A new language
Because his readers were learning to connect with natural landscapes by appraising them like paintings (and often by actually sketching them), Gilpin’s guides were couched in the technical language of art. He writes of composition, middle tints, near-distance and offscapes, and his books are peppered with italicised terms, always meticulously defined. “In a distance, the ruling character is tenderness, which on a fore-ground gives way to what the painter calls force and richness. Force arises from a violent opposition of colour, light, and shade: richness consists in a variety of parts, and glowing tints.”
Gilpin was almost comically finicky about correct composition in a landscape. Insufficiently dilapidated ruins were “disgusting”; a jarring line or colour was a “deformity”; a mountain that was shaped too much like something man-made was deemed “grotesque”. The effect of Gilpin’s waspish language is considerably heightened by the fact that the letters ‘s’ and ‘f’ look very alike in books printed in the 1700s, lending the text a Pythonesque shrillness that rather suits it. It’s difficult to read his condemnation of (ill-proportioned) Scandinavian mountains as “maffef of hideouf rudeneff” without cracking a smile.
Gilpin was clear that such deficiencies in nature were “not a subject for the pencil; [and] should be relinquished”. Or in other words, edited out. Trees should be planted or removed at the artist’s discretion, ill-formed hillocks should be broken open, and intrusive cottages “thrown down”. Those with enough money sometimes even bought the landscapes themselves so they could make such alterations in real life.
As a concept, the picturesque is gloriously paradoxical. You aim to allow nature its full, unfettered glory by tampering with it to make it fit a set of aesthetic rules. All the same, people were mad for it.
As high society packed their paint boxes and directed their carriages northwards, they needed a more useful travel guide than Gilpin’s Observations, which were decidedly light on practical information.
Enter another priest, Thomas West, who in 1776 published A Guide to the Lakes. West was a dab hand at packaging up the picturesque for the mass market. Not only did his guide contain helpful travel advice, but he also devised a network of ‘viewing stations’, where visiting aesthetes could enjoy curated vistas.