William Gilpin, Jane Austen and the picturesque

I was introduced to William Gilpin by Jane Austen. Well, not by her so much as by her brother, Henry, who told us* that she was “enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque at a very early age”.

Engraving of Rev. William Gilpin.

William Gilpin (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, No. 231, August, 1869.Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

This month my local Jane Austen group decided to look a little more deeply at Gilpin, his Picturesque, and what Jane Austen really thought. William Gilpin (1724-1804) was an English vicar, schoolteacher, prolific writer and amateur painter. He is remembered primarily for his theory of “the picturesque”. The “picturesque”, according to my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, dates back to 1703 with the meaning, “in the manner of a picture; fit to be made into a picture”. In his Essay on Prints (1768), Gilpin defined it as “… a term expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture”.

The blogger at Austenonly has written an excellent post on Jane Austen and Gilpin in which she proposes – and my group here agreed with her – that Austen was enamoured of him because he appealed to her sense of the ridiculous. He expresses his opinions so dogmatically, he is so opinionated, that she can’t help mocking him. How could she not satirise a man who seriously suggests (“Essay 1: On Picturesque Beauty”, Three Essays) that, when it comes to a portrait, “the highest form of picturesque beauty” is not “the lovely face of youth smiling with all its sweet dimpling charms” but “the patriarchal head” with its “lines of wisdom and experience … the rough edges of age”. Being a woman of a certain age, I rather like Mr Gilpin! But, seriously, is it really a matter of either/or?

Or someone who writes (in the same essay):

A piece of Palladian architecture may be elegant in the last degree. The proportion of its parts — the propriety of its ornaments — and the symmetry of the whole, may be highly pleasing. But if we introduce it in a picture, it immediately becomes a formal object, and ceases to please. Should we wish to give it picturesque beauty, we must, use the mallet, instead of the chisel : we must beat down one half of it, deface the other, and throw the mutilated members around in heaps. In short, from a smooth building we must turn it into a rough ruin. No painter, who had the choice of the two objects, would hesitate a moment.

We must presume that he is not speaking literally when he suggests taking a mallet to a pleasing building in order to make it picturesque! But Jane Austen is sure to have laughed and, as you’ll read in Austenonly’s post, there are many examples in Austen’s novels, particularly Pride and prejudice, Sense and sensibility and Northanger Abbey, in which she satirises the picturesque.

On the other hand, there are also places where she seems to exhibit an appreciation and understanding of Gilpin’s theory because, while Gilpin could be dogmatic, he also argued convincingly for a seeing nature with “a picturesque eye”. He writes in “Essay 2: On Picturesque Travel” about enjoying “the great works of nature, in her simplest and purest stile, open to inexhaustible springs of amusement”, and says

Nor is there in travelling a greater pleasure, than when a scene of grandeur bursts unexpectedly upon the eye, accompanied with some accidental circumstance of the atmosphere, which harmonises with it, and gives it double value.

I’ll illustrate this with two examples of travellers in Austen. First is her description of Fanny’s return to from Portsmouth in Mansfield Park:

Her eye fell everywhere on lawns and plantations of the freshest green; and the trees, though not fully clothed, were in that delightful state when farther beauty is known to be at hand, and when, while much is actually given to the sight, more yet remains for the imagination.

There is also a lovely, similarly genuine, description of the environs of Lyme in Persuasion in which she writes of a “sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rocks among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide …”

The question that comes to mind then is whether she is satrising the picturesque or slavish adherence to it or, even perhaps, its somewhat slippery nature. In fact, Jane Austen, landscape and the Regency is a pretty inexhaustible topic. And so, while I thoroughly enjoyed my brief introduction to Mr Gilpin, I’d love to find time to read more, particularly his travel writings about various parts of the British Isles. Meanwhile, I can’t resist leaving you with another Gilpin satirist, William Combe (1741-1823), who in 1809, as Dr Syntax, wrote the poem “The Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque”. It starts with

I’ll make a tour – and then I’ll write it.
You well know what my pen can do,
And I’ll employ my pencil too:-
I’ll ride and write, and sketch and print,
And thus create a real mint;
I’ll prose it here, I’ll verse it there,
And picturesque it everywhere.
I’ll do what all have done before;
I think I shall – and somewhat more.
At Doctor Pompous give a look;
He made his fortune by a book:
And if my volume does not beat it,
When I return, I’ll fry and eat it.

What a hoot …

* in his biographical note to the posthumously published first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion

4 thoughts on “William Gilpin, Jane Austen and the picturesque

  1. Gilpin sounds like quite a character! Perhaps Austen separated Gilpin from his theory and appreciated his concept of the picturesque while finding delight in satirizing the kind of person Gilpin was? Will be interested to hear what you discover in your further investigations!

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