Notes towards an essay?
Once upon a time Topography was regarded as unworthy in comparison with Landscape, and Landscape unworthy as regards more serious art. Johnathan Richardson, 1719:-
A History is preferable to a Landscape, Sea-piece, Animals, Fruit, Flowers, or any other Still-Life, pieces of Drollery, &c. ... the reason is ... they cannot improve the Mind, they excite no Noble Sentiments ...
Take a pinch of salt.
However, Henry Fuseli, Keeper of the Royal Academy and a Professor of Painting, early 19th century, accepted landscapes by Titian, Salvator, Poussin, Claude, Rembrandt, et al:-
... to them nature disclosed her bosom in the varied light of rising, meridian, setting suns, ...
... we tread on classic or romantic ground
But he rejected what he called views which might please their inhabitants or owners, and the antiquary:-
... but to every other eye they are little more than topography.
I notice today, that outside the fine art showrooms, and their artificially inflated prices, the owners, inhabitants, visitors, and rare antiquary, vastly outnumber the self appointed connoisseurs. In many shops of dealers in prints the topographic prints take first place, while prints from classic landscapes and other subjects are more likely found in the a pound for anything bin. Tastes evolve.
W M Thackeray wrote a preface to The Landscape Painters
of England, views engraved by Louis Mary:-
... There are no incidents in our show upon which the showman can dilate ... in most cases he has to introduce his audience to the sight of a simple and quiet landscape, over which ideal pleasure is ever the best commentary ...
The painters whose scenes are engraved include Turner, Constable, de Wint, Gainsborough ... The art world has turned around ... again?
While many topographical prints depict real places and offer some idea of how the place looked, there are caveats to their use. Some views are just idealised scenes, impossible to locate even given a clue in a caption. They never existed, and offer an insight into the artist's conception of the picturesque elements of the place. Some views are much more true, but have elements shifted about to make the scene more pleasing, or are constructed from an impossible viewpoint. Don't believe everything you are shown.
John Lewis Roget, an antiquarian writing a History of the Old Water Colour Society, 1891:-
The fact of an old topographical prints being stiff and devoid of the sensuous charm of beauty need not disentitle it to respect as a characteristic embodiment of the important features of the place or object depicted. The producers of such works were content to describe in the simple graphic language of their day the outward appearance, not only of the objects, but of the people among whom they lived, costumed as they really were, and engaged in their ordinary pursuits.
William Gilpin, while a student at Queen's College, Oxford, 1740s, developed ideas about Picturesque Beauty. His ideas are not awfully good, as an artist he wasn't very good either, but he seems to have been persuasive. His words were listened to:-
Beautiful objects please the eye in their natural state ... Picturesque object please for some quality capable of being illustrated in painting.
A circular argument if ever I saw one. Photogenic is what is capable of being photographed in a pleasing way? photography for me must accept what is there to be pictured.
Roughness forms the most essential part of the difference between the beautiful and the picturesque
A piece of palladian architecture may be elegant in the last degree ... But if we introduce it in a picture, it immediately becomes a formal object, and ceases to please ... 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 ...
Cows are commonly the most picturesque in the months of April and May, when the old hair is coming off ...
Rev Gilpin was satyrised by William Combe and Thomas Rowlandson, as Dr Syntax in the Tours of Dr Syntax.
"But as my time shall not be lost,
"I'll make a drawing of the post;
"And, tho' your flimsy tastes may flout it,
"There's something picturesque about it:
"'Tis rude and rough, without a gloss,
"And is well cover'd o'er with moss;
"And I've a right - (who dares deny it?)
"To place yon group of asses by it.
"Aye! this will do; and now I'm thinking,
"That self-same pond where Grizzle's drinking,
"If hither brought 'twould better seem,
"And faith I'll turn it to a stream;
"I'll make this flat a shaggy ridge,
"And o'er the water throw a bridge;
"I'll do as other sketchers do -
"Put any thing into the view;
"And any object recollect,
"To add a grace, and give effect,
"Thus, tho' from truth I haply err,
"The scene preserves its character.
"What man of taste my right will doubt,
"To put things in, or leave things out?
"'Tis more than right, it is a duty
"If we consider landscape beauty:-,
"He ne'er will as an artist shine,
"Who copies nature line by line;
"Who'er from nature takes a view,
"Must copy and improve it too.
"To heighten ev'ry work of art,
"Fancy should take an active part:
"Thus I (which few, I think, can boast)
"Have made a landscape of a Post.
I'd rather an abstract painting exploring form, colour and so on than this dishonest depiction of landscape. Or, an honest depiction by an eye that can see the beauty and interest for real.
John Dalton, in a Descriptive Poem addressed to Two Young Ladies at their Return from Viewing the Mines near Whitehaven, Keswick, 1753:-
Horrors like these at first alarm,
But soon with savage grandeur charm,
And raise to noblest thoughts the mind:
I view with wonder and delight
A pleasing, tho' an awful sight:
Edmund Burke, in a Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1757, claimed that beauty was smooth and gentle, sublime was terrifying, enormous and obscure. He had a graduated scale of the sublime in which astonishment is half way between respect and terror.
Thomas Love Peacock, in Nightmare Abbey, 1818, refers to the graduated scale of the sublime:-
... There must be some mistake in this, for the whole honourable band of gentlemen-pensioners has resolved unanimously, that Mr Burke was a very sublime person, particularly after he had prostituted his own soul, and betrayed his country and mankind for L1200 a year: yet he does not appear to have been a terrible personage, and certainly went off with a very small portion of human respect, though he contrived to excite, in a great degree, the astonishment of all men.
Uvedale Price make more declarations on what makes for the picturesque:-
... two opposite qualities of roughness and sudden variation, joined to that of irregularity ...
Among trees, it is not the smooth young beech, nor the fresh tender ash, but the rugged old oak, or knotty wych elm that are picturesque; nor is it necessary they should be of great bulk; it is sufficient if they are rough, mossy, with a character of age and with sudden variation in their forms ...
Sounds just like the quality of arguments in post modernism doesn't it?
Thomas Love Peacock again, in Crochet Castle, 1831:-
[Captain Fitzchrome] ... wandered despondently up and down hill for several days, passing many hours of each sitting on rocks; making, almost mechanically, sketches of waterfalls, and mountain pools; taking care, nevertheless, to be always before nightfall in a comfortable inn ...
Nature is personified; William Gilpin, in Observations on the River Wye, 1772:-
[Nature] ... works on a vast scale; and no doubt harmoniously, if her schemes could be comprehended ...
Nature is not sentient, has no schemes; though the working of natural forces is a wondrous subject of study.
William Gilpin again:-
[the artist] ... is confined to a span; and lays down his little rules, which he calls principles of picturesque beauty, merely to adapt such diminutive parts of nature's surfaces to his own eye as come within its scope. ... and may adapt the scene, adding some trees, or altering the foreground, adding figures etc to adapt it to his rules ...
A hill here, a cliff there, ...
All through the descriptions of scenes in the early guide books, Nature is personified. The raw force of events can be appreciated without ascribing wants and desires to the storm or flood or water or wind. The blind force of evolution is fascinating without incorrectly seeing planned aims and targets behind every step and change. The mechanics of weather and erosion are remarkable, but do not have intelligence.
Modern man has replaced the gentleman, and photography has replaced the sketch pad. Democracy rules; everyone makes pictures. A century ago, photography was still a specialized hobby, and still struggling to own some right to praise.
In an article in the Barnet Book of Photography, 1898, A Horsley Hinton wrote:-
First let us come to an understanding as to the term Pictorial Photography. Picture-making by photography would perhaps be a simpler phrase, but that to my mind the word 'picture-making' is too similar in idea to boot-making, lace-makig, etc., all of which imply a mechanical manufacture, whereas a picture - a real picture - like a musical composition, a poem or a beautiful thought, grows or is evolved rather than made to order.
Art photography would be a better term, but that in photography the word 'art' has so often been coupled with things the very antithesis of artistic and might hence be misleading, ...
You look at a photograph of this or that sea-side place and remark, 'Ah, yes, that's dear old Yarmouth, many a time ... ... Where's that? ... What a good photograph ...
Now, compare such feelings as these with those stirred byan example of good pictorial work. In the first place your esteem for it, if you value it at all, is quite as great whether you know the place where it was made or not. If it pleases you, that pleasure is not dependent upon the fact that it does represent some place. In the case of paintings and drawings as often as not they do not pretend to represent any place at all, but are oure fiction, yet we do not value them the less. To what then is the pleasure we feel when looking at a good picture due? Is it not that a picture stirs up, that is, creates pleasant or beautiful thoughts and ideas ...
... and eventually goes on to rules of composition, comments on the focal length of lenses, the application of different f.stops, the uses of different papers, and so on ... including:-
Ultimate success, by the way, often depends less on knowing what to take and how to take it than on a well-trained judgment which knows what is good or bad when we have taken it.
... Nature does not always present herself in pleasingly arranged masses ...
Lens were not invented for pictorial purposes, and therefore there is no reason for concluding that what the lens gives is necessarily right, ...
Eyes Open, Mind Open
It seems to be that picturesque and romantic, an idea from centuries ago, is still how we are expected to see our landscape today. I challenge that attitude. I prefer to go about with my eyes open, to be aware of what is, to appreciate and enjoy it without imposing artificial ideas of beauty, elegance, picturesque, and so on. I know I cannot escape imposing my world view to some extent; but I try to keep that under restraint.
Guide book descriptions have an attitude of competition, or at least of comparison, worrying about what scene or view is better than another. Just like the attitude of modern advertising, full of best, best, best. The tourist must look for perfection, the artist must get things just right. They must fuss about from exact station to exact station, and wish for chance figures in the foreground and correct arrangements of clouds in the background, to make a perfect picturesque view. The artist, of course, can re-arrange things a little.
Along with this attitude is the implication that other views, other places, other stations, are less worthwhile. Don't buy them; buy ours. This tacit discouragement is sad; all is worth looking at, none is perfect. Enjoy every view, be aware of every detail; even if that wide everyday awareness makes the intrusion of cars, caravans, motor boats, sailing yachts, buildings, roads signs, crowds, and litter, ... more difficult to ignore.
: 1898: Barnet Book of Photography: Elliott and Son (Barnet, Hertfordhire)
Burke, Edmund: 1757: Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful
Combe, William & Rowlandson, Thomas (illustrator):: Tours of Dr Syntax
Dalton, John: 1753: Descriptive Poem addressed to Two Young Ladies at their Return from Viewing the Mines near Whitehaven
Gilpin, William, Rev: : Essay on Picturesque Beauty
Gilpin, William: 1973 (reprint) & 1786: Observations on the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmorland: Richmond Publishihg Co (Richmond, Surrey):: illutsrated with aquatints and sktech maps of Win/Der/Ull
Mary, Louis (engraver) & Thackeray, W M (introduction):: Landscape Painters of England
Peacock, Thomas Love: 1818: Nightmare Abbey
Roget, John Lewis: 1891: History of the Old Water Colour Society
Peacock, Thomas Love: 1831: Crochet Castle
Bicknell, Peter: 1990: Picturesque Scenery of the Lake District: St Paul's Bibliographies (Winchester, Hampshire) :: ISBN 0 906795 60 5
Russell, Ronald: : Guide to British Topographical Prints: David and Charles (Newton Abvbbot, Devon):: ISBN 0 7153 7810 4