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William Gilpin, Observations on Cumberland and Westmoreland, 1786. Introduced by Jonathan Wordsworth. Poole and New York: Woodstock Books, 1996. ISBN: 1 -85477-207-4 (hardback). Price: £75[Record]

  • Duncan Wu

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  • Duncan Wu
    University of Glasgow

Who else could it be but that arbiter of the eighteenth-century picturesque taste, the Revd William Gilpin? Many guide-book writers had preceded him—Johnson, Boswell, and Thomas Gray among them—but only he, as early as 1772, could have written in terms of granting the artist the license to 'take great liberties' with what Nature put before him. It is a aesthetic leap that marks him out as a great deal more than just another dilettante; he was only one step away from the full-bloodedly romantic conception of a creative imagination that half-creates and half-perceives. There were times when he could be amusingly literal about the artist's right to alter Nature to the requirements of the picturesque—as when, in his guide book on the Wye valley, he incites the enthusiastic tourist to correct the unsightly gable ends in the ruins of Tintern Abbey: Wordsworth read the Observations on Cumberland and Westmoreland as a teenager at Hawkshead when it first appeared. It had an immediate and formative impact on his big poem of the moment, The Vale of Esthwaite , and would influence the way he conceived of imaginative thought for the rest of his life. When, in the 1815 Preface, he described "the conferring, the abstracting, and the modifying powers of the imagination," he wrote as the inheritor of a intellectual tradition that begins with Gilpin. Wordsworth wasn't the only writer whose thought was shaped by Gilpin, but he's the most important. The young Samuel Rogers, touring the Lakes in 1789, took with him the Observations so as to inform his search for 'picturesque beauty', and Gilpin is invoked on numerous occasions in Austen, often for comic effect, as when Elinor guys Marianne in Sense and Sensibility about the way in which one meeting more will suffice to explain Mr Willoughby's opinions on the picturesque. By summer 1800, when Coleridge recorded in a notebook his disgust at 'Ladies reading Gilpins etc., while passing by the very places instead of looking at the places', his ideas had permeated the culture. Acolytes like Uvedale Price were already appropriating them in more complex intellectual configurations; as Gilpin confided to a friend who had asked him about Price's redefinition of the picturesque: He was a prolific writer, and published a number of books of considerable significance, but the Observations on Cumberland and Westmoreland is his most important in terms of its impact on the mainstream of romantic thought. It was through his eyes that visitors to the area—and, in fact, natives such as Wordsworth (Gilpin himself was a Cumbrian, of course) apprehended the shapes and forms of the landscape. More importantly, it licensed and legitimised that shaping spirit which the romantics, as contrasted with their eighteenth century forbears, came to value so highly. Reading the Observations now, it's hard not to be struck by how prescriptive he is—in a manner that seems quite untypical of the Romantics. What can Wordsworth have thought of Gilpin's categorizing of mountains in terms of their shape ('round swelling line, without any break', 'easy line', 'lumpish forms', 'parallel lines')? And how pedantic he sometimes appears, in a distinctly eighteenth-century manner—as when he defines fens, as distinguished from pools and lakes. But is there more than a touch of self-irony in his remark that "The fen is a plashy inundation"? He was too much a poet to surrender to theory for long—hence, no doubt, his lack of interest in Price. His prose descriptions of the landscape are interlarded with quotations from Virgil, Ovid, Thomson, John Dyer, and many others; sometimes, as in his comments on the surfaces of lakes, he will simply …