known as the “Approach to Philae” is just one example which elaborates his ability to find refreshing photographic solutions to these problems. (cited from “A World History of Photography”)

Survey of Britain and Francis Frith & Co. 

When he had finished his travels in the Middle East in 1859, he opened the firm of Francis Frith & Co. in Reigate, Surrey, as the world’s first specialist photographic and postcard publisher, a firm that became one of the largest photographic studios in the world. In 1860, he married Mary Ann Rosling (sister of Alfred Rosling, the first treasurer of the Photographic Society).

The same year he embarked upon a colossal project—to photograph every city, town and village in the United Kingdom; in particular, notable historical or interesting sights. Initially he took the photographs himself, but as success came, he hired people to help him. Frith’s ‘views’ were predominantly of places with social or historical significance but also included a great number of more mundane but equally valuable street scenes.

Frith died in Cannes, France at his villa on 25 February 1898.

The ten-part BBC series Britain’s First Photo Album, presented by John Sergeant, was first shown on BBC2 in March 2012 and takes a look at the history of Francis Frith’s pioneering photographic work. A 320 page book also entitled Britain’s First Photo Album has been published. The Frith and Co. brand continues today, and it’s possible to purchase prints and other merchandise from the online store.

Graham Clark (1997, p.73) remarks:
“… the landscape photograph implies the act of looking as a privileged observer so that, in one sense, the photographer of landscapes is always the tourist, and invariably the outsider. Francis Frith’s images of Egypt, for example, for all their concern with foreign lands, retain the perspective of an Englishman looking out over the land. Above all, landscape photography insists on the land as spectacle and involves an element of pleasure.”

 

The Tourist Perspective

Before photography landscapes for mass market were available as etchings. Postcards were invented in the late 19th Century – objectifying places into commodities that could be consumed and collected for a reasonable price. People often collected postcards of places they could never travel to. By the 1870s Americans could buy photographic prints of faraway places in their local shop or mail order (Snyder in Mitchell, 2002 p179 q Alexander 2013 p89). Stereoscopic cards also became available. In order to create the 3D illusion these reinforced traditional views of separation of landscape focal planes into foreground, middle ground and background.

See posts:

More recently, with the development of mass tourism since the 1950s, postcards were mass produced as souvenirs of places people visited and to send home ‘Wish You Were Here’. The main emphasis is on enjoyment and selling particular places as destinations that yet more tourists will want to come. They include very cheaply produced and printed cards, sometimes with landscape as the backdrop to humorous pictures of people enjoying – or making fools of – themselves. Some are also ‘boring’ both in subject matter and treatment – and in this way become quite intriguing.

There are also more expensive quality up-market colour images of sunsets, buildings and landscapes – particularly in more ‘exclusive’ destinations. Some of these follow ‘picturesque’ convention. Others seek to distinguish themselves from other postcards on the rack or nearby shopd by seeking new angles and composition. Some use new ways of digital processing that avoid earlier oversaturation and try to interprete views in a novel way for a more ‘discerning’ customer.

Increasingly, standard photographic postcards produced by local photographers seem to be giving way to artists’ cards and a trend for self-processing where people produce cards from their own images so they can record their own personal impressions.

 3.2: Postcard views

Origins of the Picturesque and aesthetic consumerism

In the second half of the eighteenth century, definitions of types of landscape or view, seen from an aesthetic or artistic point of view distinguished between:

  • the sublime (awesome sights such as great mountains)
  • the beautiful, the most peaceful, even pretty sights.

See discussion in Part 1 Beauty and the Sublime

In between came the picturesque, views seen as being artistic but containing ‘pleasing’ elements of wildness or irregularity. Together with Gothic and Celticism it became part of the romantic aesthetic of the growing numbers of leisured middle classes.  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 who flooded areas like the Lake District sketched or painted using Claude Glasses  or used the camera lucida.

The word picturesque, meaning literally “in the manner of a picture; fit to be made into a picture”, was a word used as early as 1703 (Oxford English Dictionary), and derived from an Italian term pittoresco, “in the manner of a painter”. Prime examples are French landscape painters like Claude Lorrain. 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) and proposed a number of “principles of picturesque beauty”. 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 advocating more organic shapes to views and structures such as follies and grottos.

After 1815 when Europeans were able to travel again after the wars, Italy became a favourite destination for picturesque-hunters and artists. This reinforced ideas of the ‘picturesque’ in the sense of a view that has been ‘perfectly’ composed according to compositional and perspective theories (eg leading lines, golden mean) that were key developments in art in Renaissance Italy). Grand theories of wild natural beauty gave way to the tamer and more commercialised picturesque of the mid 19th century using these broad principles. These ideas also underlie standard compositional prescriptions in many books and magazine articles on techniques of landscape photography today.

See Posts:

Gilpin’s theory of the picturesque

Francis Frith’s poscards.

and weblinks:

Susan Sontag describes this commercialisation of the picturesque as ‘aesthetic consumerism’ (Sontag, 1977, p.24). As Malcolm Andrews (1999) remarks, there is “something of the big-game hunter in these tourists, boasting of their encounters with savage landscapes, ‘capturing’ wild scenes, and ‘fixing’ them as pictorial trophies in order to sell them or hang them up in frames on their drawing room walls”. They ignore the complex social, political and economic interests and conflicts between classes, conservation and industrialisation, commercial interests and local people, those living and working in the countryside and those who simply enjoy it for leisure or regard it as part of their heritage.

Fay Godwin suggests that ignoring the different interests and conflicts exacerbates polarisation of interests between users of the countryside: “I am wary of picturesque pictures. I get satiated with looking at postcards in local newsagents and at the picture books that are on sale, many of which don’t bear any relation to my own experience of the place… The problem for me about these picturesque pictures, which proliferate all over the place, is that they are a very soft warm blanket of sentiment, which covers everybody’s idea about the countryside… It idealises the country in a very unreal way.”
(Fay Godwin 1986 South Bank Show Produced and directed by Hilary Chadwick, London Weekend Television quoted Alexander 2013 p84.)

 3.1: Reflecting on the picturesque

Going beyond the picturesque requires thinking very carefully about what one is trying to say about ‘landscape’ and why. It also raises aesthetic challenges about how to communicate this in terms of following or subverting conventional theories of composition and the likely interpretation by different viewers.

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.