This scene is depicted from the low perspective of a river. In the right foreground, two trees extend their branches over the river. A structure with arched openings sits on the opposite bank; this edifice and a cluster of trees compose the middle ground. The upper register features large cloud masses, and a dense forest in a lighter tone lines the background.
Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
This image was printed in William Gilpin's fifth edition of Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, &c.: Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; Made in the Summer of the Year 1770 (London, 1800).
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The aquatints engraved for Gilpin’s Tours were based on sketches made by Gilpin himself. A comparison of similar aquatints from the second, third and fifth editions reveals subtle variations among them and suggest that new aquatint etchings were used in each printing.
Tours on the Wye
Gilpin first toured the Wye area in the summer of 1770 while still master of the boy’s school at Cheam in Surrey. He illustrated an account of these travels which received praise in its unpublished form from both Under Secretary of State, William Frasier, Esq. and the poet, Thomas Gray (Templeman 227).
Revolutions in France (from 1789) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815)
By the 1790s, the British aristocrats who had grown accustomed to visiting the sites of ancient Greece and Italy had been cut off from the Continent by the violent and unstable political situation (Andrews 34). As a result, domestic sites came to constitute a new "Grand Tour." Gilpin highlighted the affordability of travel in England, Wales and Scotland, and argued that such national sites held the potential for enacting moral edification (Bermingham 86). This potential arose in the exposure of the viewer to the divine in nature: "a search after beauty should naturally lead the mind to the great origin of all beauty . . . Nature is but a name for an effect, / Whose cause is God" (Gilpin, Three Essays; 46-7).
Richard Payne Knight (1751–1824) and Uvedale Price (1747-1829)
Knight and Price were later picturesque theorists. Price’s An Essay on the Picturesque (1794) and Knight’s Analytic Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805), as well as the latter's didactic poem, The Landscape (1795), were their chief contributions to the picturesque debate.
Sir George Beaumont (1753-1827)
Beaumont was a well-known connoisseur and patron in the early nineteenth century and aided in the founding of the National Gallery. (See bibliographical notes in Malcolm Andrew’s The Search for the Picturesque for other important artists and writers in the picturesque genre.)
The Wye River, one of the major rivers in Britain, runs through Wales and England. North Wales in particular became a popular picturesque tourist destination in the later half of the eighteenth century.
One of Gilpin’s former students at Cheam, Colonel William Mitford, heard of his former schoolmaster’s desire to retire from the school at Cheam and offered him a wage in Boldre. Gilpin accepted, and he served as the Vicar of Boldre, Hampshire from 1777 until his death in 1804 (Templeman 148). From the beginning of this appointment until 1791, he kept up his drawing while attending to the affairs of his new parish community. He initiated an association to aid the impoverished in the neighboring town of Lymington and supported the foundation of Sunday and day schools in Boldre (Templeman 186-91). The revenues from sales of his Tours allowed him to establish two schools in Boldre in 1791 (Gilpin: qtd. in Templeman 194). Between 1797 and 1800, a period of prolonged illness, he published another set of sermons and additional accounts of his domestic travels (Observations on the Western Parts of England), as well as working to arrange the the posthumous sale of his works in order to establish an endowment for his schools (Barbier 92; Templeman 207-9).
The first, second, and third editions of William Gilpin's Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, &c.: Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; Made in the Summer of the Year 1770 include other versions of this depiction of Wilton Castle.
In this image, the ideal arrangement of Wilton Castle and its surroundings exemplifies William Gilpin's mode of picturesque composition.
This depiction of an English ruin along the River Wye is well-balanced: trees gracefully line either bank; in the left background, a cluster of clouds reaches across the river in a figure that reflects the extension of trees from the right bank; and the ruins sit slightly off-center in the middle ground. Such a composition, however, was probably not an exact copy of what William Gilpin saw, but rather an ideal composition and re-production of that scene. In his essay On Picturesque Beauty, Gilpin, the first proponent of the picturesque, articulates that the most harmonious scenes are constructed of natural elements or “ingredients” stored in the memory of the amateur artist (Three Essays 8). Consequently, this view of Wilton Castle is, most likely, derived from the reassemblage of those natural elements that surrounded the ruin.
The ruined abbey or castle is one of the chief features glorified by the picturesque. To quote Gilpin:
[T]he picturesque eye is perhaps most inquisitive after the elegant relics of ancient architecture; the ruined tower, the Gothic arch, the remains of castles, and abbeys. These are the richest legacies of art. They are consecrated by time; and almost deserve the veneration we pay to the works of nature itself. (Three Essays 46)These edifices highlight the formal irregularity that is central to Gilpin’s notion of the genre, and are specifically expounded upon in his Eastern Tour: their asymmetrical, jagged, or pyramidal forms, whether present in the actual form of the object or created by the alterations of the artist, are preferred to regular, smooth, solid, or square forms (Gilpin: qtd. in Templeman 145). The arched openings and asymmetrical outline of Wilton Castle depicted here conform to such prescriptive designs and blend harmoniously into the full foliage of the surrounding woods.
As Kim Michasiw points out, Gilpin intended his aesthetic to be employed and applied by tourists (82-83). In his work, The British Tourists, William Fordyce Mavor gives a contemporary description of this burgeoning group, among them the Reverend Stebbing Shaw who was “captivated [by] all the variety of rural imagery” when he came upon the ruins of Wilton Castle (216). Ann Bermingham further notes that Gilpin emphasized the affordability of traveling in Great Britain as yet another reason to search locally for the picturesque (86), though the inaccessibility of the Continent during the 1790s (due to the French revolutionary conflicts) was already significantly contributing to the growth of domestic tourism in Britain (Andrews 34). Finally, Gilpin's use of watercolor associated the early stages of the picturesque with his target audience of tourists and amateur artists. Hardie’s survey of British watercolor painting explains that, prior to the nineteenth century, the Royal Academy considered watercolor a medium less worthy than oil until the establishment of the Old Water-Colour Society in 1804 and the success of their exhibitions (112-13). By employing watercolor, a medium without pretension, and by using a compositional technique dependent only on the readily available “ingredients” of nature, this idealized image of Wilton Castle could, theoretically, be recreated by any amateur artist.
Andrews, Malcolm. The Search for the Picturesque: Landscape Aesthetics and Tourism in Britain, 1760-1800. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1989. Print.
Barbier, Carl Paul. William Gilpin: His Drawings, Teaching, and Theory of the Picturesque. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1963. Print.
Bermingham, Ann. "The Picturesque and Ready-to-wear Femininity." The Politics of the Picturesque: Literature, Landscape, and Aesthetics since 1770. Ed. Stephen Copley and Peter Garside. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print. 81-119.
Gilpin, William. Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, &c.: Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; Made in the Summer of the Year 1770. 5th ed. London, 1792. Print.
---. Three Essays: On Picturesque beauty; On Picturesque Travel; and On Sketching Landscape: To which Is Added a Poem, on Landscape Painting. London, 1792. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University of Wisconsin - Madison. Web. 21 May 2009.
Hardie, Martin. Water-Colour Painting in Britain. Vol. 2. London: Batsford, 1966. Print.
Mavor, William Fordyce. The British Tourists; or Traveller's Pocket Companion, through England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Comprehending the Most Celebrated Tours in the British Islands. Vol. 4. London, 1798-1800. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University of Wisconsin - Madison. Web. 15 May 2009.
Michasiw, Kim Ian. "Nine Revisionist Theses on the Picturesque." Representations 38 (1992): 76-100. Print.
Templeman, William D. The Life and Work of William Gilpin (1724-1804): Master of the Picturesque and Vicar of Boldre. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1939. Print. University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 24.3-4.
Observations on the river Wye, and several parts of South Wales, &c. : relative chiefly to picturesque beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770. By William Gilpin, M. A. prebendary of Salisbury, and vicar of Boldre near Lymington. The fifth edition. London : Printed by A. Straban, Printers-Street, for T. Cadell junior and W. Davies, Strand. 1800. [Plate 3, opposite p. 29]