Monday, 7 November 2016

Georgian travellers: 1. Within Britain

This post is particularly indebted to the Open University unit 'Industry and Changing Landscapes' in its course A207, Enlightenment to Romanticism (2004). The Welsh Historical Monuments guide to Tintern Abbey has also been extremely useful.

From Thomas West's Guide to the Lakes (1778)

Two travellers

‘Dr Johnson had for many years given me hopes that we should go together and visit the Hebrides. Martin’s Account of those islands had impressed us with a notion that we might there contemplate a system of life almost totally different from what we had been accustomed to see; and to find simplicity and wildness, and all the circumstances of remote time or place, so near to our native great island, was an object within the reach of reasonable curiosity.’ James Boswell, The Journey of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson LLD (1784)

‘… They were obliged to give up the Lakes, and substitute a more contracted tour; and, according to the present plan, were to go no further northward than Derbyshire. In that county there was enough to be seen to occupy the chief of their three weeks [and view] all the celebrated beauties of Matlock, Chatsworth, Dovedale, or the Peak’. Pride and Prejudice (1813; written 1812)

Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and the fictional Elizabeth Bennet were part of a wider Georgian trend for travel within the British Isles.  This was made possible by the spread of disposable income, the improved condition of the roads, and the construction of more comfortable carriages. But above all, travel was growing because of a change in aesthetic preferences and a new appreciation of the British countryside.

The separate accounts Johnson and Boswell wrote of their tour of the Hebrides of 1773 were part of the growing genre of travel writing. Such works included Thomas Gray’s Journal in the Lakes (1769), and Thomas Pennant’s A Tour in Scotland And Voyage To The Hebrides 1772 (1774). 

After his tour of Scotland, Pennant
visited and wrote about his
native Wales

The curiosity to visit the wilder and more remote places of Britain was partly anthropological but increasingly it was a search for the picturesque. One travel writer above all exemplified this search.

The idea of the picturesque

At the end of Chapter 10 of Pride and Prejudice the Bingley sisters snub Elizabeth Bennet by each taking Mr Darcy’s arm for a walk, thus excluding Elizabeth from the group. An embarrassed Darcy suggests finding a wider path where all four can be included, but Elizabeth replies: 
‘No, no; stay where you are; you are charmingly grouped and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoiled by adding a fourth.’ 
She was referring to the works of the Revd. William Gilpin notably his Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales etc. relative to Picturesque Beauty; made in the Summer of the Year 1770 (1782) and Observations relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, Made in the Year 1772, in Several Parts of England; particularly the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmorland (1786). Gilpin’s books were travel guides, but also works of aesthetic theory. He was teaching people to view landscape in a certain prescribed way – to examine ‘the face of the country by the rules of picturesque beauty’ (his italics).To be pleasing a landscape had to be picturesque.

A picturesque landscape could look natural, but it was artfully ‘arranged’. It was framed by ‘side-screens’ and composed of a foreground and a background made up of various natural features such as mountains, rivers, paths, or rocky shores. The model for the picturesque was the French artist, Claude Lorrain

Claude Lorrain, 'The Roman Campagna' (1639)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public Domain

Another influence was provided by the Dutch artist, Jacob van RuisdaelDutch landscape paintings were rougher and seemed more ‘naturalistic’ than the Italian, though in fact their compositions were just as artfully designed and carefully arranged.

Jacob van Ruisdael, 'Waterfall in a mountainous landscape
with a ruined castle'.
Collection of the Marquis of Bute. Public Domain

Gilpin’s picturesque brought together the Italian ordered landscape with its gradations of distance and the variety and contrast of the Dutch style. Travellers frequently used a Claude glass to frame and colour the landscapes that they viewed according to the picturesque conventions.

Thomas Gainsborough 'Man holding a Claude Glass'
Yale Center for British Art
Public Domain

The sublime and the beautiful

The other influential writer who taught British people how to view landscape was Edmund Burkewho published his Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful in 1757. For Burke, the beautiful is small, smooth, and delicate, and its variations are gradual rather than dramatic. The sublime arouses fear, astonishment, even horror and conveys masculine strength rather than feminine softness. A landscaped park (like Stowe, for example) is beautiful, a precipitous mountain is sublime. 

Tintern Abbey

Another place that combined the picturesque, the sublime, and the beautiful, with the pleasing addition of melancholy, was Tintern Abbey in the Wye valley, described in Gilpin’s Observations on the River Wye, published in 1782 and an immediate best-seller. England and Scotland were rich in monastic ruins, and ruined abbeys, with their combination of beautiful locations, fallen masonry, and encroaching ivy were seen as especially picturesque. In the mid-eighteenth century the owner of Tintern Abbey, Charles Somerset, fourth Duke of Beaufort, took steps to curb the neglect of centuries. The ground was levelled, the fallen masonry displayed tidily around the nave and presbytery, and iron gates were put up to deter vandals. But, significantly, the ivy remained in place, as a picturesque decoration. 

An aquatint of Tintern Abbey from
William Gilpin's Observations on the River Wye (1782)

The publication of Gilpin's book created an immediate tourist location.  Travellers journeyed to Ross and then, having paid their fare, boarded small covered boats laden with picnic hampers. They brought with them copies of Gilpin and did sketches at specially provided tables.

J. W. M. Turner, 'The Crossing and Chancel, Looking
towards the East Window' (1794)
Tate Britain. Public Domain

From the mid-1790s, the war with France ruled out continental travel. This led to an influx of tourism within Britain. A new romantic generation came to the Abbey in search of the picturesque, but also something deeper.  The seventeen-year-old John Mallord William Turner came, and made the pencil sketches that were to form the raw material for a selection of watercolours subsequently exhibited at the Royal Academy. In July 1793 William and Dorothy Wordsworth came to visit, and on the homeward journey, Wordsworth composed one of his most famous poems, 'Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey'.  

The Lakes

Probably the favourite picturesque destination was the Lake District (where Elizabeth Bennet’s uncle and aunt had initially intended to take her), where the scenery was both sublime and picturesque. It was in the last third of the eighteenth century that the area became the tourist magnet that it is today. 

For the Jesuit priest, Thomas Westthe author of A Guide to the Lakes, in Cumberland, Westmorland, and Lancashire (1778), the great delight of the Lake District was that it combined ‘the soft, the rude, the romantic, and the sublime’. 
‘Such exhibitions of sublime and beautiful objects cannot but excite at once both rapture and reverence’. 

His book guided readers to various viewpoints from which they could observe the features he wished to highlight. Like Gilpin, he told people what to see and how to see it.

One of those who made the tour was the young William Wilberforce in 1779 as he neared the end of his studies at Cambridge. Like many others, he went armed with a Claude glass and West's recently published Guide to the Lakes, and was enchanted with what he saw.

The Lodore Falls near Derwentwater, visited by
William Wilberforce in 1779

Twenty years later, in December 1799 William and Dorothy Wordsworth took up residence in Dove Cottage, near Grasmere. In 1800 Wordsworth's friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge moved to Keswick. A contemporary journalist coined the term ‘the Lake poets’ to describe Wordsworth, Coleridge, and their friend Robert Southey. The Lakes had become the haunt of poets as well as tourists.

Wordsworth never completely abandoned the concept of the picturesque, but he came to have a less restrictive view of nature that owed a great deal to Burke’s ‘sublime’. Rather than judging nature, as Gilpin did, Wordsworth saw it as infused with the divine, a source of wisdom and inspiration.


  1. Travel within the British Isles was particularly popular with the Georgian public, especially during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars when journeys abroad became almost impossible.
  2. Increasingly, travellers came to beautiful parts of the country in search of the picturesque, the sublime and the beautiful.
  3. These concepts were a means of viewing and depicting landscapes through conventions inspired by Italian and Dutch painting and by the aesthetic theories of Edmund Burke.
  4. Toward the end of the Georgian period the Lake District was seen, above all others, as the landscape that expressed the sublime. This was part of the new Romantic appreciation of nature. 

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