October 2012 Meeting: William Gilpin and the Picturesque

October 24, 2012

Prepared by member Cheng

JASNA’s 2012 conference

A surprise opening to the meeting was the announcement by one of our members that he had just returned from three weeks in the U.S. and had attended JASNA’s Annual Conference in New York. A “remarkable event” held from Friday 5th to Sunday 7th October, with 800 attendees.

We (enviously) pored over the programmes and brochures, amazed at the diversity of the multiples sessions and speakers. The theme was ‘Sex, Money and Power in Jane Austen’s Fiction’ and we look forward to hearing a more detailed account of it at a future meeting.

 William Gilpin and the Picturesque

Then we moved on to the subject : William Gilpin [1762-1843]. Had Jane Austen really been as enamoured of Gilpin as Henry claimed?

Gilpin’s writings were taken very seriously during his life time, particularly by the wealthy who could no longer go on the Grand Tour because of the political unrest in Europe and who started instead to enjoy ‘home tours’. Following in Gilpin’s footsteps and seeing through Gilpin’s eyes became very fashionable. His books were the equivalent of our present day guide books and photos.

The general feeling of the group was that whilst Jane Austen often referred to Gilpin’s topographical observations and facts, his pomposity would have been what appealed most to her keen sense of the ridiculous. “You could not have imagined Jane Austen not laughing – she would have laughed out loud”, said one member.

Numerous amusing quotes were produced by those who had done extensive preparatory reading of Gilpins’ works.

However, he was more than merely a source of fun and facts, this being perhaps best illustrated in Elizabeth’s response to seeing Pemberley. Heavily influenced by Gilpin’s theories on the ‘natural’ landscape, the description is also a covert description of Darcy – of the genuine morals and values that he underpins, as opposed to those of the superficial fashionable world. The ‘picturesque’, as Jane Austen applied it, was far more complex than at first apparent:

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!

“Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked”, wrote Jane Austen in a letter to Fanny.

Discussion continued on that old intriguing subject of whether Jane Austen wrote quite unconsciously, as for example, Richardson, in the manner of her time. Did she knowingly plot and plan or did it come out as part of her, as in her letters, where her ideas just “tumble out”?

Evidence – that gorgeous dig from Gilpin’s theories on composition and grouping of cows by Elizabeth to Miss Bingley, Mrs Hurst and Darcy which quite goes over our 21st century heads. Elizabeth says to the three when they ask her to join them:

“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.”

Examples of Gilpinesque touches in the novels then tumbled out of our members notes :

  • The passage in Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth cries “What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! What hours of transport shall we spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers…..We will know where we have gone – we will recollect what we have seen”.
  • The hilarious Northanger Abbey scene overlooking Bath where Catherine dismisses the entire view.
  • The description of Lyme in Persuasion which strongly recalls Gilpin’s concepts.
  • Mrs Elton’s comparisons between Hartfield and Maple Grove in Emma.

A member noted that there were three aesthetic concepts regarding landscape in the 19th century: the pastoral (man-made), the picturesque (natural) and the sublime (god given). Gilpin’s principles, established in the 18th century, were overturned during the nineteenth century by the Romantic movement.

While being amused by Gilpin’s pomposity and dogmatism, members did allow that his passion for ruins had at least kindled a respect for them by a public that had previously regarded them purely as building material. And he did lead others to see beauty in barrenness.

In 1775 when Gilpin toured Southern England he found little to admire in the Steventon area. It was seen as odd by one member that he despised farmed fields for having been altered by the hand of man yet he happily moved trees in his own sketches.

His ‘artist’s eye’ was, as a member pointed out, exactly the opposite to that of the Japanese and we wondered what he would have thought of bonsai.

A kindly and tactful letter to Gilpin by Sir Joshua Reynolds was read out – a reply to Gilpin’s request for Reynold’s opinion, or plea for his imprimatur, of a new book.

How, we asked, could a man described consistently by his contemporaries as modest, appear so pompous and pretentious? Then it was suggested that his was, after all, the voice of a school master!

The December 2009 issue of the JASA Chronicle contained an article written by one of our members on the landscape of the Springs Road, between Cooma and Bega, in which he mused on the picturesque and on 19th century plans to turn the area into an Australian Bath!

The meeting concluded with quotes and a tough quiz on the Nobility in Jane Austen novels.


  1. November 17th meeting: Sue to ask Sarah if we can distribute and discuss the P&P chapter of her PhD thesis.
  2. Sat 15th December is the date for our Christmas lunch – details will be announced at the next meeting.

William Gilpin and the Picturesque: Some sources

September 16, 2012
Engraving of Rev. William Gilpin.

Engraving of William Gilpin from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, No. 231, August, 1869. (Public Domain via Wikipedia)

A Google (or Bing or whatever search engine you use) search on William Gilpin and Picturesque will retrieve lots of hits, including many in Google Books. Listed below are just some online sources to help get us all going:


Online articles