Inventing the sublime

As far as Rev Gilpin was concerned, he would have to rearrange Nature in his sketchbook until she became, in his approving term, “Picturesque”

Kathryn Hughes

In the 1780s William Gilpin, the clergyman-turned-landscape artist, fell out with Nature. She—Nature was always a She—just wasn’t pretty enough: “either the foreground, or the background, is disproportioned . . . or a tree is ill-placed . . . or something or other is not exactly what it should be,” he grumbled. As far as Rev Gilpin was concerned, he would have to rearrange Nature in his sketchbook until she became, in his approving term, “Picturesque”. Gilpin’s rules were strict—three cows in a picture was picturesque, four was not—but they were hugely popular with a new generation of amateur artists hungry for instruction. For the next 30 years, wherever you looked in the English countryside, you would see a well-dressed young man or woman earnestly drawing a view that didn’t quite exist.

In this deftly written and beautifully illustrated book, art historian Susan Owens mines the fruitful seam between writing about and painting the British landscape. As well as showing us the art of Gainsborough, Turner and Hepworth, she delves deep into the literature of Chaucer, Daniel Defoe and W.G. Sebald. Jane Austen is there too. In Northanger Abbey (1818), the naïve heroine Catherine Morland is overwhelmed by the way her sophisticated new friend Henry Tilney (another vicar) knows all about Gilpin’s principles. When surveying the city of Bath from the top of a nearby hill, Tilney doesn’t gush over the impressive architecture as Catherine had expected. Instead, he embarks on a lecture about “fore-grounds, distances and second distances” to the point where the young heroine feels obliged to prove her picturesque credentials by airily dismissing “the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape”.

In this way, Owens suggests, the British landscape has always been formed as much by human culture as by rock strata and rainfall. For example, Britain’s mountainous regions were regarded as an eyesore for centuries. Daniel Defoe, writing of his travels around the country at the beginning of the 18th century, was positively frightened of them while his contemporary Celia Fiennes thought they were dull and got in the way of more pleasant views. But both Defoe and Fiennes were essentially writing as economic surveyors, which meant that they inevitably regarded the agriculture of the stony uplands as thin and poor compared with the richly fertile meadows of southern and central England.

What eventually put British mountains on the artistic and literary map was a wider shudder in the political weather. From the end of the 18th-century revolution abroad and industrialisation at home meant that it was no longer possible to believe in a timeless England of tranquil meadows and full harvests. A new authentic spirit was abroad and mountains, with their bleak refusal to bow to man’s control, were the perfect symbol of the incoming age. A new generation of painters, including Thomas Girtin, didn’t merely revel in all those peaks and ravines, but skewed the perspective until the spectator felt as if they were themselves on the point of tumbling into the gorge below.

Here was Nature at her most “Sublime”—the word which replaced “Picturesque” as the highest compliment you could bestow on a painting. In literature too there was a matching mood. A generation of young poets, including Coleridge and Wordsworth, were busy forging a new relationship with the natural world that was based on personal response and close observation rather than generic phrase-making. Owens is particularly fond of Coleridge, whose descriptions of the Lake District, with its “splashy, mossy paths” and “raspberry & milk coloured crags” set English nature writing on its present numinous course. It is a way of looking, and feeling, that we still value today in the work of such exquisite writers as Robert Macfarlane, Helen Macdonald and Kathleen Jamie. 

But the pendulum never stayed still for long. Landscape was—indeed is—as subject to fashions as men’s wigs or women’s hooped skirts. In one of the best sections of the book Owens deals with the work of John Constable. A hundred years earlier Rev Gilpin had shuddered when he visited the Fens, which he regarded not just as uninteresting but as sluggish, fetid and downright repulsive. Constable, by contrast, looked at the East Anglian landscape through the appreciative eyes of a native: “Old rotten Banks, slimy posts and brickwork. I love such things.” As the son of a wealthy miller, he was comfortable with the signs of the incoming industrial world in a way that made previous painters reach for an eraser: while Gilpin looked for romantic ruins and brooding oaks, Constable saw boat building, cauldrons of boiling pitch, and muscled agricultural labourers. And it is Susan Owens’s ability to honour such different views without feeling the need to elevate one over another or to explain away their differences that makes her guide to the British landscape such a delight.


Spirit of Place: Artists, Writers and the British Landscape
By Susan Owens
Thames & Hudson, 352pp, £25

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