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William Gilpin (clergyman)

William Gilpin (clergyman)

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The Reverend William Gilpin (4 June 1724–1804) was an English
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 artist, clergyman, schoolmaster, and author, best known as one of the originators of the idea of the picturesque
Picturesque is an aesthetic ideal introduced into English cultural debate in 1782 by William Gilpin in Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, etc. Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the Summer of the Year 1770, a practical book which instructed England's...


Early life

Gilpin was born in Cumberland
Cumberland is a historic county of North West England, on the border with Scotland, from the 12th century until 1974. It formed an administrative county from 1889 to 1974 and now forms part of Cumbria....

, the son of Captain John Bernard Gilpin, a soldier and amateur artist. From an early age he was an enthusiastic sketcher and collector of prints, but while his brother Sawrey Gilpin
Sawrey Gilpin
Sawrey Gilpin was an English animal painter, illustrator, and etcher who specialised in paintings of horses and dogs. He was made a Royal Academician.-Life and work:...

 became a professional painter, William opted for a career in the church, graduating from Queen's College, Oxford
The Queen's College, Oxford
The Queen's College, founded 1341, is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England. Queen's is centrally situated on the High Street, and is renowned for its 18th-century architecture...

 in 1748.

While still at Oxford, Gilpin anonymously published A Dialogue upon the Gardens ... at Stow in Buckinghamshire (1748). Part guidebook to Stowe
Stowe, Buckinghamshire
Stowe is a civil parish and former village about northwest of Buckingham in the Aylesbury Vale district of Buckinghamshire, England. The parish includes the hamlets of Boycott, Dadford and Lamport....

, part essay on aesthetics
Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty. It is more scientifically defined as the study of sensory or sensori-emotional values, sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste...

, this shows that Gilpin had already begun to develop his ideas on the picturesque. Unusually for the time, Gilpin showed an appreciation of wild and rugged mountain scenery, perhaps rooted in his Cumbrian upbringing; even more unusually, he expressed ideas about the perception of beauty which were purely aesthetic and often divorced from other qualities of the object viewed, such as morality or utility.

After working as curate, Gilpin became master, and from 1755 headmaster, at Cheam
Cheam is a large suburban village close to Sutton in the London Borough of Sutton, England, and is located close to the southern boundary between Greater London and Surrey. It is divided into two main areas: North Cheam and Cheam Village. North Cheam includes more retail shops and supermarkets,...

 School. He was an enlightened educationist, instituting a system of fines rather than corporal punishment and encouraging the boys to keep gardens. Gilpin stayed at Cheam until 1777 when he moved, with his wife Margaret, to become Vicar of Boldre
Boldre is a village and civil parish in the New Forest district of Hampshire. It is situated inside the New Forest National Park borders, near the Lymington River, and is about two miles north of Lymington...

 in the New Forest
New Forest
The New Forest is an area of southern England which includes the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture land, heathland and forest in the heavily-populated south east of England. It covers south-west Hampshire and extends into south-east Wiltshire....

 in Hampshire
Hampshire is a county on the southern coast of England in the United Kingdom. The county town of Hampshire is Winchester, a historic cathedral city that was once the capital of England. Hampshire is notable for housing the original birthplaces of the Royal Navy, British Army, and Royal Air Force...

. He was succeeded at Cheam by his son, another William Gilpin.

Gilpin and the picturesque

In 1768 Gilpin published his popular Essay on Prints where he defined the picturesque as '"that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture" and began to expound his "principles of picturesque beauty", based largely on his knowledge of landscape
Landscape comprises the visible features of an area of land, including the physical elements of landforms such as mountains, hills, water bodies such as rivers, lakes, ponds and the sea, living elements of land cover including indigenous vegetation, human elements including different forms of...

Painting is the practice of applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a surface . The application of the medium is commonly applied to the base with a brush but other objects can be used. In art, the term painting describes both the act and the result of the action. However, painting is...

. During the late 1760s and 1770s Gilpin travelled extensively in the summer holidays and applied these principles to the landscapes he saw, committing his thoughts and spontaneous sketches to notebooks.

Gilpin's tour journals circulated in manuscript to friends, such as the poet William Mason
William Mason (poet)
William Mason was an English poet, editor and gardener.He was born in Hull and educated at Hull Grammar School and St John's College, Cambridge. He was ordained in 1754 and held a number of posts in the church....

, and a wider circle including Thomas Gray
Thomas Gray
Thomas Gray was a poet, letter-writer, classical scholar and professor at Cambridge University.-Early life and education:...

, Horace Walpole and King George III
George III of the United Kingdom
George III was King of Great Britain and King of Ireland from 25 October 1760 until the union of these two countries on 1 January 1801, after which he was King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland until his death...

. In 1782, at the instigation of Mason, Gilpin published Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales, etc. relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770 (London 1782). This was illustrated with plates based on Gilpin's sketches, etched by his nephew William Sawrey Gilpin
William Sawrey Gilpin
William Sawrey Gilpin was an English artist, drawing master and, in later life, landscape designer.Gilpin was the son of the animal painter Sawrey Gilpin. He attended the school of his uncle, William Gilpin, at Cheam in Surrey...

 using the new aquatint
Aquatint is an intaglio printmaking technique, a variant of etching.Intaglio printmaking makes marks on the matrix that are capable of holding ink. The inked plate is passed through a printing press together with a sheet of paper, resulting in a transfer of the ink to the paper...

 process. There followed Observations on the Lake District and the West of England and, after his move to Boldre Remarks on Forest Scenery, and other woodland Views ... (London 1791).

For Gilpin, both texture and composition were important in a "correctly picturesque" scene. The texture should be "rough", "intricate", "varied", or "broken", without obvious straight lines. The composition should work as a unified whole, incorporating several elements: a dark "foreground" with a "front screen" or "side screens", a brighter middle "distance", and at least one further, less distinctly depicted, "distance". A ruined abbey or castle would add "consequence". A low viewpoint, which tended to emphasise the "sublime", was always preferable to a prospect from on high. While Gilpin allowed that nature was good at producing textures and colours, it was rarely capable of creating the perfect composition. Some extra help from the artist, perhaps in the form of a carefully placed tree, was usually required.

In contrast to other contemporary travel writers, such as Thomas Pennant
Thomas Pennant
Thomas Pennant was a Welsh naturalist and antiquary.The Pennants were a Welsh gentry family from the parish of Whitford, Flintshire, who had built up a modest estate at Bychton by the seventeenth century...

, Gilpin included little history, and few facts or anecdotes. Even Gilpin's descriptions can seem quite vague, concentrating on how scenery conformed to picturesque principles rather than its specific character. In one much-quoted passage, Gilpin takes things to an extreme, suggesting that "a mallet judiciously used" might render the insufficiently ruinous gable of Tintern Abbey
Tintern Abbey
Tintern Abbey was founded by Walter de Clare, Lord of Chepstow, on 9 May 1131. It is situated in the village of Tintern, on the Welsh bank of the River Wye in Monmouthshire, which forms the border between Monmouthshire in Wales and Gloucestershire in England. It was only the second Cistercian...

 more picturesque. In the same work he criticises the poet John Dyer
John Dyer
John Dyer was a painter and Welsh poet turned clergyman of the Church of England who maintained an interest in his Welsh ancestry...

 for describing a distant object in too much detail. Such passages were easy pickings for satirists such as Jane Austen
Jane Austen
Jane Austen was an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature, her realism and biting social commentary cementing her historical importance among scholars and critics.Austen lived...

 demonstrated in Northanger Abbey
Northanger Abbey
Northanger Abbey was the first of Jane Austen's novels to be completed for publication, though she had previously made a start on Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. According to Cassandra Austen's Memorandum, Susan was written approximately during 1798–99...

 as well as many of her other novels and works. (Elizabeth Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice is a novel by Jane Austen, first published in 1813. The story follows the main character Elizabeth Bennet as she deals with issues of manners, upbringing, morality, education and marriage in the society of the landed gentry of early 19th-century England...

, notably refuses to join Mr. Darcy and the Bingley sisters in a stroll with the teasing observation, "You are charmingly group'd, and...The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth.")

Although he came in for criticism, Gilpin had published at the exactly the right time. Improved road communications and travel restrictions on continental Europe saw an explosion of British domestic tourism in the 1780s and 1790s. Many of these picturesque tourists were intent on sketching, or at least discussing what they saw in terms of landscape painting. Gilpin's works were the ideal companions for this new generation of travellers; they were written specifically for that market and never intended as comprehensive travel guides.

Gilpin's legacy

Although Gilpin sometimes commented on designed landscapes, for him the picturesque was always essentially just a set of rules for depicting nature. It was left to others, most notably Richard Payne Knight
Richard Payne Knight
Richard Payne Knight was a classical scholar and connoisseur best known for his theories of picturesque beauty and for his interest in ancient phallic imagery.-Biography:...

, Uvedale Price
Uvedale Price
Sir Uvedale Price, 1st Baronet , author of the Essay on the Picturesque, As Compared With The Sublime and The Beautiful , was a Herefordshire landowner who was at the heart of the 'Picturesque debate' of the 1790s...

 and Thomas Johnes
Thomas Johnes
Thomas Johnes , born in Ludlow, Shropshire, England was a Member of Parliament, landscape architect, farmer, printer, writer and social benefactor...

, to develop Gilpin's ideas into more comprehensive theories of the picturesque and apply these more generally to landscape design and architecture. Ultimately, these grand theories of wild natural beauty gave way to the tamer and more commercialised picturesque of the mid 19th century. But Gilpin's works remained popular and several new editions, with additions by John Heaviside Clark, were brought out. Even today, when tourists compose photographs with their cameras, they may be unconsciously applying principles originally popularised by Gilpin.

Gilpin also lives on as the model for the satirist William Combe
William Combe
William Combe was a British miscellaneous writer. His early life was that of an adventurer, his later was passed chiefly within the "rules" of the King's Bench Prison. He is chiefly remembered as the author of The Three Tours of Dr. Syntax, a comic poem...

's clever but cruel Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque (1809), brilliantly illustrated by Thomas Rowlandson
Thomas Rowlandson
Thomas Rowlandson was an English artist and caricaturist.- Biography :Rowlandson was born in Old Jewry, in the City of London. He was the son of a tradesman or city merchant. On leaving school he became a student at the Royal Academy...

. This poor curate sets off on his straggly mare Grizzle in a quest for picturesque scenery, often (and usually to his discomfort) oblivious to the realities of the world around him.

As well as his picturesque writing, Gilpin published numerous works on moral and religious subjects, including biographies of Hugh Latimer
Hugh Latimer
Hugh Latimer was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, Bishop of Worcester before the Reformation, and later Church of England chaplain to King Edward VI. In 1555, under Queen Mary, he was burnt at the stake, becoming one of the three Oxford Martyrs of Anglicanism.-Life:Latimer was born into a...

, Thomas Cranmer
Thomas Cranmer
Thomas Cranmer was a leader of the English Reformation and Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and, for a short time, Mary I. He helped build a favourable case for Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon which resulted in the separation of the English Church from...

 and John Wicliff
John Wycliffe
John Wycliffe was an English Scholastic philosopher, theologian, lay preacher, translator, reformer and university teacher who was known as an early dissident in the Roman Catholic Church during the 14th century. His followers were known as Lollards, a somewhat rebellious movement, which preached...

. A proportion of the profit from his writing went on good works in his parish, including the endowment of the school at Boldre which now bears his name. Many of the manuscripts of his tours, including unpublished or only recently published material, are now housed in the Bodleian Library
Bodleian Library
The Bodleian Library , the main research library of the University of Oxford, is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, and in Britain is second in size only to the British Library...

, Oxford.

Gilpin is one of eight travellers included in Nicholas Crane
Nicholas Crane
Nicholas Crane is an English geographer, explorer, writer and broadcaster. Since 2004, he has written and presented four notable television series for BBC Two: Coast, Great British Journeys, Map Man and Town....

's Great British Journeys.

Further reading

  • Malcolm Andrews, The search for the picturesque: landscape aesthetics and tourism in Britain, 1760–1800 (Scholar Press, 1989)
  • Francesca Orestano 'Gilpin and the Picturesque' in Garden History vol 31:2 (Garden History Society 2004)
  • Joan Percy, In pursuit of the picturesque: William Gilpin's Surrey excursion (Surrey Gardens Trust, 2001)
  • Michael Symes, William Gilpin at Painshill (Painshill Park Trust, 1994)

External links