Austen and the Picturesque

Austen and The Picturesque


The fundamentally Georgian notion of the picturesque is alluded to by Jane Austen in five of her novels: Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield ParkNorthanger Abbey, Emma and most predominantly, in Sense and Sensibility, which is no coincidence, given that the Picturesque was, like the Gothic Revival, a movement rather of sensibilities, an offshoot of feelings in the reason-driven culture of the Enlightenment. The first use of the term “picturesque” in relation to descriptions of nature is generally taken to be Pope’s reference, in a letter written in 1712, to lines of poetry being “what the French call verypicturesque (Brownell, Alexander Pope and the Arts of Georgian England [1978], 104). From the mid 18th century, through the Romantic Period, and until it had thinned out into hackneyed faddishness by the Regency, the Picturesque moved mountains.

An aesthetic appreciation of landscape was a practice that was realized during the Georgian era. This appreciation was inconceivable before the 18th century. A new way of seeing things requires learning, and a new way of seeing landscape requires travel and art, three experiences unavailable, especially combined, to practically none but the wealthy aristocracy at the beginning of the Georgian period. Like so many ideals, the Picturesque began with art, specifically the “discovery” by English tour makers of the 17th century continental landscape paintings of Salvator Rosa, Claude Lorraine and Gaspard Dughet (also known as Gaspard Poussin).

In England, landscape painting was a wholly foreign concept at this time. Landscape was merely a curtain dressing for the more interesting human drama and the land was something associated with peasants and labor, not subjects the monied classes thought of as artistically inspiring, and the very few who traveled in Europe, and wrote about it, before the Utrecht Treaty of 1713 wrote only of scenes such as the Alps, those darlings of the Picturesque, as inconvenient, uncomfortable and dangerous. Europe however, opened up to privileged English travelers after 1713 and The Grand Tour was born. Wealthy aristocrats on their tour favoured Italy in particular and started to take notice of these exotic landscape paintings, most commonly seen in Rome, and as a consequence, rapidly began to look upon the grand, rugged, alpine terrain, lurking banditti, swarthy peasants, and crumbling ruins not as tiresome, untidy inconveniences fraught with continental danger, but as the romantic subjects of Art. An early associational link was made by Horace Walpole in a letter during his tour with Thomas Gray in 1739:

‘Precipices, mountains, torrents, wolves, rumblings, Salvator Rosa!’

Landscape with a Hermit
c. 1662
Salvator Rosa
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool UK


While Horace Walpole’s taste developed to appreciate the more grandly Gothic and Sublime¹, and Thomas Gray the more neoclassical aesthetics of The Beautiful¹, the nitty gritty of the Picturesque was taken up by William Wordsworth in poetry, William Gilpin in travel essays, Uvedale Price² and Richard Payne Knight³ in appreciation essays and , later in his career, Humphry Repton in landscape design. The popularity of the Picturesque owed much to the rhapsodizing essays of Gilpin, who transplanted the ideal from the paintings of Europe to the countryside of Britain, revolutionizing the pre-existing ideas about tourism and allowing more humble English scenery seekers to experience a tour of the landscape, a hereto aristocratic privilege, without going abroad. Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy Wordsworth was the author of what isnow considered the quintessential work of Picturesque travel literature, Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland AD 1803 (1874 posthumous)

Much like the fashion for Gothic novels, the rage the Picturesque, though not unsound in itself, starting being taken quite literally. At Knight’s residence Downton Castle ‘large fragments of stone were irregularly thrown amongst briers and weeds, to imitate the foreground of a picture. Austen demonstrates the fashion for this ideal enjoying an enthusiasm that borders on absurd in Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, and even as dangerous in Sense and Sensibility, by associating the Picturesque with the exaggerated, emotion-driven and almost deadly sensibilities of Marianne Dashwood.

In Pride and Prejudice Austen touches but lightly on the topic, in a short exercise in ridicule. When Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst oust Elizabeth Bennet from a walk with Darcy by positioning themselves in a way that monopolizes a garden path, Darcy tries to offset their rudeness by inviting her to continue with them regardless. Elizabeth replies ‘You are charmingly group’d, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth’, indicating the enthusiasm for scenic objects grouped in threes by expounders of the ideal. This clever remark hints at the absurdity of Picturesque fastidiousness and casts that aura of silliness onto the trio, leaving the charming group looking somewhat deflated.

Part II is to be expanded upon in February 2011 – RH

¹ A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful – Edmund Burke 1757

² Essay on the Picturesque, As Compared With The Sublime and The Beautiful – Uvedale Price 1794

³ An Analytical Inquiry Into the Principles of Taste – Richard Payne Knight 1805


The Picturesque and the Gothic are intertwined in Northanger Abbey, and the limits to which these notions are stretched is a motif sustained throughout the narrative. Austen offers up the Picturesque as a testament to the real feelings of the younger Tilneys, as opposed to the false ones voiced by General and Captain Tilney and the Thorpes. The direction the story takes is dependent on the actions of the Northanger sibling sets: the Morlands, the Thorpes and the Tilneys, the motives and actions of brothers and sisters are central to the narrative. The different ways in which the Picturesque is associated with the Thorpes and the Tilneys emphasizes the great differences in character and sincerity in the opposing siblings. Similar to how their response to Gothic novels delineates a marked difference between Eleanor Tilney and Isabella Thorpe; Eleanor reads a novel like The Mysteries of Udolpho as enjoyable fiction while Isabella seeks to emulate it’s flighty melodrama, so too does the different ways in which Henry Tilney and John Thorpe are linked with the Picturesque present the disparity in intelligence and naturalness between the two men.

This disparity is keenly demonstrated in the two separate excursions Catharine Moreland is taken on by the different siblings, on the inappropriate jaunt in the carriages with the Thorpes, and the more decorous, and more fulfilling, country walk with the Tilneys. John Thorpe, when trying to persuade her to give up this prearranged walk with the Tilneys in favour of the carriage outing with himself, her brother James and Isabella, plays on Catharine’s gothic leanings by proposing to lead the party as far away as Blaise Castle, in Bristol:

“Blaize Castle!” cried Catherine. “What is that’?”

“The finest place in England–worth going fifty
miles at any time to see.”

“What, is it really a castle, an old castle?”

“The oldest in the kingdom.”

“But is it like what one reads of?”

“Exactly–the very same.”

“But now really–are there towers and long galleries?”

“By dozens.”

As Austen well knew, Blaise Castle is a fake, not unlike John Thorpe. Modern built in 1766 on the Blaise estate, the ‘castle’ is not a real castle but a miniature one, and is in fact a garden feature typical of some of the artificial excesses in landscaping practiced under the banner of the Picturesque. Still standing today on the top of Blaise Hill on the estate in Bristol, the castle was only thirty years old when Northanger Abbey was written. The narrative isn’t only making Thorpe appear foolish to 18th century audiences, it associates him with the more ridiculous aspects of Picturesque fashion. Ironically, this sort of garden feature was actually known as a ‘folly’.

In opposition to John Thorpe’s folly, the truly warm, good hearted dispositions of Henry and Eleanor Tilney make a calm inclination towards the Picturesque very natural, essential even, to differentiate them from every other protagonist, and make them the emotional and imaginative equals, or superiors, of Catharine. There are none but the Tilneys who share Catharine’s romanticism. The Moreland parents and James, while excellent, are people of ‘useful plain sense’, ‘good temper’ and ‘very respectable’. Mr Allen, like the Morelands, is sensible, wise and unimaginative. Kindly Mrs Allen only has the latter in common with her husband but her good nature is an unemotional, soothing balm. But the Tilney’s romantic awareness is en par with Catharine’s, and it is contrasted most strongly with the utterly unfeeling characters of the piece: the heartless and deceitful Thorpe siblings, and those stone cold Montoni¹ villains, General and Captain Tilney.

On their country walk, Austen tempers Henry Tilney’s interest in the Picturesque to an appreciation of natural beauty, that different way of seeing beauty in the natural landscape, as opposed to a cultivated one, that first emerged from the Grand Tour:

‘They were viewing the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing, and decided on its capability ofbeing formed into pictures, with all the eagerness of real taste’

On Catherine expressing her ignorance and a desire to learn to draw, ‘a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed’. This ‘lecture’ isn’t an ecclesiastic enthuse for the contrite but a real exercise in teaching and learning:

‘He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances–side-screens and perspectives–lights and shades’

Though intelligent and reasonable, Henry must not be immune to the emotional pull of the Picturesque, and Austen undercuts his sense with a little sensibility, by allotting to him the poetic romance of ‘a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak’.

The way the two men are differently associated with the Picturesque yields an accurate portraits of their characters – one clever with the capability for feeling, even romanticism, the other unfeeling, devoid of taste, and foolish. Austen offers a parting shot at the shallow end of the Picturesque, on the point of the General’s dry guided tour of the gardens at Northanger Abbey. Henry Tilney is absent and without him there to instruct her, Catharine is aware she ‘should not know what was picturesque when she saw it’. This little piece of self awareness coyly suggests that enthusiasm without education may lead to, among other misfortunes, the building of tacky fake castles in your garden.

¹Ann Radcliffe’s villain in The Mysteries of Udolpho


In Sense and Sensibility Marianne Dashwood’s ‘passion for dead leaves’ is more than a romantic appreciation of picturesque nature, it’s a declaration of the ideals that she has adopted. Decaying beauty is a phrase that could be used to describe Marianne herself for a good portion of the narrative, as well indicate her tastes. Her character is sound; she is ‘sensible and clever…generous, amiable, interesting’ but her demonstrative emotions and her actions are fueled by Romanticism, and often conjure affectations that, she acknowledges in the final chapters, go against even her character. Her sensibilities are fed by ill judged but popular sentimental notions and propped up by her will to embody the Romanticism of the poetry she reads and the decaying beauty of the Picturesque she so admires. These sensibilities, likewise the Picturesque, invoke drama.

When Elinor pokes fun at Marianne’s first conversation with Willoughby she jokes that ‘another meeting will suffice to explain his sentiments on picturesque beauty, and second marriages, and then you can have nothing farther to ask.’ Marianne’s notions on landscapes and love characteristically have the Romantic in common. Edward Ferrars also teases her good naturedly on the topic. During his first stay at Barton Cottage he admires the surrounding countryside and ridicules the language of the Picturesque as a superficial concern:

“You must not enquire too far, Marianne; remember I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere.”

Marianne laments that ‘every body pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was’, ‘him’ being William Gilpin in his series of essays on the Picturesque, a devotion to whom Edward also notes when he declares that if she were rich, Marianne ‘would have every book that tells her how to admire an old twisted tree’ and indeed, on the sister’s journey to London, ‘any object of picturesque beauty within their view drew from her an exclamation of delight’


“I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight, and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower,- and a troop of tidy, happy villages please me better than the finest banditti in the world.”

– Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility

Marianne’s appreciation of the Picturesque isn’t merely an exercise in fashionable sentimentality. Although her demonstrativeness is revealed to be affected, Marianne’s feelings are genuine; her real sensibilities as well as her sense prevail in the novel. While Austen uses the Picturesque to highlight Marianne’s emotionalism, she also uses it to remind us of her real taste and intelligence underneath her often self-absorbed and foolish actions. Edward and Marianne hold intelligent discussions about landscape and the narrative hints at ‘old disputes’ between them, indicating a history of thoughtful debate. The jargons of the Picturesque are not merely hollow words when used by Marianne:

“I am convinced,” said Edward, “that you really feel all the delight in a fine prospect which you profess to feel…”

Marianne’s actions of course and even her language at times borders on the absurd, and Austen associates the Picturesque with the absolutely absurd Rushworth in Mansfield Park. In a rage for ‘improvements’ Rushworth bores the Mansfield company with talk of instigating some at Sotherton. “Your best friend upon such an occasion,” Maria Bertram advices succinctly “would be Mr. Repton, I imagine” ***

Throughout her works Austen never criticizes the Picturesque per se but she does criticize the fashion for it. Like the subject of any fashion, there is nothing wrong with the Picturesque, what Austen ridicules with it, as she does so often, is the blind following of a trend without reason, honesty, learning or a consultation of real personal taste.

To be continued. This essay will be expanded in February 2011.




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