Monday, July 16, 2012

Gilpin on the Picturesque II: Picturesque Travel

Gilpin's theory of the picturesque is not merely confined to a discussion of the concept of picturesque. That account, according to Gilpin in the Three Essays, is a matter of "assigning causes" (TE 41); Gilpin's major concern with it is simply to establish the basic idea of the picturesque and note the difficulty of pinning down the picturesque, as principle, with precision. In some ways the most important and influential part of his theory of the picturesque lies in what Gilpin calls "searching after effects" and the particular method he espouses for it, namely, picturesque travel, which Gilpin puts forward as a way to make travel itself a rational occupation. And what is picturesque travel? As he puts it in his Observations on the River Wye, it is "examining the face of a country by the rules of picturesque beauty; opening the sources of those pleasures which are derived from the comparison" (ORW 1).

The object of picturesque travel is, according to Gilpin, the discovery of every sort of beauty, whether of art or of nature, that can be found in the world, but chiefly, of course, the picturesque:

This great object we pursue through the scenery of nature. We seek it among all the ingredients of landscape---trees---rocks---broken grounds---woods---rivers---lakes---plains---vallies---mountains---and distances. These objects in themselves produce infinite variety. No two rocks, or trees are exactly the same. They are varied, a second time, by combination; and almost as much, a third time, by different lights, and shades, and other aerial effects. Sometimes we find among them an exhibition of a whole; but oftener we find only beautiful parts. (TE 41)

There is more here than might immediately meet the eye, and, in fact, it is notable that several of Gilpin's Observations on various parts of Britain tend to break down their analyses of different landscapes in more or less this way. The characteristic note of the picturesque, distinguishing it from other kinds of beauty, is roughness or, as we might call it, differentiation. Here we see the landscape analyzed in terms of layers of differentiation: first, there is the differentiation we find between individual "ingredients of landscape"; second, there is the differentiation of how these individual ingredients are situated with respect to each other; third, there is the differentiation cause by light and other effects that change how the individual ingredients appear. Gilpin goes on to warn that the picturesque is not primarily found in the curious or peculiar, but in the most usual forms of nature, because the picturesque is not synonymous with what we might call 'striking at first glance'; rather, the quality of the picturesque that grabs the eye is something enduring, something that continues to attract the eye. It's not, in other words, mere differentiation, but differentiation attractive in itself. He insists on this, I think, because the picturesque is a kind of beauty in the broad sense, and beauty in the broad sense is not found in mere variety, but in a variety unified. It is the unity of differentiations, the harmony of different kinds of roughness, that makes the picturesque scene.

Having identified the object of picturesque travel, Gilpin identifies the the things that make picturesque travel a form of rational enjoyment. He notes that some people could be led by the picturesque to contemplate the higher beauties of divinity and virtue, but that this is not really intrinsic to the way picturesque travel is structured. He does insist, however, that picturesque travel does have something of a moral tendency insofar as it involves a rational enjoyment, and thus provides an alternative to activities that are devoted to frivolous pleasures. The elements of picturesque travel that allow for this structure of rational enjoyment are:

(1) The pursuit of the picturesque. The picturesque traveller faces the landscape adventurously; it is a source of unlimited new varieties. We saw this above with the paassage on the object of the travel: there are endless varieties and combinations of varieties capable of being picturesque. Thus picturesque travel involves a form of agreeable suspense, or as we would say, openness; as the hunter faces the world that carries the possibility of game at every corner, so the picturesque traveller faces a world that carries the possibility of picturesque scene at every step.

(2a) The attainment of the picturesque. When we find a picturesque scene, it doesn't merely strike the mind. The picturesque traveller will identify the ingredients of the landscape, the subtle differentiations that make it picturesque. This is actually the reason for the mention of parts and wholes in the above passage. Sometimes on discovering something picturesque we admire the composition, the overall lighting and shading; this is to contemplate it under the idea of the whole, or in a comprehensive view. More often we simply look at specific ingredients, capable of participating in such a whole even if they do not, in which case we look at what makes these ingredients picturesque, what is missing from the whole, how the defect of the overall composition could be remedied, and so forth. We also look at how it compares with other things, such as works of art, great paintings, and other natural scenes. Thus a great part of picturesque travel is analysis, but it is not a mere analysis of the scenery; rather, it is an analysis of the scenery in light of the notion of the picturesque, "by the rules of picturesque beauty," and uses the concepts and methods of the painter, sketch artist, and like, to engage actively with the scene. A scene in which we find the picturesque only partially is as much a matter for the mind to analyze as a scene in which we find it fully. Where we find the picturesque in full, we examine it; where we find the picturesque only in part, we complete it. That is to say, the analysis involved in picturesque travel is not merely a factual analysis, devoted to what we find; it is also a counterfactual analysis, devoted to what could have been. And in both respects it is not merely reductive, breaking the scene or ingredient down to its elements, but also comparative, juxtaposing it with other scenes or ingredients.

(2b) The highest pleasure of picturesque travel derives not from analysis, however, but from the overwhelming scene. Sometimes, even if a scene fails to be a perfect example of the picturesque, it nonetheless rises before us and drives thought away. Our mind is blown open, so to speak, by an enthusiasm; the scene is, as we say, lovely beyond words, and the natural response here is not analysis but simply to be impressed. One of hte distinctions Gilpin will make between nature and artists as sources of the picturesque, is that nature in some ways exceeds what any artist can do. The apparent defects of natural picturesque may well be due simply to the fact that natural picturesque is on a scale exceeding anything a painter could ever accomplish; and the sheer variety of picturesque found in nature is beyond the capacity of any artist to imitate. As Gilpin notes, every artist is in some ways forced to be a mannerist: "Each has his particular mode of forming particular objects" (ORW 34-35). But nature forms particular objects in every way, shape, and form imaginable. Thus there is always a capacity for richness of picturesque in nature that goes beyond human capability.

(3) The enlargement and correction our experience. Picturesque travel is not merely an occasion for thought, it is a learning experience. We discover new ways the world can be, and as a result we can become in a sense "more learned in nature" (TE 50), getting, as we say, a better feel for how the natural world works. Although Gilpin doesn't develop this point in his essay on picturesque travel, this connects his theory of the picturesque with the more general theories of taste that were common in the period. One of the major concerns of such theories was how to cultivate good taste, and they almost all agree on the importance of a wide and varied experience, which we can then use to be fine discriminations and coherent judgments.

This is also related to Gilpin's notion of seeing the natural world correctly. As he notes elsewhere, "A country should be seen often to be seen correctly; it should be seen also in various seasons; different circumstances make such changes in the same landscape as give it wholly a new aspect" (ORW vii-viii). As noted above, every artist is forced by human limitation to be a mannerist to some extent, but to the extent that an artist has a familiarity with the richness of nature, we find that the artist is able to rise above it, or at least make it so that it is not a defect.

(4a) The representation of the picturesque. A secondary pleasure arises from recollecting and recording, or, I suppose, recording and recollecting, the picturesque that we have discovered, by sketching the landscapes we have seen. This is another way in which picturesque travel is distinguished by its active character from merely riding around and admiring the view.

(4b) A related pleasure arises from using our experience of the picturesque to create "scenes of fancy" (TE 52), by which we select with good taste the features of the picturesque we have known and compose them in an act of creation.

It is important, I think, to emphasize the fact that 'picturesque travel' is not merely travel that happens to involve some appreciation of natural beauties. Rather, the whole character of it is devoted to the discovery, appreciation, and recording of the picturesque. It is not mere sight-seeing, it is in a sense a philosophical method for the study of the picturesque, a kind of aesthetic expedition to be the aesthetic counterpart for the scientific expeditions of the natural historian. And it is perhaps this, more than anything else, that caught the imagination of Gilpin's contemporaries. Gilpin's accounts of his own picturesque travels were widely read and used as guidebooks, as people began to engage in their own picturesque travels, and it is this fashion for picturesque travel that led Gilpin's theory of the picturesque to have the influence it did.

We have not completely covered Gilpin's theory of the picturesque, however, because, as we can see from the last source of enjoyment in picturesque travel, a great part of Gilpin's approach to the picturesque is devoted to recording the picturesque. This occurs in two forms, written observations on the scene, and landscape sketching. We will look at those in the next post in the series.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.