Sunday, January 31, 2010

I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles

Talking of William Gilpin (as I was in my previous post), I remember years ago looking in vain for his books in various second hand bookshops and eventually giving up (I still don't own any).  Now it is possible to read them all online in digitised form:
I was thinking of him this week because I've been listening to Sense and Sensibility on my iPod and it includes a well-known exchange on the Picturesque.  I've mentioned Jane Austen's satire of Picturesque taste here before, but it's worth noting that, according to her brother's memoir, she was "at a very early age enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque; and she seldom changed her opinions either on books or men."  
Edward returned to them with fresh admiration of the surrounding country; in his walk to the village, he had seen many parts of the valley to advantage; and the village itself, in a much higher situation than the cottage, afforded a general view of the whole, which had exceedingly pleased him. This was a subject which ensured Marianne's attention, and she was beginning to describe her own admiration of these scenes, and to question him more minutely on the objects that had particularly struck him, when Edward interrupted her by saying, "You must not enquire too far, Marianne—remember I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give. I call it a very fine country—the hills are steep, the woods seem full of fine timber, and the valley looks comfortable and snug—with rich meadows and several neat farm houses scattered here and there. It exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unites beauty with utility—and I dare say it is a picturesque one too, because you admire it; I can easily believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush wood, but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque."


"I am afraid it is but too true," said Marianne; "but why should you boast of it?"

"I suspect," said Elinor, "that to avoid one kind of affectation, Edward here falls into another. Because he believes many people pretend to more admiration of the beauties of nature than they really feel, and is disgusted with such pretensions, he affects greater indifference and less discrimination in viewing them himself than he possesses. He is fastidious and will have an affectation of his own."

"It is very true," said Marianne, "that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Every body pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was. I detest jargon of every kind, and sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning."

"I am convinced," said Edward, "that you really feel all the delight in a fine prospect which you profess to feel. But, in return, your sister must allow me to feel no more than I profess. I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight, and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower—and a troop of tidy, happy villagers please me better than the finest banditti in the world."

Marianne looked with amazement at Edward, with compassion at her sister. Elinor only laughed.
Gilpin would have preferred banditti to happy villagers, and on aesthetic grounds favoured a landscape peopled by those not actively interfering with it.  As he wrote in his tour of the Lakes, 'in a moral view, the industrious mechanic is a more pleasing object than the loitering peasant.  But in a picturesque light it is otherwise.'

    2 comments:

    EH said...

    Great post. I need to watch that video again :).

    Landscaping said...

    Really it's a great post. It is mesmerizing and i agree with EH that i feel like watching it again.