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Landscape: From the Picturesque to the Industrial

The Landscape: From the Picturesque to the Industrial is one of the rare concepts to be concerned exclusively with the visual, at least in its origins, and as such it has run afoul of broader moral, political and social considerations. It was defined as ‘suitable to be the subject of a picture’, and during the second half of the 18th century it became, thanks to the artist and writer William Gilpin, a hugely popular idea and an essential tool in the appreciation of landscape and the objects within it. His writings about the picturesque culminated in his Three Essays (1792), aimed as much at the traveller as at the artist. Gilpin explained that “picturesque taste” valued specific qualities in vistas and objects. These qualities are distinct from both the Sublime and the Beautiful, which Edmund Burke had famously described in his Philosophical Enquiry (1757). For Burke, the emotional effects of the Sublime - terror and awe – provoked by great natural spectacles, by disasters such as avalanches, by mighty clamour or pitch darkness are rooted in the need for self-preservation; the human subject is overwhelmed by the experience and cannot rationalise the Sublime. The Beautiful, by contrast, is related to the rational human needs of love and enjoyment. Gilpin’s argument was that neither lends itself naturally to pictorial representation. The Picturesque is closer if anything to the Sublime, but differs crucially in that its interests lie in the specific characteristics of the elements of a scene and in objects, rather than in the overall effect. Gilpin contrasted “picturesque beauty” with the “beautiful”: against the soft, smooth and emollient features of the latter he pitched the rough, broken, ruined, wild. Whole categories of objects became “picturesque” – rugged hillsides (as opposed to smooth glades and valleys), heaths and rutted tracks, ruins, ragged children, carthorses and banditti. These are not imbued with the psychological charge of Burke’s Sublime and beautiful, but are valued purely for their visual effect. The minute discrimination between types of objects that became part of fashionable taste was one of the reasons the Romantic poet William Wordsworth so disliked the Picturesque. In The Prelude, he characterised its adherents as: even in pleasure pleased unworthily, disliking here, there liking, by rules of mimic art transferred to things above all art. (1909:109-112) While there is no single explanation for why the Picturesque became so popular, it is no coincidence that this phenomenon gained pace as the Industrial Revolution began to transform the landscape. The new factories and the accompanying urban developments altered people’s sense of their surroundings. Suddenly it was the wild places – the Scottish Highlands, the Welsh Mountains, the Lake District – that exerted a special pull. Such places resisted the march of civilisation and seemed to incarnate nature as its opposite. At the same time, paradoxically, scenes of industry came to be seen as sublime, and industrial features and objects received the same treatment as the cottages and carthorses of the Picturesque. To paraphrase Arthur Elton (1938): Romance once flourished in woods and trees, with shepherds and shepherdesses. In the nineteenth century, Romance left Arcady and ended in a railway station. DA