What is a Picturesque Tour?

Picturesque travel rose to popularity in England in the 1780s and 1790s, initiated by William Gilpin’s “Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, etc. Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the Summer of the Year 1770” (1782). In this work, Gilpin’s passages and prints describe qualities that make particular scenes suitable for painting  as a practical way to increase pleasure in leisure travel. Gilpin’s work launched the cultural phenomena of seeking picturesque scenes in remote areas of England, as an influx of tourists traveled to seek nature untouched by man, and to improve that nature in sketches according to picturesque ideals. For examples of the prints published in Gilpin’s work, refer to the gallery at the right.

Historical Background of the Picturesque Tour

The Grand Tour, popular from the late seventeenth though the early-eighteenth centuries, was specific to aristocratic young men in England who had the money and leisure to travel. The typical Grand Tour itinerary brought a young man, along with his attendants and instructors, from the French countryside to Paris, Geneva, the Alps, Florence, Venice, Rome, Naples, Berlin, and Amsterdam. The Grand Tour supplemented a young man’s education, cultivating his historical consciousness and artistic taste, and helping him mentally position Britain alongside ancient empires.1 Although during the last third of the eighteenth-century a wider class of people gradually came to enjoy The Grand Tour, the French Revolution and subsequent years of conflict between France and Britain disrupted Continental travel from roughly 1790 to 1815.2 Domestic travel took hold in its stead, paralleling a rise in mass tourism and picturesque travel. Typical destinations of the picturesque tourist included The Lake District of Northern England, Wales, and the highlands of Scotland. The map below outlines the destinations sought in a typical picturesque tour. This particular tour includes those destinations noted by Gilpin in his Observations, relative chiefly to picturesque beauty, made in the year 1772, on several parts of England: particularly the mountains, and lakes of Cumberland, and Westmoreland (1788).

William Gilpin and the Principles of Picturesque Travel

In contrast to the Grand tour, the picturesque tour popularizes rustic scenes that were accessible to the ordinary citizen, albeit the ordinary citizen as a “man of taste”, who could view a scene with a mental encyclopedia of art and culture to heighten beauty in reference.3 William Gilpin’s “Essay on Picturesque Beauty” (1792) defines the picturesque as pleasing “from some quality, capable of being illustrated in painting”4; as such, it combines elements of the sublime and beautiful introduced in Edmund Burke’s “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1756). In Gilpin’s “Essay on Picturesque Travel” he furthers that the “general intention of picturesque travel” is to search out the picturesque, thus offering an object to those who otherwise “travel without any end at all.”5 These essays, along with his “Essay on Sketching Landscape”, set out to define the aspects of the picturesque that he had sought and illustrated in his Observations. The following excerpts from Observations, relative chiefly to picturesque beauty, made in the year 1772, on several parts of England: particularly the mountains, and lakes of Cumberland, and Westmoreland illustrate Gilpin’s advice on the pursuits of picturesque travel and the elements of a picturesque scene.


“Yet, magnificent as these ruins are, they are not picturesque…unless aided by perspective, and the introduction of trees to hide disgusting parts, would furnish a good picture” (Volume I, 42).

“…contains no striking objects; and cannot be formed into any of those pleasing combinations, which constitute a picture” (Volume I, 79).

“We have now made a considerable advance towards a landscape. The sky is laid in; a mountain fills the offskip; and a lake, with its accompaniments, takes possession of a nearer distance. Nothing but a fore-ground is wanting, and for this we have great choice of objects – broken ground – trees – rocks – cascades – and vallies” (Volume I, 111).

Altering the Landscape:

“Trees he may generally plant, or remove, at pleasure. If a withered stump suit the form of his landscape better than the spreading oak, which he finds in nature, he may make the exchange…” (Volume I, xxviii).

“In the mean time, with all this magnificence and beauty, it cannot be supposed, that every scene, which these countries present, is correctly picturesque…In all these cases the imagination is apt to whisper, What glorious scenes might have been made, if these stubborn materials could yield to the judicious hand of art!” –––And, to say the truth, we are sometimes tempted to let the imagination loose among them” (Volume I, 119).

“The nearer we approach the character of nature in every mode of imitation, no doubt the better: yet still there are many irregularities and deformities in the natural scene, which we may wish to correct – that is, to correct, by improving one part of nature by another” (Volume II, 11).


“If the imagination can be thus fired up by these romantic scenes even in their common state, how much more may we suppose it wrought on, when they strike us under some extraordinary circumstance of beauty, or terror – in the tranquility of a calm, or the agitation of a storm”(Volume I, 123)?

“With regard to the adorning of such a scene with figures, nothing could suit it better than a group of banditti. Of all the scenes I ever saw, this was the most adapted to the perpetration of some dreadful deed. The imagination can hardly avoid conceiving a band of robbers lurking under the shelter of some projecting rock; and expecting the traveler, as he approaches the valley below” (Volume I, 166).

“The horse, in itself, is certainly a nobler animal, than the cow. His form is more elegant; and his spirit gives fire and grace to his actions. But in a picturesque light the cow has undoubtedly the advantage; and is every way better suited to receive the graces of the pencil.
In the first place, the lines of the horse are round and smooth; and admit little variety: whereas the bones of the cow are high, and vary the line, here and there, by a squareness, which Is very picturesque…The very action of licking herself, which is so common among cows, throws the hair, when it is long, into different feathery flakes; and gives it those different feathery flakes; and gives it those strong touches, which are indeed the very touches of the pencil. –Cows are commonly the most picturesque in the months of April, and May, when the old hair is coming off” (Volume II, 252).


“From this correct knowledge of objects arises another amusement; that of representing, by a few strokes in a sketch, those ideas, which have most the most impression upon us. A few scratches, like a short-hand scrawl of our own, legible at least to ourselves, will serve to raise in our minds the remembrance of the beauties they humbly represent…There may be more pleasure in recollecting, and recording, from a few transient lines, the scenes we have admired, than in the present enjoyment of them” (Volume I, 51).

Commodification of the Picturesque
The British Library catalogue lists four picturesque journeys from 1750 to 1782; from the time publication of Gilpin’s Observations on the River Rye in 1783 until the publication of The Tour of Dr. Syntax in 1812 this number rises to sixty.6 If considering Gilpin’s publications alone, the commodification of the picturesque is evident. His Observations were circulated amongst acquaintances in the 1780s before he was persuaded to publish his first ObservationObservations on the River Wye, and several parts of South Wales, etc. relative chiefly to picturesque beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770 in 1782. This tour was enormously popular, and he published five further tour guides around different areas of England, ending in 1809, along with several “Remarks” and essays on picturesque travel. The increase in picturesque tour publications tied in with the increase in mass tourism discussed above and was aided by the by the introduction of aquatint in 1775. Aquatint enabled a large number of detailed reproductions to be printed that preserved the tonal effect of the ink and wash drawings recommended for picturesque traveling. With this new technology, the picturesque tour was codified, popularized, and commodified.7 The language of the picturesque tourist, including rules of viewing and proper viewing stations, and his sketching tools, such as the Claude glass, were common.8 Aside from Gilpin’s work, two popular tour guides were Thomas West’s A Guide to the Lakes (1778), which went into eight editions before the end of the century, and William Wordsworth’s A Guide Through the District of the Lakes (1810), which went through several expanded editions in the next twenty-five years.9 Travel commodification is evident in both: West’s Guide aimed to direct the tourist to the most scenic viewpoints, while Wordsworth aimed to both provide directions through a Lake Tour itinerary and to heighten the traveler’s enjoyment, or to “furnish a guide for his mind”10, through his own descriptions.

After Gilpin’s Observations introduced the term “picturesque”, other writers set out to theorize and apply the term as an aesthetic philosophy. Particularly, the term was debated in relation to landscape gardening by Sir Uvedale Price, Richard Payne Knight, and Humphrey Repton. In Price’s Essay on the Picturesue (1794) and A Dialogue on the Disctinct Characters of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1801), Price argues that the beautiful, sublime, and picturesque are inherent characters in an object, whereas Knight, in his The Landscape: A Didactic Poem, Addressed to Uvedale Price (1794) and An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805) believe that these characters were created by the observer.11

Critique of Picturesque Travel
Dr. Syntax was not, by any means, a standalone critique of the picturesque tour. Its satire on both the “pursuit” of picturesque and the accompanying consumer craze of guide books was echoed by many. In fact, some critics theorized that tours were plagiarized; that tourers funded their tours with monetary advances given by their publishers; or that tourers wrote parts of their books before setting out so as to lessen the materials they had to bring.12 Since guide books descriptions rested on the “ideal presence” of an unobserved viewer, one form of critique was to focus attention back on the tourer, whereas other critiques focused on the rules of the picturesque. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Elizabeth Bennet excuses herself from a walk by saying, “[S]tay where you are. — You are charmingly group’d, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth. Good bye.” Parodies and satires are, however, only a testament to the immense popularity of the picturesque.

Consider how modern day photography mimics picturesque tendencies, and how this alters our actual and remembered viewing experience. For example, below is an actual view from the streets of Windermere, a popular Lake District destination:

The scene lacks the rustic charm and irregular scenery recommended in Gilpin’s tours. The picturesque traveler would surely not spend much time documenting a scene like this, in favor of a more pleasing viewpoint such as in the photograph below, a tourist photo taken in Grasmere, near Windermere. As you can see, it inherits many picturesque traits: a tri-part composition, irregular boundaries, and a winding road providing depth and the idea of the infinite. We can imagine Gilpin recommending the addition of a cow in the foreground and a crumbling tower on the distant shore. With the addition of a tint similar to that of a Claude glass, we have a replicated Gilpin scene.

Grasmere, June 2011
Grasmere, June 2011


  1. Hulme, Peter, and Tim Youngs. The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2002. p. 37.
  2. Ibid., p. 38.
  3. Andrews, Malcolm. The Search for the Picturesque: Landscape Aesthetics and Tourism in Britain, 1760-1800. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1989. p. 4.
  4. Gilpin, William. Three Essays: On picturesque beauty; On picturesque travel; and On sketching landscape: to which is added a poem, on landscape painting. p. 3.
  5. Ibid., p. 41.
  6. Ionescu, Christina. Book Illustration in the Long Eighteenth Century: Reconfiguring the Visual Periphery of the Text. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2011. p. 316.
  7. Ibid., p. 318.
  8. Rosenthal, Michael, Christiana Payne, and Scott Wilcox. Prospects for the Nation: Recent Essays in British Landscape, 1750-1880. New Haven: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art the Yale Center for British Art Yale UP, 1997. p. 141.
  9. Wordsworth, William, and Ernest De Sélincourt, ed. Guide to the Lakes. London: Frances Lincoln, 2004. p. x.
  10. Ibid., p. 27.
  11. Whitehead, David. “Price, Sir Uvedale, first baronet (1747–1829).” David Whitehead. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Oct. 2007.
  12. Ionescu, p. 296.

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