Thursday, 28 June 2007

Austen and The Picturesque. Part One.

The fundamentally Georgian notion of The Picturesque is alluded to by Austen in four of her novels: Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and most often, in Sense and Sensibility, which is no coincidence, given that the Picturesque was, like the Gothic Revival, a movement rather of sensibilities, an offshoot of feelings in the reason-driven culture of the Enlightenment. To state that the Picturesque is simply a type of scenery, a genre of art and a method of garden and landscape design, is only to give the bones of the ideal without fleshing out the very real emotional power it had in the early years of the Romantic Period until, according to some scholars, it thinned out into hackneyed faddishness by the Regency.

An aesthetic appreciation of landscape was a practice that was realized during the Georgian era. This appreciation was inconceivable before the 18th century and when it developed, it developed into a notion, and thence into an ideal, known as The Picturesque. A new way of seeing things requires learning, and a new way of seeing landscape requires travel and art, three experiences unavailable, especially combined, to practically none but the wealthy aristocracy at the beginning of the Georgian period. Like so many ideals, the Picturesque began with art, specifically the 17th century continental landscape paintings of Salvator Rosa, Claude Lorraine and Gaspard Dughet (also known as Gaspard Poussin).

In England, landscape painting was a wholly foreign concept at this time. Landscape was merely a curtain dressing for the more interesting human drama and the land was something associated with peasants and labor, not subjects the monied classes thought of as artistically inspiring, and the very few who traveled in Europe, and wrote about it, before the Utrecht Treaty of 1713 wrote only of scenes such as the Alps, those darlings of the Picturesque, as inconvenient, uncomfortable and dangerous. Europe however, opened up to privileged English travelers after 1713 and The Grand Tour was born. Wealthy aristocrats on their tour favoured Italy in particular and started to take notice of these exotic landscape paintings, most commonly seen in Rome, and as a consequence, rapidly began to look upon the grand, rugged, alpine terrain, lurking banditti, swarthy peasants, and crumbling ruins not as tiresome, untidy inconveniences fraught with continental danger, but as the romantic subjects of art. An early associational link was made by Horace Walpole in a letter during his tour with Thomas Gray in 1739:

'Precipices, mountains, torrents, wolves, rumblings, Salvator Rosa!'

To be continued


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