Laurel of Austenprose has asked me to provide some background posts to her mammoth and laudable  Group Read of Pride and Prejudice Without Zombies. Today, I offer you my last contribution, a post about William Gilpin and Jane Austen, which I do hope you will enjoy and find informative.

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Having read Henry Austen’s biographical notice of her, published in the posthumously printed first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion and in subsequent editions, I knew, also from an early age, that Jane Austen was

enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque at a very early age…

so, when aged 15 or therabouts I found a copy of his Observations on the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland in what was then one of my favourite haunts, a second-hand bookshop in Dr Johnson’s home city of Lichfield, I bought it  immediately…But now comes a confession…Prepare yourself for something very dreadful… I didn’t read it for another 20 years.

I thought it would be deadly boring.

How wrong I was.

I should have trusted Jane Austen’s taste and judgement, and realised exactly why she was enamoured of him…..but we are getting ahead of ourselves. Before we explore his books and the reasons why I think she adored him, we ought properly to learn a little about William Gilpin’s life to find out who he was….

William Gilpin was born on 4 June 1724  near Carlisle, in  Cumberland. He was the son of Captain John Bernard Gilpin and a Matilda Langstaffe . Captain Gilpin was considered to be one of the best amateur painters of the time, and this artistic talent seems to have passed through to the next generation, for William was obsessed with  the correct way to view both pictures and landscape, and his younger brother, Sawrey Gilpin, was to become a famous animal painter and, indeed, later contributed some illustrations to William’s books.

After a typically indifferent education at Queen’s College Oxford,  William Gilpin was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England in 1746, and was  subsequently appointed to the curacy of Irthington in Cumberland.

In 1747 he preached a sermon at Buckingham, and must while staying there have taken the opportunity  to visit Lord Cobham’s famous landscape gardens at Stowe.  For he then wrote, anonymously, the tract,  A Dialogue upon the Gardens of the Right Honourable the Lord Viscount Cobham at Stowe (1748) where, for the first time, he set out his theories on the distinctions to be made between beauty in natural scenery and in ruined buildings, theories which were to become the basis for all his later writings on the “Picturesque”.

In 1752 Gilpin married his first cousin, Margaret Gilpin, and by 1753 he had taken over the management of the  Cheam School for Boys, in Surrey, where for the past few  years he had been an occasional assistant teacher . He proved to be a very able teacher and an enlightened disciplinarian, replacing the school’s normal system of corporal punishment with a system of punishment dependant not on inflicting physical harm but on imposing detentions and monetary fines. Interestingly, the proceeds of the fines were put towards the maintenance and improvement of the school’s resources as well as to fund local charities.

In 1768 Gilpin published his book, Essay on Prints. It was published anonymously.  It received excellent reviews.

His aim, as the title-page of my copy of the second edition ,above, indicates, was to outline

the Principles of picturesque Beauty, the Different Kinds of Prints, and the Characters of the most noted Masters

The Essay defines ‘picturesque’ as

a term expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture

He went on to expand on this theory in his series of books on the British countryside.  In 1777 Gilpin left Cheam to become vicar of Boldre in the New Forest in Hampshire. The living gave him the very respectable income of £600 a year and, probably more importantly, some leisure time during which he  began to write seriously on his ideas of the “Picturesque”, the meaning of which he expounded upon  in his Observations on the Western Parts of England

(Do note you can enlarge all the illustrations in this post merely by clicking on them)

Picturesque beauty is a phrase but little understood. We precisely mean by it that kind of beauty which would look well in a picture. Neither grounds laid out by art nor improved by agriculture are of this kind. The Isle of Wight is in fact, a large garden or rather a field which in every part has been disfigured by the spade ,the coulter and the harrow. It abounds much more in tillage than in pasturage; and of all species  of cultivation, cornfields are the most unpicturesque. The regularity of corn fields disgusts, and  is out of true with everything else….

Do note his tone..we will refer to it later on…

He began to work upon the sketches and copious notes that he had taken in his holidays during the period 1769-1776, in which he had made various tours throughout the British Isles. The books he subsequently produced were quite remarkable, influential and very popular.

As the entry for Gilpin in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography records:

That challenge (to define exactly what was meant by the term “picturesque-JFW) was met in the series of books published between 1782 and 1809, all of which bore the same title format: “Observations on [various regions of Britain] relative chiefly to picturesque beauty.” He travelled widely in Britain, with his notebook and sketching materials, in order to identify locations which offered that particular kind of beauty in landscape ‘which is agreeable in a picture’. Picturesque tourism constituted ‘a new object of pursuit’, as he wrote in the first of these books, Observations on the River Wye (1782): the practice recommended was ‘that of not merely describing; but of adapting the description of natural scenery to the principles of artificial landscape’ (Wye, 2). Further picturesque books, with aquatint reproductions of Gilpin’s pen-and-wash drawings, included Observations on Cumberland and Westmorland (2 vols., 1786), the Scottish highlands (2 vols., 1789), south-west England and the Isle of Wight (1798), and theEeastern counties of England and north Wales (1809). Remarks on Forest Scenery (1791), illustrated with etchings by his brother, Sawrey, concentrated on the New Forest, where he lived. Three Essays of a more analytical kind, on the nature of picturesque beauty, picturesque travel, and on the sketching of landscape, together with a poem on landscape painting, appeared in 1792. In 1804 Two Essays described his methods and principles in making his sketches.

These were the books that so enamored Jane Austen, and into which we will now delve. And I confess they have now completely enamored me and I have almost a complete set-I’m lacking only the Eastern Counties and Welsh volumes-still looking for them though…

Now, My Patient Reader, you will recall that  I began this post by admitting that I had avoided reading Gilpin because I thought he was going to be boring. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

He most certainly cannot be described in any way as  boring. He is a highly opinionated and vital writer; and such writers, like opinionated people, make for engaging companions, even if you don’t agree with their pronouncements or views. His opinions are expressed in such a forthright manner that you cannot but engage with him. Or be started. Or burst out laughing at the outrageousness of it all.

And I think it is this that captivated Jane Austen. His style is so terribly pompous and opinionated,  fixated on his search for the picturesque to the exclusion of everything else, even common sense: and that is why, to be brutal, some of his pronouncements(even when slightly modified )are of such monumental stupidity that they take your breath away.

Let me explain by quoting some examples. In his first Observations book,  Observations on the River Wye etc  he has this to say about Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire -a romantic ruin of a place that has inspired poets and prose writers alike. Note, I have emboldened the important part of this quote :

(Gilpin’s view of Tintern Abbey)

No part of the ruins of Tintern is seen from the river except the abbey church. It has been an elegant Gothic pile; but it does not make that appearance as a distant object which we expected. Though the parts are beautiful, the whole is ill-shaped. No ruins of the tower are left, which might give form and contrast to the buttresses and walls. Instead of this a number of gable ends hurt the eye with their regularity, and disgust it by the vulgarity of their shape. A mallet judiciously used (but who durst use it?) might be of service in fracturing some of them; particularly those of the cross-aisles, which are both disagreeable in themselves, and confound the perspective.

Do you see? He seriously suggests (even in a qualified form) that  by taking a mallet to a ruin and judiciously using it , it could be made more picturesesque. (Alert Sir Roy Stong and Prince Charles immediately!) He is of the opinion that the appearance of the abbey could be improved by bashing some more holes in the ruined structure. Goodness.  Written in all seriousness without a hint of humour.

And this I feel is the key to Jane Austen’s enamourment of him. He was so serious and preposterous she simply could not resist taking  pot shots at him throughout her works. Henry Austen’s Biographical Notice was subtle. It meant ,I am sure to imply, that Jane Austen was a cultivated woman who through her reading of Gilpin was possessed of the refined accomplishment  of appreciating landscape and painting. But I think that interpretation leads us astray. What she truly delighted in, in my humble opinion, was not slavishly adhering to Gilpin’s every  dicktat, but to pricking his jlittle puffs of pomposity, which clearly delighted her sense of the ridiculous. And now if we read his books given this knowledge, we are suddenly let in on the meaning of many of her subtle jokes.

For example, in her History of England by a partial prejudiced and ignorant Historian, the 16 year old Jane Austen obviously poked fun at Goldmsith’s rather prejudiced partial and selective  history text and  much more besides, including  a serous swipe at Gilpin at his most ridiculous. In the chapter on Henry VII she writes:

(Cassandra Austen’s drawing of Henry VIII for JAne Austen’s History of England)

The Crimes and Cruelties of this Prince were too numerous to be mentioned…& nothing can be said in his vindication, but that of his abolishing Religious Houses and leaving them to the ruinous depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general, which probably was his principal motive for doing it, since otherwise why should a Man who was of no Religion be at so much trouble to abolish one  which had for ages been established in the Kingdom.

This is, in my opinion, a direct allusion and attack to the sentiments Gilpin expresses in this passage in his Observations on Cumberland and Westmorland when he is talking, quite seriously and not intending to be  satirical at all, about his birthplace,  Scaleby Castle near Carlisle:

(Gilpin’s view of Scaleby Castle, his birthplace)

At present one of the motes only remains. The other is filled up; but may still be traced. The castle is more perfect than such buildings commonly are. The walls are very intire; an great part of the tower which is square is till left. It was preserved its perfect form till the civil wars of the last century; when the castle, in too much  confidence of its strength, shut its gates against Cromwell ,then marching into Scotland; he made it a monument of his vengeance.

What share of picturesque genius Cromwell might have I know not. Certain however it is that no man since Henry the eight has contributed more to adorn this country with picturesque ruins. The difference between these two masters lay chiefly in the style of ruins, in which they composed. Henry adorned his landscape with the ruins of abbeys; Cromwell with those of castles. I have seen many pieces by this master executed in a very grand style; but seldom a fine monument to his masterly hand than this. He has rent the tower and demolished two of its sides; the edges of the other two he ash shattered into broken lines….

So here we have Gilpin seriously telling us we are to admire Cromwell for his artistic ability when destroying castles and that both he and Henry VIII adorned the landscape of England with ruins? As if they did this deliberately to create a  picturesque effect? That the English Civil War and the Dissolution of the Monasteries were contemplated merely for the decorative effect they would eventually bequeath the English countryside? “I think not ” I can hear the young Jane Austen say to herself as she  as she sharpened her pen….

Another example: in Northanger Abbey during Catherine Morland’s tour around Beechen Cliff near Bath  with the impeccably educated Tilneys,  Jane Austen cannot resist poking fun at these unthinking disciples of Gilpin.

They were viewing the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing, and decided on its capability of being formed into pictures, with all the eagerness of real taste. Here Catherine was quite lost. She knew nothing of drawing — nothing of taste: and she listened to them with an attention which brought her little profit, for they talked in phrases which conveyed scarcely any idea to her. The little which she could understand, however, appeared to contradict the very few notions she had entertained on the matter before. It seemed as if a good view were no longer to be taken from the top of an high hill, and that a clear blue sky was no longer a proof of a fine day. She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance…

In the present instance, she confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared that she would give anything in the world to be able to draw; and a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances — side–screens and perspectives — lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape.

Northanger Abbey Chapter 14

Poor Catherine , going from ignorance to scholarly “erudition” in the space of one afternoon’s walk! So easily able to dismiss the  spectacular sight of Bath from the top of Beechen Hill: a sight which is surely “picturesque’ if any sight qualifies for that term.

Similarly  Marianne Dashwood’s preference for blasted trees in Sense and Sensibility is  surely based on Gilpin’s passages in his book, Remarks on Forest Scenery.

In this book he goes into the minutest detail of the picturesque nature of trees. His comments on the preference in the landscape for blasted trees ignore the practicalities required of the farmer or forestry men ,all in the name of the “picturesque”:

The blasted tree has often a fine effect both in natural and in artificial landscape. In some scenes it is almost essential. When the dreary heath is spread before the eye and ideas if wildness and desolation are required, what more suitable accompaniment can be imaged than the blasted oak, ragged, scathed and leafless; shooting its peeled white branches thwart the gathering blackness of some rising storm…..

No wonder Edward Ferrers, speaking with his creator’s voice perhaps, is able to demolish Marianne and Gipin’s fancy by the timely intervention of some sound practical principles:

“I am convinced,” said Edward, “that you really feel all the delight in a fine prospect which you profess to feel. But, in return, your sister must allow me to feel no more than I profess. I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles, or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower — and a troop of tidy, happy villagers please me better than the finest banditti in the world.”

Sense and Sensibility Chapter 18

Apart from these examples where Jane Austen was, in my opinion reveling in her ability to ridicule Gilpin, there are clearly many other allusion she made to his works but these were of a more practical nature, due to her limited personal experience of the geography many parts of the British isles.  She travelled extensively in the south of England and possibly into Tenby in South Wales, but ventured only as far north as Hamstall Ridware in Staffordshire on a visit in 1806.

In order to write about places she had never visited she needed a knowledgeable guide and she found an able one in Gilpin. For example the Juvenilia is peppered with references to places in Scotland –a country she certainly never visited-and I feel sure that  Jane Austen was able to use Scottish locations and references after reading his  Observations on the Highlands of Scotland


When it came to writing Pride and Prejudice, which ought really to be our focus here today, she again had to use Gilpin as a guide for I am quite certain that she never set foot in Derbyshire. The closest she may have go to it was viewing the country at a distance from Needwood Forest on her trip to her Cooper cousins in Staffordshire in 1806, as Mrs Caroline Lybbe Powys did in 1800.

In his Observations on the mountains an Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland Gilpin gives the reader an extremely detailed account of his trip though the county of Derbyshire and Jane Austen could by reference to his notes and observation describe the ideal  and imaginary  but definitely Derbyshire landscape of Pemberley:

Elizabeth’s mind was too full for conversation, but she saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view. They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; and in front a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!

Pride and Prejudice Chapter 43

(Gilpin’s view of Dovedale,Derbyshire)

By studying his book, combined with  her own knowledge of Warwickshire gained on that summer trip in 1806, Jane Austen  could also follow the route the Gardiners took into Derbyshire-

It is not the object of this work to give a description of Derbyshire, nor of any of the remarkable places through which their route thither lay: Oxford, Blenheim, Warwick, Kenelworth, Birmingham, etc., are sufficiently known.

Chapter 42

(Warwick Castle by Gilpin)

-for that was also the well established tourist route that Gilpin described in his Observations of Cumberland and Westmorland, making many caustic remarks on the scenery and grand houses enroute.

I ought to remark that Jane Austen was not alone in finding Gilpin unintentionally amusing. He was ridiculed rather mercilessly  as Dr Syntax in a series of three books, Dr Syntax’s Three Tours: in Search of the Picturesque, Consolation and a Wife

These books were written by William Coombe and illustrated (without mercy) by Thomas Rowlandson. Here, for example, is the hapless Dr Syntax losing his money at the races at York….

And to bring this post to a close, let’s share one final Gilpin inspired joke with Jane Austen. In Chapter 10 of Pride and Prejudice, when out walking with Darcy, holding his arm, Caroline Bingley  rudely abuses Elizabeth and her connections. Mrs Hurst, arriving with Elizabeth, takes Darcy’s free arm, therby effectively and rudely separating Elizabeth from the “In-Crowd’ as the path “will not admit a fourth”:

At that moment they were met from another walk by Mrs. Hurst and Elizabeth herself.

“I did not know that you intended to walk,” said Miss Bingley, in some confusion, lest they had been overheard.

“You used us abominably ill,” answered Mrs. Hurst, “running away without telling us that you were coming out.”

Then, taking the disengaged arm of Mr. Darcy, she left Elizabeth to walk by herself. The path just admitted three. Mr. Darcy felt their rudeness and immediately said, –

“This walk is not wide enough for our party. We had better go into the avenue.”

But Elizabeth, who had not the least inclination to remain with them, laughingly answered, –

“No, no; stay where you are. You are charmingly grouped, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth. Good-bye.”

She then ran gaily off, rejoicing, as she rambled about, in the hope of being at home again in a day or two. Jane was already so much recovered as to intend leaving her room for a couple of hours that evening.

Here we have Jane Austen her allowing her heroine an opportunity for getting her revenge on the Bingley sisters for their continued rudeness to her. Elizabeth is quite clearly referring to a passage from Gilpin’s Observations on Cumberland and  Westmorland. In Volume II Section XXXI  he waxes lyrical on the picturesque qualities of the  domesticated animals normally to be found in the  English countryside; that is, horses, sheep and cows. This is what he has to say about the grouping of cows:

Cattle are so large that when they ornament a foreground, a few are sufficient. Two cows will hardly combine Three make a good group- either united- or when one is a little removed from the other two. If you increase the group beyond three; one of more in proportion must necessarily be a little detached .This detachment prevents heaviness and adds variety…


As you can see from his illustration of this group of cows, three is the magic number as far as he was concerned. A fourth has to be some distance off otherwise it spoils the picturesque.

By allowing Elizabeth to make this one little, seemingly innocent  remark (and escape from Darcy and the Bingley sisters in the process) Jane Austen  demonstrates that despite the efforts of Mrs Bennet to hinder her education, Elizabeth has, by the  advantage of her extensive reading, more awareness of the principles of the picturesque than of the expensively educated ladies before her. As a man of taste and education Darcy is most probably aware of the source for her reference and cannot but be impressed by it. He also knew that she was referring to them as a group of three….cows.

Game set and match to Elizabeth Bennet walking swiftly in the opposite direction…..

So that’s my take on Jane Austen and William Giplin. She was, as Henry Austen would have us believe,  enamored of him, I am certain, but not necessarily for purely innocent reasons. Like her creation Elizabeth Bennet, she found that Gilpin’s follies, nonsense, whims and inconsistencies diverted her tremendously, and she could not help but gently poke fun of him whenever the opportunity arose.