John Thelwall: Critical Reassessments
John Thelwall and the Politics of the Picturesque
University of Huddersfield
1. John Thelwall was, for E. P. Thompson, one of the most remarkable figures and “considerable theorists” of the British reform movement in the 1790s (Making 172-73). But Thompson asserts that Thelwall’s achievements were not sustained in the sequel to the metropolitan radical phase of his career, in which between 1798 and 1801 he published a series of articles in the Monthly Magazine, “A Pedestrian Excursion through Several Parts of England and Wales during the Summer of 1797” and “The Phenomena of the Wye, During the Winter of 1797-8.” For Thompson, Thelwall’s “Pedestrian Excursion” “is unremarkable, being largely devoted to conventional rehearsals of the ‘romantic and picturesque’” (“Hunting” 105). Thompson criticises Thelwall’s apparent failure to sustain the progressive social and political tenets of his earlier publications and lectures, reading the pedestrian tour as evidence of the “success” of attempts by the authorities to “drive” Thelwall “out of the reform business” (104). Thelwall’s love of the “romantic and picturesque” is, for Thompson, incompatible with his political activism, which demands interaction and co-operation, rather than detached contemplation. This essay will reassess the grounds of Thompson’s censure, and will argue that Thelwall’s engagement with the picturesque should be read not as a retreat from political engagement but as an attempt to rethink and recalibrate such engagement in the face of extreme pressure. Thelwall’s treatment of the picturesque demonstrates his sustained if evolving dedication to his reformist principles. It also reveals the under-acknowledged ways in which Thelwall adapts and modifies aesthetic conventions in order to temper their political implications.
2. Eighteenth-century aesthetic modes do generate certain reactionary political effects. Thompson’s critique of Thelwall echoes critical censure of the damaging results of aesthetic spectatorship. John Barrell and Ann Bermingham have argued that the aesthetic observer tends to mimic the position of a privileged landowner who disdains active intervention in the lives of the poor (Barrell, Dark 70-76, Pandora 96-98; Bermingham 68-69).  Elizabeth Bohls notes that such spectatorship produces a “powerful abstracting impulse” which reinforces a “symbolic connection between material particulars and groups of people traditionally thought of as trapped in them, defined by their bodies, as opposed to their minds: the labouring classes and women” (13). The focus of Thelwall’s political activism during the mid-1790s had been the broadening of the intellectual franchise and the diffusion of knowledge to such groups, and his early scientific training had armed him with a sophisticated sense of the importance of material analyses of physical and political structures (Tribune 102). Thelwall’s engagement with aesthetic forms appears to work against his own political practice.
3. Michael Scrivener has recently defended Thelwall’s “Pedestrian Excursion” against Thompson’s charges, asserting that Thelwall’s frustration with the working people he encounters is a direct result of the political pressures under which he was struggling, which the text of the “Pedestrian Excursion” carefully suppresses (74-75). Scrivener argues that the essay is not restricted to accounts of the picturesque, but rather offers detailed analysis of the effects of agricultural monopoly and war on the condition of the poor. But in order to argue for this politically engaged Thelwall, Scrivener plays down the significance of his use of aesthetic conventions in the “Pedestrian Excursion,” noting that though it “has a minor aesthetic connoisseur dimension, the essay’s most distinctive feature is its sociological focus” (77). Thelwall’s landscape description is presented as a digression from rather than a component of the “sociological” work of the essay, and Scrivener does not engage with the reactionary implications of the picturesque itself.
4. However, Thelwall’s exploration of the “romantic and picturesque” does not represent a marker of his disillusionment with political activism, but rather arms him with a new means of articulating his social and political goals of intellectual enquiry and sympathetic co-operation. Long before his excursion of 1797 Thelwall had explored in print whether aesthetic contemplation and political activism could prove productive partners. The Peripatetic, Thelwall’s novel, travel narrative and reformist tract, published at the outset of his political career in 1793, makes repeated use of visual conventions. However, The Peripatetic’s radically mixed mode does not lend itself to sustained engagement with aesthetic tropes, and the passages in which Thelwall evokes the picturesque are characterised by an ironic tone. Thelwall’s “Pedestrian Excursion” and “Phenomena of the Wye” engage in more detail with the picturesque; however, they are no mere “conventional rehearsals” of the discourse. In these essays Thelwall demonstrates a sophisticated appropriation of and deviation from aesthetic conventions to suit his political aims. As Judith Thompson has suggested, Thelwall challenges the distinction between an aesthetic and a sociological approach to landscape by emphasising the material basis of both (“Citizen” 79). For Thelwall the ideal viewing consciousness is never a disembodied, abstracting entity, but rather one which maintains a material connection with the landscape of which it forms a part.  His ongoing engagement with the picturesque demonstrates his gradual steps to overcoming the abstracting effects of aesthetic contemplation and toward synthesising the representation of landscape with his political activism.
5. In the preface to The Peripatetic, Thelwall declares his “design of uniting the different advantages of the novel, the sentimental journal, and the miscellaneous collection of essays and poetical effusions” (72). Despite the heterogeneous form of the work, structural coherence is conferred through the walking tours which Thelwall’s protagonist Sylvanus Theophrastus undertakes to Saint Albans in Hertfordshire, and to Rochester in Kent. So, like Thelwall’s essays for the Monthly Magazine, The Peripatetic describes the practice of “pedestrian excursion” (115). Sylvanus states the advantages of such excursions, declaring that he and his companion will “compare our remarks on such monuments of antiquity, and such picturesque benefits of art and nature, as the road, or its environs might present” (115). But Thelwall differentiates the pedestrian excursions undertaken in The Peripatetic from the practice of picturesque tourism set out in the publications of William Gilpin: “It was not to be a mere excursion of pleasure: for nothing is, in general, more delusive or insipid. Information and improvement were to constitute the principle feature of our expedition” (115). Though sensitive to its “benefits,” The Peripatetic maintains a sceptical attitude to aesthetic tourism; therefore, the aesthetic value of landscape is rarely considered in isolation. Sylvanus admits that his “observations” on the beauties he encounters “may perhaps be neither very original nor profound,” but he insists on their social value, generated by and recorded in “those conversations, that . . . stole the miles so imperceptibly away” (115). For Thelwall, pedestrian travel should be the occasion not for isolated spectatorship, but for conversation and interaction, prompting both individual and collective “information and improvement.” As Judith Thompson notes, Thelwall’s commitment to “friendly converse” is reflected in the “dialogic form” of The Peripatetic, in which contrasting discourses are juxtaposed and combined to create an “intergeneric” conversational mode (Introduction 38-39, 41).
6. Thelwall’s “intergeneric” discursive method ensures that though The Peripatetic makes many references to the picturesque, the descriptions that follow are rarely purely aesthetic. Rather, Thelwall adopts a topographical approach, describing the historical, economic and agricultural condition of the landscape, though, as Thompson notes, The Peripatetic appropriates this discourse to “reorient” the reader’s political preconceptions (Introduction 33). Descriptions of picturesque scenes at Greenwich, Shooter’s Hill and Rochester thus digress swiftly to the “historical allusions” or “flights of fancy” that they prompt (99, 162-64, 257-74). In several episodes Sylvanus praises gothic ruins for their picturesque effect, but these ruins are not pure “objects of art” as Gilpin would have it (Essays 46). Instead they are physical reminders of the “instability of grandeur” as well as relics of “ancient political institutions” (158, 199). The ruins of Rochester castle “mingle” different effects to produce “one grotesque picture of sylvan nature, of horticulture, and antiquities” (260). The aesthetic effects of the ruins are inseparable from the intellectual stimulus prompted by the castle’s antiquarian significance, and the social effects of the horticulture practiced in its grounds. The picturesque is merely one component of the political “information” to be derived from the peripatetic tour.
7. The Peripatetic does not seek a comfortable synthesis of such diverse responses to visual scenes. Immediately after praising “the picturesque varieties of a British horizon,” Sylvanus notes that “the scene is changed; and the topographer must, for a while, take the place of the sentimental admirer of picturesque beauty” (142). So sudden are the changes of “scene” in The Peripatetic that they often serve an ironic function, undercutting Sylvanus’s rhapsodic response to visual landscapes (151). The enjoyment of visual scenes in The Peripatetic is never a simple “pleasure.” Thelwall’s mixed mode generates ironic juxtapositions which undercut the assumed authority of the aesthetic observer, and question whether visual observation alone can stimulate “information and improvement.”
8. The Peripatetic’s sceptical attitude to aesthetic observation complicates those scenes which come closest to the conventions of the picturesque tour. Sylvanus’s descriptions never generate the authority of a commentator such as Gilpin. Rather, an ironic distance between Sylvanus’s voice and Thelwall’s authorial presence is implied. At Shooter’s Hill Sylvanus praises the “picturesque beauties” around him, but he actually describes a “prospect of the widening Thames, the rich champaign, the villages and villas which lay before me” (163). Thelwall is perhaps amusing himself at Sylvanus’s lack of aesthetic connoisseurship here. But Sylvanus’s failure to distinguish between the conventions of the prospect view and the picturesque has significant political consequences. As Barrell has shown, the metaphor of the prospect was a means through which an eighteenth-century gentleman could demonstrate his suitability for a life of public virtue (Barrell, Pandora 52; Labbe xi-xii). Though a culturally powerful viewing position, the prospect view is anathema to Thelwall’s participatory political agenda. The “bird’s eye prospect” eradicates all specificity from the landscape, which compromises the activist strain of The Peripatetic (Peripatetic 150, 163). At times Sylvanus seems aware of the damaging effects of the prospect view, and posits the picturesque as a more wholesome alternative, declaring: “Let us turn, then, from this overgrown Metropolis, its spreading streets and rising palaces; the trophies . . . of public misery and oppression; and contemplate the picturesque home scenery with which this garden of a heath abounds” (153). The intimate scale of a picturesque scene and its focus on material objects mitigates the abstracting effect of the prospect. But the fact that Sylvanus often fails to distinguish between these two discourses signals the dangerous effects of such spectatorship.
9. Despite its defence of the picturesque over the prospect view on political grounds, The Peripatetic demonstrates clear suspicion of the abstracting effects of all aesthetic tropes. Reformist sentiments are articulated through the adoption of the mixed mode signalled in Thelwall’s preface, rather than through a treatment of the aesthetic in isolation. Though the picturesque has the potential to represent the interests of the humblest members of society, Thelwall demonstrates the dangers of aestheticising the lives of any group. He takes gypsies as his example, perhaps because Gilpin had asserted their picturesque effect (Observations II 44, 46). Thelwall appears to agree when he notes that for “a hunter of the picturesque,” gypsies “contribute, in no small degree, to the embellishment of rural scenery” (196). But he interrogates this statement over a course of digressions which end with Sylvanus’s recollection of encountering another group of gypsies. Sylvanus declares an aesthetic appreciation of “the yellow misty light that gleamed over the southern horizon,” but when describing the gypsies themselves, adopts a vocabulary of social configuration: “I saw . . . the cheerful family of vagrants sitting on the grass, around their crackling fire, and enjoying their repast, and to me unintelligible conversation; with their rude, lowly tents in the rear . . . and the patient 'mute companions of their toils' grazing in social familiarity by their sides” (208). These people do not merely “embellish” the scene; indeed, Thelwall rejects aesthetic appreciation altogether. The scene includes “none of that marvellous novelty necessary to fix the demure, half-vacant eye of reverend Gravity” (208-09). For Thelwall these “vulgar objects” do not elicit aesthetic admiration but stimulate “a concatenation of ideas” encompassing imaginative engagement, antiquarian investigation and social and political activism (209). Thelwall rejects the distancing effect of the aesthetic gaze and instead asserts the gypsies’ historic bonds with societies from which they are now ostracised. Aesthetic “pleasure” is dismissed as Thelwall reiterates his aim of promoting “information and improvement” in order to better the lives of marginalised groups.
10. Despite The Peripatetic’s repeated engagement with the picturesque, the models of political and social improvement that Thelwall advocates often reject visual forms altogether. Thelwall is adamant that visual scenes alone are not sufficient to prompt the sympathetic sociability that enables social improvement (121). An important lyric declaring lavish admiration of the natural landscape ends with the assertion that “nor all the pleasures of the ravish’d sight, / Like friendly Converse wake the raptur’d glow!” (115-16). Such “converse” is the stimulus for a material investigation of the physical and by extension the social and political landscape, which does not rely on the abstracting forms of visual observation but incorporates different “ways of seeing” (Jarvis 44). Thelwall’s political activism and his training in physiology provide the basis for his exploration of modes of vision which challenge the distance between the observer and the landscape. Thelwall declares in a political lecture delivered the year after the publication of The Peripatetic that “This is a season for inquiry and instruction, not for pastime and jocularity; and it is therefore that I . . . stimulate you to enquire into the nature of your rights as Britons and as men; and to investigate the nature and causes of that unhappiness which we cannot but feel too sensibly” (Political 2). The Peripatetic, too, demands a material engagement with the conditions of social life. In a “Digression for the Anatomists,” which draws on Thelwall’s physiological training, though enquiry is prompted by the splendours of nature, “the scientific eye” reveals “wider fields of wisdom and delight” than those presented by the aesthetic gaze (146).  The Peripatetic reveals the limitations of the “pleasure” of picturesque tourism. Rather than celebrating the picturesque in isolation, Thelwall suggests that it should form part of a multifaceted critical investigation of the landscape. The Peripatetic posits the kind of material critique that Bohls finds in the work of Mary Wollstonecraft, which establishes a “connection between aesthetic practices and the material, social, and political conditions of human experience” (9). However, The Peripatetic, structured by ironic juxtaposition and shifts of “scene,” has no interest in synthesising its diverse elements. As a result The Peripatetic tends to regard aesthetic effects as limited and potentially deceptive. The picturesque does not yet have a positive political function in Thelwall’s work.
11. “A Pedestrian Excursion through Several Parts of England and Wales during the Summer of 1797” describes a walking tour from London to the West Country, which Thelwall undertook during the summer in which his metropolitan radical career seemed finally to have been crushed (Scrivener 74-75). The “Pedestrian Excursion” is undoubtedly a politically engaged text, but one in which Thelwall adapts his methods to a new form, the picturesque tour. In doing so, he imbues that form with renewed political significance. In contrast to the mixed mode of The Peripatetic, Thelwall’s “Pedestrian Excursion” is a sustained interrogation of the picturesque which seeks to find a means to reconcile and even integrate an analysis of visual forms with his political activism. While The Peripatetic makes only glancing allusions to Gilpin’s work, the “Pedestrian Excursion” develops a self-conscious response to the strictures of the picturesque, making reference not only to Gilpin’s schema, but also those of the picturesque’s arch-theorists, Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price.  Thelwall declares himself one of the “pedestrian hunters of the picturesque and sentimental,” but the picturesque is no mere fashionable object of scorn (52). Rather, the opening of the “Pedestrian Excursion” suggests a function for picturesque tourism which seems to achieve a synthesis between political and aesthetic concerns. Thelwall notes that “circumstances [have] produced another species of curiosity well calculated to go hand in hand with a passion for the picturesque and romantic. Every fact connected with the history and actual condition of the laborious classes had become important to a heart throbbing with anxiety for the welfare of the human race” (17). The physiologically situated fellow feeling urged in The Peripatetic recurs here, but Thelwall now aligns it with “a passion for the picturesque.” In contrast with the distrust of the abstracting effects of spectatorship in The Peripatetic, the “Pedestrian Excursion” advocates the appreciation of landscape as a means of generating sociability.
12. The “Pedestrian Excursion” develops The Peripatetic’s suggestion that the picturesque should be valorised over the prospect view, adding a technical rigour to those conjectures. At East Knoyle in Wiltshire, Thelwall and his companion are conducted to a “commanding eminence” from which “we commanded one of the most pleasant views I had ever seen.” Thelwall praises the hills which “dimly descried through mists, bounded the prospect and mingled with the horizon” (44-45). But this “bird’s-eye prospect” cannot compare to that which follows when the travellers descend from the hilltop and indulge in “the enjoyment of the picturesque, and the beauty and fertility of the home-scene, in the lowlands, with their embowered and scattered cottages” (45). The “home-scene” of the picturesque is valued for its humble, inclusive qualities. Thelwall emphasises this point in an earlier episode which praises “the solemn grandeur and shady sequestration of [the] descending path” from the summit at Richmond Hill: “That pomp of scenery, that expanse and publicity of prospect . . . fascinate, indeed the occasional observer: but in the picturesque of nature, as in the intercourses of life, it is principally in the lowly vales and shades of sober sequestration we must seek the pleasures that cloy not on repetition” (18-19). Thelwall’s enthusiasm for the occluded viewpoint of “lowly vales” echoes Gilpin and his successors (Gilpin, Observations 186; Price 33; Knight 30). However, his alignment of “the picturesque of nature” with the social “intercourses of life” is original (18-19). Thelwall uses landscape description to support his assertion that the social “pleasures which cloy not on repetition” must be cherished and protected from the destructive effects of political and economic monopoly.
13. Thelwall’s preference for the picturesque over the prospect view is not merely a marker of an unrealised social ideal, but forms part of his critique of actual institutions. His speaker describes the “scene of fertility” visible from the road from Shepperton, and notes that “from every eminence the mansions of opulence overlook the prospect with exultation. But man, aggregate man, seems little benefitted by this abundance . . . everything has the appearance of that desolating monopoly which makes fertility itself a desert” (20). Thelwall demonstrates that this “prospect” is not only myopic but deliberately exploitative. He demands that the observer instead adopt the perspective of “man, aggregate man” and engage with the material particularities of social existence.  Thelwall’s call for the recognition of “aggregate man” enlists aesthetic description for a democratic cause, echoing as it does the rhetoric of his 1796 tract The Rights of Nature, in which the “aggregate reason” of obscure individuals establishes a common interest, and forms the basis of civil society (459-60).
14. However, the “Pedestrian Excursion” also suggests an alteration in Thelwall’s social and political objects since the high water mark of his metropolitan radicalism. The term to which Thelwall returns again and again when advocating picturesque “intercourses of life” is “sequestration.” This echoes the opening of the “Pedestrian Excursion” in which Thelwall reveals the object of his journey to be an “immediate and intimate communication of sentiment” with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Somerset (17). Thelwall’s poem “Lines Written at Bridgwater,” written just after his abortive stay with Coleridge during the tour described in the “Pedestrian Excursion,” demonstrates the endurance of this ideal:
15. In certain episodes, the “Pedestrian Excursion” articulates a fully-formed account of sympathetic sociability prompted by the picturesque landscape, but not alienated by the distancing effect of the aesthetic gaze. Passing through a village on the edge of Salisbury Plain, Thelwall’s speaker views a “range of villages scattered along the valley, that opens in a long perspective to the right.” He notes that “the hour was favourable to the emotions these objects were calculated to inspire . . . the light was softened, and the shadows were lengthening: circumstances that cherish a pensive serenity, and pre-dispose the heart to the social sympathies of our nature” (39). The picturesque scene itself awakens “social sympathies” in the travellers, but this state is not sustained. Thelwall’s speaker then bemoans the “jealous caution” of working people he encounters, which deadens any social intercourse (39). Thelwall’s sense of alienation lies at the root of Thompson’s objections to the “Pedestrian Excursion.” However, Thompson separates Thelwall’s treatment of the picturesque from his political activities too starkly. Thelwall’s engagement with the picturesque in the “Pedestrian Excursion” is itself a political move prompted by the inequalities and hostility that he meets on his tour. But though Thelwall finds the picturesque an effective means of articulating protest in the face of political adversity, the “Pedestrian Excursion” struggles to articulate how it might contribute to widespread political amelioration.
16. “The Phenomena of the Wye, During the Winter of 1797-8” continues and develops Thelwall’s engagement with the picturesque. Thelwall wrote the essay after the completion of his pedestrian tour of summer 1797 but it appeared in the Monthly Magazine before the “Pedestrian Excursion.” Since the publication of Gilpin’s Observations on the River Wye (1789), the Wye Valley had “acquired a due celebrity” as a picturesque tourist destination, as Thelwall acknowledges in “The Phenomena of the Wye” (3). But Thelwall clearly distinguishes his account from that of Gilpin. Thelwall writes not as a tourist but as a resident of the Wye Valley, having moved with his family to a riverside farm at Llyswen in Breconshire during the autumn of 1797. In his memoir of 1801, Thelwall declares that the chief reason for “the election of this spot” was “the wild and picturesque scenery of the neighbourhood” (Poems xxxv). Thelwall’s memoir presents Llyswen as the realisation of the secluded “retreat” to which the “Pedestrian Excursion” seems at times to gesture, a place in which “the agitations of political feeling might be cradled to forgetfulness” (xxxvi). But “The Phenomena of the Wye” presents a very different account of the picturesque at Llyswen, which complicates this narrative. Thelwall’s speaker is not an isolated spectator of the landscape, but rather a situated, embodied participant in the scenes that surround him. As a result of this material engagement with the landscape, Thelwall adopts a new vocabulary in his treatment of the picturesque.
17. Thelwall’s speaker rejects the touring seasons of summer and autumn to recount the beauties of the Wye in winter, and in doing so offers a novel account of the picturesque. Thelwall’s focus is not the surfaces and shades of the landscape, but rather its “anatomy,” revealed in “the leafless grove, the dismantled hill, nay, the very gloom of night itself, when nothing is discernible but the mere outline of surrounding mountains” (3). Such anatomical observation “is as essential to the landscape painter, as that of the human form to the historical branch of the art” (3). Thelwall’s “Digression for the Anatomists” in The Peripatetic had declared that the anatomical insights of the “scientific eye” were vital even for “the elegant votary of the polite arts,” namely portrait and historical painting (146). But here for the first time Thelwall connects anatomical study with the analysis of landscape. In contrast to Gilpin, who makes human figures decorative appendages to the landscape, Thelwall asserts that the landscape can only be understood through analogy with the investigation of the “human form.” The material analysis of physical forms suggests a means of overcoming the gulf between Thelwall’s political aims and the abstracting conventions of aesthetic contemplation. What this formal comparison lacks is a sense of the social exchange fundamental to Thelwall’s political aims.
18. Thelwall suggests the means to make analysis of the picturesque a socially and politically engaged phenomenon in the next passage of the “Phenomena of the Wye,” which sustains his assertion that the appreciation of landscape is informed by the material analysis of physical forms, but also suggests that social configurations might be understood in the same way. The “bold and prominent” features of the Wye valley are particularly suited to examination during winter because:
19. In the close to this passage Thelwall demonstrates that such inclusive forms of investigation can assimilate the distinct discourses of aesthetic contemplation and social and political activism: “Such are the forms that owe not their attraction to the wardrobe—the charms that never cloy—that fade not even in the winter of old age—the sublime of human nature!” (4). Here landscape description and social interaction are so profoundly synthesised as to be inseparable. Thelwall echoes his assertion in the “Pedestrian Excursion” that picturesque “sequestration” produces “pleasures that cloy not on repetition.” But despite the sheltered location of his “little cottage,” Thelwall’s speaker in the “Phenomena of the Wye” does not demand seclusion (5). In contrast to the often isolated protagonist of the “Pedestrian Excursion,” Thelwall’s speaker exchanges stories with “my predecessor in this little farm” (5). As Scrivener notes, the “grand” natural phenomena that the speaker witnesses are discussed in terms of their effects on the social and economic conditions in the valley (Scrivener 82; “Wye” 6-7). Through the language of material analysis and sympathetic social engagement, Thelwall ensures that the “romantic and picturesque” scenes of the Wye do not represent pure “retreat” but rather gesture forward to Thelwall’s renewed engagement in public life in the next decade.
This article was written during a postdoctoral research fellowship funded by the Government of Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and I gratefully acknowledge DFAIT’s support.
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 As Lamb and Wagner suggest, an interesting comparison piece to Thelwall’s “Pedestrian Excursion” is Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (15). Bohls describes how Wollstonecraft unsettles standard aesthetic viewpoints and “works toward a corporeally and political situated mode of perception” (142, 152). BACK