Monday, September 03, 2012

Gilpin on the Picturesque V: Austen's Engagement with Picturesque Theory (II)

In order to get some understanding of how Austen's engagement with picturesque theory contributes to Mansfield Park, it's useful to grasp some of the basic ideas in what became known as the Picturesque Debate.

During the eighteenth century, there came to be a shift in the gardening tastes of the upper classes in England; previously, gardens had been laid out in a very French way, but the eighteenth century sees the development of a distinctively English approach to gardening and making grounds beautiful. The most eminent eighteenth-century gardener in this style was Lancelot Brown, usually known as Capability; Capability Brown specialized in developing gardens that were less formally laid out than French gardens. This style originally arose in part by blending French and Chinese approaches to gardening; French gardens in the seventeenth century were very geometrical and orderly, whereas Chinese gardens tended to be much more irregular in order to suggest that natural world. Brown's designs which were hugely popular and influential, were more structured than Chinese gardens, but like Chinese gardens they were designed to look like they were naturally occurring -- gently rolling hills rather than all flat lawns, lakes rather than regular-shaped ponds, groves rather than rows of trees, and so forth. It was all made to look a bit like the English countryside, but gentler, more orderly, and without defects. It was inevitable that this increased taste for, and new style of gardening, should interact with the theory of picturesque beauty put forward by Gilpin, since even long before Gilpin the association between the views of painting and the views made possible by gardeners had been recognized; and we find the culmination of this in three people: Repton, Price, and Knight.

Capability Brown saw himself as an architect; others tended to regard him as just a gardener. It is to Humphry Repton that we owe the notion of a landscape design as a field to itself; in trying to characterize accurately what he did, he hit upon the professional title of 'landscape gardener', which would distinguish him from ordinary gardeners. The word 'landscape' in this context is certainly due to picturesque theory; while Repton was not a slavish follower of Gilpin's ideas, he had read Gilpin quite closely. Unlike Brown, who basically designed everything himself, Repton put himself forward as a consultant, and so mostly did things piecemeal. Most of his designs were never fully put into effect. However, he was hugely important in making landscape gardening recognizable and distinctly reputable, not merely as an appendage of architecture or as a high sort of gardening, but as a luxury art in its own right. Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight, who were neighbors and friends, were more passionate amateurs in landscape gardening rather than professionals like Repton. Price, however, wrote a book, published in 1794, An Essay on the Picturesque, As Compared With The Sublime and The Beautiful, in which he attempts to extend and develop Gilpin's ideas. Knight also wrote an essay on the subject, An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste, published in 1805, in which he takes Gilpin and Price and attempts to correct them and give an underlying a better underlying aesthetic psychology -- as we might call it -- than he thought either of them had given. Of the three Price is probably the most consistently Gilpinesque, while Knight's aesthetic theory shows clear indications of Romanticism, with a much greater interest in the sheer wildness of nature, and Repton's is heavily affected by his practical experience as a consultant.

The point of contention in the Picturesque Dispute, which occurred throughout the 1790s, was over Brown's style of landscaping, and over the question of just how much the field of landscape gardening needed to conform to the basic principles of picturesque theory. Price and Knight saw Brown's landscape as too 'smooth', not 'rough' enough. In a sense, Repton did, too, but unlike Price and Knight, he saw himself as following in Brown's footsteps, improving on his approach, but not absolutely rejecting it. Thus Repton tended to defend Brown from attack. One of Repton's most controversial claims was that the art of lanscape gardening and the art of painting were radically different (in part because a painter gives only one view, whereas a landscape gardener must give many, and in part because a landscape gardener, unlike a painter, must also keep utility in mind). Thus picturesque theory, however important as a source of ideas, could not serve as a complete template for landscape gardening; at the very least, the landscape gardener must make practical concessions to the fact that gardens are not just to be seen but also used. Price and Knight saw this as as Repton taking sides with Brown and against Gilpin and argued against it, although not on exactly the same principles, since Price's approach is a more sophisticated version of picturesque theory, and Knight's a deliberately simplified and reorganized version. They saw Repton's claim as oxymoronic; the 'landscape' in 'landscape gardening' is a painter's term applied to gardening only given a theory of the picturesque. However, given how beholden Repton is himself to Gilpin, and given that none of the figures involved in the Picturesque Debate were entirely clear about what was wrong with the positions put forward by the others, it is not so clear, and, in fact, even at the time it was often thought that none of the people involved in the Debate had much of an idea of what the disagreement was. Nonetheless, the dispute helped to popularize and develop ideas about landscape gardening. Aesthetics is often treated as an impractical area of philosophy, but in fact history repeatedly shows that it is one of the areas of philosophy that interacts extensively with practical and social concerns, and the course of picturesque theory, from Gilpin to the landscape gardeners he influenced, is merely one very striking example of this.

The details of the dispute aren't particularly essential for our purposes here; but for those who are interested there is a good summary of the issues in a Master's thesis by Dorothy Dyck, which is available online. Suffice it to say that Austen was familiar with the dispute; she had certainly read Repton and Price as well as Gilpin, and it has been argued variously that she is satirizing some of Price's views in Northanger Abbey and that she suggests greater sympathy with Price than Repton in Mansfield Park. Which of these, if either (or both), is true, I cannot say; I think both need more study. Nonetheless there are clear indications of references to the dispute throughout Mansfield Park. The novel is heavily concerned with the issue of improvement -- the word occurs in one form or another quite often throughout the book -- both aesthetic and ethical. We see, in other words, a wide variety of approaches to improvement, a wide variety of objects of improvement, and, indeed, a wide variety of different passions for improvement. In the day, however, a passion for 'improving' would have been associated with the growing craze for landscape gardening: the landscape gardener would 'improve' the landscape. This is brought up explicitly in Chapter VI, where Repton (who was still alive) is mentioned by name:

"I wish you could see Compton," said he; "it is the most complete thing! I never saw a place so altered in my life. I told Smith I did not know where I was. The approach now, is one of the finest things in the country: you see the house in the most surprising manner. I declare, when I got back to Sotherton yesterday, it looked like a prison—quite a dismal old prison."

"Oh, for shame!" cried Mrs. Norris. "A prison indeed? Sotherton Court is the noblest old place in the world."

"It wants improvement, ma'am, beyond anything. I never saw a place that wanted so much improvement in my life; and it is so forlorn that I do not know what can be done with it."

"No wonder that Mr. Rushworth should think so at present," said Mrs. Grant to Mrs. Norris, with a smile; "but depend upon it, Sotherton will have every improvement in time which his heart can desire."

"I must try to do something with it," said Mr. Rushworth, "but I do not know what. I hope I shall have some good friend to help me."

"Your best friend upon such an occasion," said Miss Bertram calmly, "would be Mr. Repton, I imagine."

"That is what I was thinking of. As he has done so well by Smith, I think I had better have him at once. His terms are five guineas a day."

The passage continues, of course; this is only a sample. One of the things we find in the novel is that of all the characters it is Fanny Price who has the best sense of the picturesque; while people like the Henry Crawford and Mr. Rushworth are interested in developing picturesque landscapes for gardens, they have no interest in the picturesque as such. For them it is either a symbol of social status or else just something to do. It is only Fanny who genuinely appreciates a picturesque scene. Others regularly show that despite their nominal interest in the subject they actually do not appreciate it for itself, but for something else that they get out of it. And this, of course, tells us a great deal aobut their sort of 'improvement', and throughout Mansfield Park differences in aesthetic improvement are linked to differences in moral improvement.

Much more could be said on the subject, but I want to move on to Pride and Prejudice, which in structural terms depends crucially on Gilpin's accounts of the picturesque. It has long been known that there are references to Gilpin in Pride and Prejudice; the most famous of these is this passage:

"I did not know that you intended to walk," said Miss Bingley, in some confusion, lest they had been overheard.

"You used us abominably ill," answered Mrs. Hurst, "running away without telling us that you were coming out."

Then, taking the disengaged arm of Mr. Darcy, she left Elizabeth to walk by herself. The path just admitted three. Mr. Darcy felt their rudeness and immediately said, –

"This walk is not wide enough for our party. We had better go into the avenue."

But Elizabeth, who had not the least inclination to remain with them, laughingly answered, –

"No, no; stay where you are. You are charmingly grouped, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth. Good-bye."

This is a more stinging put-down than it might seem; the reference is to Gilpin's rule for sketching cattle into your scene. He insists that three make the best grouping; two are usually not enough, and if there are more than three, you have to detach it from the others or it will throw off the composition of the scene.

This reference to the picturesque is not at random. Much later in the book, Elizabeth goes on a trip with her aunt and uncle. Austen gives us their itinerary:

It is not the object of this work to give a description of Derbyshire, nor of any of the remarkable places through which their route thither lay: Oxford, Blenheim, Warwick, Kenelworth, Birmingham, etc., are sufficiently known.

We also know that they were intending to go to the Lakes, because Elizabeth is disappointed when the plan gets changed and they have to stop at Derbyshire. Elizabeth has certainly been reading Gilpin's Observations on Several Parts of England, Particularly the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty. It is in this very book that we find Gilpin's reflections on the picturesque value of cattle; it is in this book that we find mention of Derbyshire spar, to which Elizabeth also at one point alludes; we also find the very itinerary given above. Elizabeth and the Gardiners are on a picturesque tour. This brings them to Darcy's estate, Pemberley, precisely because it is famous for its grounds, and thus is the sort of thing you would visit on a picturesque tour. And Elizabeth's initial reaction is precisely in such terms:

The park was very large, and contained great variety of ground. They entered it in one of its lowest points, and drove for some time through a beautiful wood stretching over a wide extent.

Elizabeth's mind was too full for conversation, but she saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view. They gradually ascended for half-a-mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!

This last thought is sometimes read as being a bit mercenary, and certainly Austen is not squeamish about noting the importance of material wealth for a young woman. However, I think this is a misreading, and we see this when we put it into its proper context: Elizabeth's reaction here is not mercenary but aesthetic. It is the picturesqueness, not the wealth, of Pemberley that draws her. And to the extent that it reflects on Darcy himself, what Elizabeth comes to appreciate from her tour of Pemberley is not his wealth -- she already had known his extraordinary wealth -- but his good taste. It is this that is repeatedly emphasized.

The ending of the tour in Derbyshire, with, in effect, Pemberley and Darcy himself, is somewhat ironic. When the plan had originally been proposed to her, Elizabeth had seized on it as a way to get away from men:

No scheme could have been more agreeable to Elizabeth, and her acceptance of the invitation was most ready and grateful. "Oh, my dear, dear aunt," she rapturously cried, "what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are young men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers."

And, of course, what she fines is that young men can be picturesque, too. But it's a different kind of picturesque, not a merely aesthetic one, such as one might use for cattle, but also moral, and it is the human picturesque that she discovers at the end of her picturesque tour.

This suggests something, I think, about the way in which Austen interacts with picturesque theory in her works. It is put rather nicely by A. Walton Litz in a nice talk discussing the subject:

I would contend that Elizabeth Bennet’s education in Pride and Prejudice involves a movement from the "surface-picturesque" to the "moral picturesque." Her early prejudiced behavior is marked by a witty arrangement of people and ideas, a playing with emotional effects for aesthetic ends. She misunderstands Darcy’s inner nature because she is so delighted with surfaces, and enjoys seeing the world in artistic terms. She journeys to Derbyshire and the peak expecting to find Gilpin’s picturesque delights, but finds instead a house and grounds that embody what can only be called moral values. It has often been remarked that the description of Pemberley which opens Book Three is covertly a description of Darcy: the landscape foreshadows the startling discoveries of the next few pages....The difference between this landscape, filtered through the consciousness of Elizabeth Bennet, and the surface-picturesque of Gilpin tells us how far Elizabeth and her creator have come in their journeys toward maturity. The "picturesque moment" of Jane Austen’s youth has not been discarded; rather, it has been absorbed into a more complex and responsible view of life and art.

This sort of interplay between picturesque as a purely aesthetic concept and picturesque as also ethical is virtually inevitable in the context of literature; the phrase "moral picturesque," for instance, comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was alluding to picturesque theory in an attempt to characterize his own literary works, and he and Austen are far from being the only ones to recognize that there are definite -- even if not always straightforward -- connections between the picturesque and the task of a novelist or poet in depicting the inner lives and characters of people.

It is, of course, worth bearing in mind that I am in none of this suggesting that Austen's works are somehow complete treatises on the picturesque; they are, of course, novels, and in the context of a novel, the standard is plausibility, not demonstration or even probability. But plausibility is the appropriate standard for exploring concepts, their limits, and their possible extensions, and this is precisely what Austen does with the picturesque throughout her novels.

And that, I think, is enough for now on Gilpin's theory of the picturesque. Obviously there is much more that could be discussed -- our discussion of the theory was mostly at the general level, without looking at a lot of Gilpin's particular claims about particular matters, and we did not, for instance, do more than scratch the surface of the Picturesque Debate. But I think what we have done is seen how significant the theory was.


  1. Clown: Did you never see the picture of We Three?
    Toby: Welcome, ass.

    Have you come across, in your research, any indications of how Gilpin, Repton, and co. were received or implemented in the New World?

  2. Echo apparently doesn't like Uncle Toby.

    I hadn't looked in particular, but from what I understand, for most practical purposes the idea of landscape gardening was introduced to the United States by Andrew Jackson Downing's A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (first published in the early 1840s), and Downing was adapting from British works on the subject. Google has the book online and Downing has an entire chapter on the picturesque. I haven't read it closely, but he certainly mentions Gilpin, and at least refers to the dispute between Repton and Price, and has at least a footnote to Knight.

    Downing seems quite interesting; I thought the following short essay by him was notable:

    On the Moral Influence of Good Houses

  3. Ah, thank you. I'm looking forward to perusing these.


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.