Politics of the Picturesque

In his Landscape, Liberty and Authority, Tim Fulford examines the paradox of William Gilpin’s travel writings and tour-leading in the picturesque wilds of Wales, England, and Scotland. Gilpin was aware that “the picturesque might be socially dangerous,” so much so that

he apologizes to the noble landowners whose estates he presents as a series of view—afraid that he disrupts his professed discovery of an aesthetic and social order in those estates by selecting from them a few visual scenes for consumption by readers and tourists who, coming from elsewhere and merely passing through, are not bound by the rural order whose visual representation they merely observe. The independence of the reader and tourist allows him to consume the scene and move on. Neither the rural labourer governed by the squire of whose local power the estate is a sign, nor the squire designing his estate as a landscape to illustrate that local power, Gilpin’s tourist judges in accordance with an aesthetic law derived from elsewhere—from pictures. (141-2)

His worries didn’t prevent him from capitalizing on the demand for picturesque landscapes and encouraging a restless consumerism that set him at odds with the social structures and mores on which the picturesque world depended: He “produces a narrative whose restless movement threatens to undermine the established patterns of power that he supports politically.”

Fulford sees in this an implied inversion of authority. Scenes are “treated as parts of a procession of scenes which the picturesque tourist, by virtue of having seen so many, will be better placed to judge disinterestedly than the lord of the manor himself. The tourist as consumer becomes a more reliable source of aesthetic judgement than the landed gentleman. And so, as landscape becomes a commodity, wealth (expressed as the collection of as many scenes or views as possible) rather than landed property (a single landscape owned, governed and heritable) becomes the source of power” (142).

Wordsworth was more openly political in his treatment of the same landscapes: “The Lyrical Ballads attempted to effect a politicization of feeling in opposition both to commercialist economics and to gentlemanly paternalism. They were not, as some critics have suggested, an evasion of politics via an escape into nature nor were they a Burkeian idealization of organic tradition. They were instead the culmination of Wordsworth’s development of a particular kind of English radicalism, one which used a view of rural landscape and society to make arguments about the government of the nation. Wordsworth’s Lake District poems can be compared with Thomson’s Patriot location of a pre-Norman native English liberty in an untamed Northern landscape,” and his endorsement of rustic speech expressed his hope for a revival of “native independence” enjoyed by Anglo-Saxon Britain and eroded by post-Norman absolutism (161-2).

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