William Gilpin

William Gilpin, by Henry Walton. National Portrait Gallery, London.
William Gilpin, by Henry Walton. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Born: Cumberland, 1725

Died: Boldre, 1804

Known For: An essay on prints: containing remarks upon the principles of picturesque beauty; the different kinds of prints; and the characters of the most noted masters (1768); 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); 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 (1786); Three essays: on picturesque beauty; on picturesque travel; and on sketching landscape: to which is added a poem, On landscape painting (1792); Observations on the Western parts of England, relative chiefly to picturesque beauty; to which are added a few remarks on the picturesque beauties of the Isle of Wight (1798)

William Gilpin can be veritably described as the father of the picturesque or, in the Monthly Review’s words from 1799, “the venerable founder and master of the picturesque school.”1His works, including travel writings and works of aesthetic theory, introduce, define, and illustrate his theory of “picturesque beauty” which, in the second half of the eighteenth century, rose in recognition comparable to the beautiful and sublime. Gilpin was born in 1724 near Carlisle, Cumberland. His father, Captain John Bernard Gilpin, was a well-renowned amateur painter who particularly admired the works of landscape artist Alexander Cozens.2 Bernard Gilpin tutored his son and many others, most notably including John Warick Smith and Robert Smirke. Gilpin remained in Cumberland until he began school at Oxford in 1740. By 1746 Gilpin was ordained a deacon and appointed to the curacy in Cumberland, but returned to Oxford in 1748 and was ordained a priest. Gilpin also worked as an assistant teacher, and became headmaster of Cheam School for Boys in 1753. Around this time he also married his first cousin, Margaret Gilpin (1725-1807).

Before publishing any picturesque travel writing Gilpin was a prolific biographer, whose subjects include Bishop Hugh Latimer, John Wycliffe, Thomas Cranmner, and his ancestor Bernard Gilpin. He also penned an autobiography, Memoirs of Dr. Richard Gilpin … and of his posterity … together with an account of the author, by himself: and a pedigree of the Gilpin family (ed. W. Jackson, 1879). Gilpin’s thoughts on the picturesque were perhaps grounded in his anonymous A Dialogue upon the Gardens of the Right Honourable the Lord Viscount Cobham at Stowe (1748), where he distinguished between the moral and aesthetic beauty found in natural landscapes and ruins.3 In Gilpin’s 1768 Essay on Prints he introduces the concept of picturesque, defining it as “a term expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture.”4 The Essay was successful as a guide for print collecting and reached a fifth edition by 1802. His subsequent works, mostly titled as some variant of Observations, relative to picturesque beauty [on a part of England], develop and put to practice his theories on the picturesque. These essays were published between 1782 and 1809, although are from notes and sketches of Gilpin’s tours taken in the 1760s and 1770s. In these tours, beginning with 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, published in 1782, Gilpin set out to describe and illustrate his picturesque ideals in landscape. Thus, the illustrated quest after picturesque beauty, the picturesque tour, was born. The success of Gilpin’s picturesque tour books coincided with mass tourism taking place in the 1780s and 1790s, as well as new book production technologies that allowed his line and wash drawings to be reproduced as aquatint.

Towards the end of his life, Gilpin pushed his desire to be known as a religious thinker, rather than solely artistic. In 1802 he plead to his publishers: “I have figured so much lately as a picturesque man, that I should be glad to redeem my character as a clergyman.” Gilpin died in 1804 at the age of eighty, survived by his wife and two sons.


  1. Monthly review, or, Literary Journal. V 28 pgs 394-400. April 1799. British Periodicals.
  2. Barbier, Carl Paul. The Reverend William Gilpin and the Picturesque: An Exhibition of the Works of the Reverend William Gilpin, 1724-1804, and Other Members of the Gilpin Family, June to September 1959. London: London County Council, 1959.
  3. Andrews, Malcolm. “Gilpin, William (1724–1804).” Malcolm AndrewsOxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Oxford: OUP, 2004.
  4. Gilpin, William. Essay on Prints. p. xii.