Romance, Sublime, Picturesque


Romance, Sublime, Picturesque

Romanticism is a much used and abused term which has persistently eluded concise definition since it was coined in the mid 17th century, but its origins lie in the rebirth of interest in medieval literary romances. In 1764 the novelist Tobias Smollett provided a rather school-masterly definition of Romance:

‘It was spoke all over Italy, Spain, and the southern parts of France until the 13th century… As the first legends of knight-errantry were written in Provençal, all subsequent performances of the same kind, have derived from it the name of romance; and as those annals of chivalry contained extravagant adventures of knights, giants, and necromancers, every improbable story or fiction is to this day called a romance.’ 4.

In his Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, published in 1705, Joseph Addison described the ‘solitary Rocks and Mountains’ of Provence where the hermit saint Mary Magdalene ‘wept away the rest of her Life’ as ‘so Romantic a Scene’.5. In 1712, in The Spectator, Addison defined his aesthetic response to the sublime in nature, in terms which had an enormous influence upon subsequent poets and painters:

‘By Greatness, I do not only mean the Bulk of any single Object, but the Largeness of a whole View, considered as one intire Piece. Such are the Prospects of an open Champian Country, a vast uncultivated Desart, of huge Heaps of Mountains, high Rocks and Precipices, or a wide Expanse of Waters, where we are not struck with the Novelty or Beauty of the Sight, but with that rude kind of Magnificence which appears in many of these stupendous Works of Nature. Our Imagination loves to be filled with an Object, or to grasp at any thing that is too big for its Capacity. We are flung into a pleasing Astonishment at such unbounded Views, and feel a delightful Stillness and Amazement in the Soul at the Apprehension of them’.6.

Gaspard Dughet, Italian landscape.Click to enlarge

Addison’s vision of landscape was conditioned by his experience of 17th-century landscape paintings, above all by the canonical trio of Italian masters Claude Lorrain, Salvator Rosa and Gaspard Dughet, then known as Poussin. Their works were enthusiastically acquired by British collectors, and in 1753 Dr John Brown characterised the beauty of Keswick in the English Lake District in terms of their respective styles:

‘The full perfection of Keswick consists of three circumstances, Beauty, Horror and Immensity united…But to give you a complete idea of these three perfections, as they are joined in Keswick, would require the united powers of Claude, Salvator, and Poussin. The first should throw his delicate sunshine over the cultivated vales. The second should dash out the horror of the rugged cliffs, the steeps, the hanging woods, and foaming waterfalls; while the grand pencil of Poussin should crown the whole with the majesty of the impending mountains’.7.

This ‘Picturesque’ concept of landscape had a pervasive influence upon landscape painting and garden design in England, which endured well into the 19th century. In 1756 it was supplemented by the concept of the ‘Sublime’ propagated by the statesman and writer Edmund Burke. His Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful argued that both beauty and the awe-inspiring experience of the Sublime were perceived emotionally. Burke conditioned the thinking of a wide range of artists, including Reynolds, but his theory that both beauty and the Sublime were generated by subjective rather than objective criteria became a central tenet of Romanticism.

After visiting the Grande Chartreuse in the mountains of Savoy in 1739, in company with Horace Walpole, Thomas Gray enthused: ‘a monstrous precipice, almost perpendicular, at the bottom of which rolls a torrent…concurs to form one of the most solemn, the most romantic, and the most astonishing scenes I ever beheld’, and continued: ‘I do not remember to have gone ten paces without an exclamation, that there was no restraining: Not a precipice, not a torrent, not a cliff, but is pregnant with religion and poetry’.8. Gray was so moved by this sight that he wrote an ode, in Latin, in its honour.

Philippe Jacques De Loutherbourg, The Falls of the Rhine at Schaffhausen.Click to enlarge

Although painted nearly 50 years later, The Falls of the Rhine at Schaffhausen, by the expatriate Alsatian painter Philip Jacques De Loutherbourg, similarly emphasises the overwhelming force of untameable nature.

In 1754-7 Gray composed The Bard, an ode based on a legend that Edward I had executed the Welsh bards when he subjugated Wales during the 13th century. In its location of a blood-soaked medieval legend in a wild and spectacular mountain landscape, The Bard is a doubly romantic conception. Initially greeted with a mixture of praise and consternation, it proved highly influential. Gray’s close friend Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, channelled his own antiquarian and architectural interests into an analogous project: the creation of the neo-Gothic villa Strawberry Hill in the countryside outside London. A significant and wide-ranging collector of art and antiquities, Walpole was also the author of the first ‘Gothic novel’, The Castle of Otranto (1765). He noted ironically how the persistent fashion for Italian scenery encouraged many British poets and painters to ignore their native landscape:

‘As our poets warm their imaginations with sunny hills, or sigh after grottos and cooling breezes, our painters draw rocks and precipices and castellated mountains, because Virgil gasped for breath at Naples, and Salvator [Rosa] wandered amidst Alps and Apennines. Our ever-verdant lawns, rich vales, fields of hay-cocks, and hop-grounds, are neglected as homely and familiar objects’.9.

John Robert Cozens, Peasant’s hut between Naples and Portici.Click to enlarge

The collector William Beckford expressed strong reactions to the landscape and weather of Italy, and commissioned John Robert Cozens to paint watercolours of Italian scenery. His painting, Peasant’s Hut between Naples and Portici, includes the dejected figure of a shepherd, which adds a human element and invites the viewer to engage emotionally with the subject. This characteristically solemn interpretation of Italian scenery hints at the melancholia which eventually overwhelmed the artist, and moved Constable to observe ‘Cozens was all poetry’.

In 1793 Republican France declared war on Britain, and with only brief intervals, the two countries remained in conflict until the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. For a generation it was almost impossible for the British to visit mainland Europe. The tradition of the Grand Tour was broken, and painters and poets sought inspiration in their native landscape. Unable to travel abroad and made patriotic by a long war against a powerful foe, patrons became increasingly aware of the unique beauties of the British countryside. These circumstances encouraged the growth of a more truly national school of painting.


4. T. Smollett, Travels through France and Italy, Oxford 1907, p.180.

5. J. Addison, Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, &c, London, 1705, p.2.

6. Idem., in The Spectator, June 1712, no. 412, pp.95-6.

7. Quoted in P. Bicknell, Beauty, Horror and Immensity: Picturesque Landscape in Britain, 1750-1850, exhibition catalogue, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 1981, pp.x, 1-2.

8. Ibid., p.xi and T. Gray and W. Mason, The Works of Gray, to which are added memoirs of his life and writings, London 1807, vol.1, pp.202, 212.

9. From Walpole’s Anecdotes of Painting in England (1762-5); quoted in J. Barrell, The dark side of the landscape, Cambridge 1980, p.7.


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