So What Was the Picturesque?

Chepstow Museum presents an afternoon of illustrated talks by leading authorities exploring this big idea that influenced art and artists in the late 18th century

At The Drill Hall, Lower Church St in Chepstow on Sunday 12 October 2pm

To book places contact Chepstow Museum 01291 625981

If the word picturesque is used today it’s probably to describe something almost quaint, charming, postcard pretty, but it’s certainly not a word that’s heard a lot. That would have been far from the case just over two hundred years ago, when it was a word regularly on the lips of men and women in society. So much so that the Pursuit of the Picturesque became a whole reason to set off on travels, that in those days were uncomfortable, expensive and even dangerous.

Picturesque still has something of the original meaning it had then – ‘that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture’ as William Gilpin put it. The Reverend William Gilpin, clergyman, schoolmaster, writer and artist, can be credited with inventing the Picturesque and popularising it. And his book “Observations on the River Wye etc relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty…” published in 1783 set about defining it and laying out the rules for judging the picturesque qualities of a view. It gave readers a language to use when describing scenery and a way of assessing whether or not it was ‘picturesque’. It was immensely popular and did a huge amount to popularise the Wye Tour, the two day boat trip from Ross to Chepstow which Gilpin had taken in 1770 and which he described in terms of his Picturesque theory. Tourists followed in his wake, searching out the views and assessing them for themselves in his words, and using his rules to make their drawings. Gilpin went on to publish tours of other parts of the country and the fashion for travelling in pursuit of the picturesque was born.

Brockweir by William Payne 1792 from collections of Chepstow Museum

So nature was assessed in terms of art, and artists in turn created new works of landscapes in line with these ideas. Large gardens and whole landscapes were created around great houses that followed the rules of the Picturesque.

But Gilpin’s ideas still left room for further definition and theorising about what was and was not Picturesque. The debate was taken up by two Herefordshire landowners, Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight. So the Wye and Herefordshire and these three men and their theories played a central role in the development of these ideas.

Edward Dayes, Tintern Abbey & the River Wye, 1794, Whitworth Art Gallery, The University of Manchester

Discover the men and exactly what these theories were that changed the way that people looked at nature over 200 years ago, and the legacy that they left.. The word Picturesque will take on a new meaning, understanding it opens the way to seeing the world as the late 18th century saw it, and why art, poetry, architecture and gardens were made in its mould. And how its influence continues to be felt.  You’ll understand why you seem to instinctively ‘frame’ a view when you take a photograph.

Chepstow Museum is holding an afternoon of illustrated talks on Sunday October 12 at the Drill Hall, Chepstow with experts in the Picturesque and the men behind it including Malcolm Andrews, Emeritus Professor School of English at the University of Kent and author of The Search for the Picturesque and Landscape and Western Art, and Professor Charles Watkins author of Uvedale Price, Decoding the Picturesque.


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