Romantic Circles Gallery
Tintern Abbey


To the left, two trees stand out among a small copse; their branches extend along the uppermost border of the sketch, framing the scene. The Abbey itself rests in the right half of the sketch, surrounded by trees and vegetation. Two people, likely tourists or tour guides, crouch on the plain that expands from the viewer to the Abbey. Two large hills capped with trees form the background to the scene.

Primary Works: 

William Gilpin's 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, first published in 1782.

Accession Number: 

RPZN G42 W Cutter

Height (in centimeters): 


Width (in centimeters): 

Tintern Abbey, like Grand Woody Banks near Ross-On-Wye, first appeared in Gilpin’s travel journal, likely as an ink-and-wash sketch. Gilpin waited to publish his journal for several years, largely due to his dissatisfaction with printed recreations of his sketches. Using a crude combination of etching and aquatint, Gilpin's journal and sketches were finally published as 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 in 1782. Beginning in 1789, however, Tintern Abbey and most of Gilpin’s original sketches were recreated in subsequent, published editions solely using the developed aquatinting technique.
The Wye Tour

The popularity of the Wye Tour, a picturesque tour through the England-Wales border down the River Wye, increased exponentially during the 1780s and the decades that followed (though the Wye river was a popular site for at least twenty-five years before Gilpin’s tour); this was due in large part to the tour guide-book Observations on the River Wye, written by the Reverend William Gilpin and published in 1782. The tour focused on the natural beauty of the Wye Valley, especially the part of the Valley that fit Gilpin’s idea of the “correctly picturesque”—usually characterized by a natural object (e.g., a tree, a stone, cliffs; anything not human-made) which stood out in stark contrast to its surroundings and was often in close proximity to people or human-made objects (factories, bridges, and the like). The tour lasted two to three days by boat (the most common form of travel for tourists) or carriage (used only by the very wealthy), and significantly longer by foot; William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, took a walking tour of the Wye Valley in 1798 (see William Wordsworth’s memorial poem “Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey on Revisiting the banks of the Wye Valley during a tour, July 13, 1798”). The most common form of travel was by pleasure boat, which featured a canopy to shield tourists from the wind, sun, and rain; a handful of tables for writing or drawing; and several oarsmen who acted as de facto tour guides and cost three to four guineas for two days' employment (Moir 125). The tour extended, as Gilpin noted, “To [Chepstow] from Ross, which is a course of near 40 miles” and featured “a succession of the most picturesque scenes” (Gilpin 7). Highlights included Ross-on-Wye, Goodrich Castle, Symond’s Yat, Monmouth, Tintern Abbey, Piercefield, Chepstow Castle, and, finally, the junction of the Rivers Wye and Severn at Chepstow.

Picturesque Tourism

Picturesque tourism as an industry was largely popularized by the publication of Gilpin’s Observations on the River Wye in 1782. Tourists of the "picturesque" traveled to Scotland, North and South Wales, the Wye Valley, and the Lake District (in northwest England) in search of scenery manifesting this ideal. Oftentimes, tourists brought watercolors to quickly paint or sketch the scenes that most captivated them, in the fashion of Gilpin. These tourists, and their dogged pursuit of the picturesque, would later be lampooned by caricaturists in the early years of the 1800s, but picturesque tourism maintained significant popularity until the mid-nineteenth century.
The Wye River

The Wye River rises on Plynlimon Mountain in Wales and flows southeast for 130 miles. The last forty miles of the river, beginning at Ross-on-Wye, made up the Wye Tour during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Gilpin described its beauty as related primarily to its “mazy course” and “lofty banks” (Gilpin 7). The river winds along the English-Welsh border until it empties into the River Severn at Chepstow, and features the ruins of several castles, abbeys, and the like along its banks.

Tintern Abbey

Founded by Walter de Clare in 1131 on the River Wye, Tintern Abbey began to fall into decay in 1536, when it was abandoned due to Henry VIII’s abolishment of Catholicism as the state religion. The ruins were drawing tourists by 1700, and it remains the most popular weekend destination for British tourists. Its popularity reached staggering heights during the Romantic period, and it was a highlight of the Wye Tour. Tourists who opted to travel down the river via pleasure boat were granted two hours to explore the Abbey while the tide was out. Packs of these tourists thronged through the Abbey, which had been “restored” by its new owner, the Duke of Beauford (in actuality, plants were introduced that took detrimental effect on the structural integrity of the ruins; bronze letters spelling out site names were literally hammered into the crumbling stone floor; and other such harmful practices were wrought on the Abbey). After the allotted two hours was up, tourists rushed back to the boats and worked quickly to sketch what they could remember (Moir 128). The Abbey and, more importantly, its effects on the viewer were addressed at length in William Wordsworth’s famous poem “Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye Valley during a tour, July 13, 1798.”
The Banks of Wye: a Poem in Four Books by Robert Bloomfield (1811)

Bloomfield, famous for his semi-autobiographical poem The Farmer’s Boy (1800), took a ten day tour of the Wye Valley during a period in his life marked by personal and professional turmoil. The tour rejuvenated him, and the versification of his travel journal eventually became The Banks of Wye: a Poem in Four Books (Kaloustian). The poem is primarily significant for two reasons. First, and most obviously, it addresses the scenery and spectacles of the Wye Tour, giving the reader a good idea of what to expect on such a tour. Second, it follows the decidedly Wordsworthian example of examining the effects of that scenery on the self. Passages like the following endow the scenery with the ability to affect humans:
Till bold, impressive, and sublime,

Gleam’d all that’s left by storms and time

Of GOODRICH TOWERS. The mould’ring pile

Tells noble truths,—but dies the while.

(Bloomfield 1.149-52)
Note how the ruins of Goodrich Castle are capable of telling “noble truths,” a direct interaction that Gilpin et alia would have either not noticed or summarily dismissed. Other passages focusing on the direct effect of natural images on the viewer include the following:
Then CHEPSTOW’S ruin’d fortress caught

The mind’s collected store of thought,

A dark, majestic, jealous frown

Hung on his brow, and warn’d us down.

(Bloomfield 2.315-18)
TINTERN, thy name shall hence sustain

A thousand raptures in my brain;

Joys, full of soul, all strength, all eye,

That cannot fade, that cannot die.

(Bloomfield 2.131-34)
The first of these passages features not only personification of Chepstow Castle, but also describes the ruins’ ability to catch “the mind’s collected store of thought,” as well as its capacity to “warn” viewers. This warning is likely related to mortality, given the nearby mention of the “setting sun” (Bloomfield 2.313), a typical symbol of waning life. The second passage also utilizes one of the Wye Tour’s most famous spectacles (Tintern Abbey) to illustrate scenery’s ability to influence the viewer. The mere name of the Abbey is enough to call to the poet’s mind “a thousand raptures,” some of which included “priest[s] or king[s]” (2.124), “some BLOOD-STAIN’D warrior’s ghost” (2.125), or “grass-grown mansions of the dead” (2.114). The capacity of Nature to wreak such significant alterations in a viewer’s psyche runs diametrically opposed to the strictly evaluative eye of the picturesque tourist, and embodies a decidedly post-“Lines” worldview.
This image depicts the ruins of Tintern Abbey, which dates back to the twelfth century and is located on the the banks of the River Wye, in Monmouthshire, Wales. An aquatint recreation of William Gilpin's Tintern Abbey, it was published before Wordsworth composed "Lines," and consequently before the Abbey became so strongly associated with personal reflection. Gilpin's sketch does not investigate any personal connection to the Abbey; indeed, Gilpin criticized the Abbey's shortcomings—he complained that "though the parts are beautiful, the whole is ill-shaped"—and exaggerated certain aspects of it to make the scene more picturesque (W. Gilpin, Observations 32).
River. Picturesque. Wye. Tourism. Wordsworthian lyric. Tintern Abbey.
Gilpin’s contribution to picturesque tourism would not have been nearly so great had his sketches not been so captivating. He piqued potential visitors’ interest with his stunning picturesque scenes, though his proclivity to eschew faithful recreation in favor of creating a more dramatic effect was widely-known and appreciated. In this piece, picturesque elements include the majestic hills, serving as a backdrop for the Abbey; the trees to the left of the drawing, which extend through the sky to better frame the ruins; and the full, dense vegetation that surrounds the Abbey. Gilpin exaggerates the size of the hills, the degree of the Abbey's dilapidation, and increases the density of trees and the number of trees and bushes which surround it. Most of the trees had been cleared out of the area by the time Gilpin arrived, but he, like most of the tourists inspired by his work, reintroduced arboreal images into the Abbey’s immediate vicinity. By adjusting the scenery in a drawing—diverting streams, removing trees, and the like—Gilpin was able to produce more stirring representations of the picturesque, which in turn stimulated the imaginations of Romantic spectators to a greater degree. Furthermore, this freedom to “edit” nature was eagerly adopted by Gilpin’s many disciples, and as a result few travel diaries of the time attempted to faithfully recreate the landscapes viewers had witnessed (Andrews, In Search of the Picturesque 86).
Andrews, Malcolm. “Gilpin, William (1724–1804).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Oxford: OUP, 2004. 28 Mar. 2009.

---. In Search of the Picturesque. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1989. Print.

Barbier, C.P. William Gilpin. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1963. Print.

Fenwick, Simon. “Hearne, Thomas (1744–1817).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Oxford: OUP, 2004. 29 Mar. 2009.

Gilpin, William. Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales . . . made in the summer of the year 1770. London: Blamire, 1782. Print.

---. Observations on the River Wye. 1782. Oxford: Woodstock Books, 1991. Print. Revolution and Romanticism, 1789-1834.

Michasiw, Kim I. "Nine Revisionist Theses on the Picturesque." Representations 38 (1992): 76-100. Print.

Moir, Esther. The Discovery of Britain; The English Tourists. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1964. Print.