William Gilpin, Creator of the Picturesque: Paintings & Biography

Instructor: Rachel Tustin

Dr. Rachel Tustin has a PhD in Education focusing on Educational Technology, a Masters in English, and a BS in Marine Science. She has taught in K-12 for more than 15 years, and higher education for ten years.

William Gilpin was a man of many talents. As a writer, parish priest, and artist his work had far-reaching impacts including changing his community as well as how nature is perceived.

The Reverend William Gilpin

Although William Gilpin might appear as a typical English priest, his passions ran deep and manifested themselves in his writing and art. He was born in the Lake District of England, in Cumberland. Its natural beauty would place it as a subject among his many travel essays he would pen. He attended schools in the areas of Carlisle and St. Bees and earned a Bachelor of Arts from Queen's College at Oxford in 1744.

From his childhood Gilpin demonstrated a passion for art. However, his passion for the Lord prevailed and he pursued a career as a clergyman. For a brief time in his life, beginning around 1746, he was a deacon in the village of Irthington, in his home county of Cumberland. By 1748 he had returned to Oxford to pursue a Masters in Arts. That same year he began what would later become his travel journals, writing about his experiences in nature. Initially he elected to publish his works anonymously, with his first Dialogue upon the Gardens of the Right Honourable the Lord Viscount Cobham at Stowe. His Essay on Prints, published in 1768, was also be anonymous. This particular essay became a primer for the collection and print of graphics from various artists.

William Gilpin

It was after earning his masters, circa 1751-1573, Gilpin married his first cousin Margaret. They moved to Surrey where he served as the headmaster for Cheam School for Boys for several years. The position suited him well, but he was an unconventional headmaster. He added sports and aesthetic appreciation to the school's curriculum. Corporal punishment, on the other hand, disappeared from the school. Instead, he used a system of other sanctions, including fines, to curtail undesirable behavior. The money raised was used to add books to the library or other school improvement projects that benefited all students. Being a headmaster also freed his summers up to travel, draw, and write.

By 1777, he moved on and assumed a position as parish priest. It was during this time that he was encouraged by William Mason and Dorothy Cavendish, Duchess of Portland, to formally publish his accounts with his name attached. The money he earned from these publications was used to establish a school for the poorest children in his parish and to build a new poor house.

Gilpin and the Picturesque Technique

'Picturesque' is a concept created by Gilpin in his art. He described it as 'that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture.' However, the actual concept is not quite that simple. Think of the picturesque technique as a merger of sorts. The style incorporates natural beauty, in particular its regularity, smoothness, and order with the notion of the sublime created by a feeling of magnitude and vastness. However, it was not just about a pretty picture. Roughness was also important as it, in Gilpin's words, was 'the essential point of difference between the beautiful and the picturesque.' It was a blending of all these that Gilpin called picturesque.

Creating the picturesque technique required a tool already in use: a Claude glass. It was Claude Lorrain, the 17th-century landscape painter, who pioneered the use of the Claude glass. Simply put it is an oval-shaped, slightly convex, tinted mirror which was supposed to help artists imitate his landscape painting technique. The convex shape of the mirror required the artist to turn his back on the scene, and the mirror itself would widen the view and push the background of the scene farther into the distance. Gilpin liked to use a Claude glass because the slight distortions of the mirror softened the image and therefore the art.

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