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Samuel Lewis' 1786 sketch of Pope's "Grotto," c/o Pope's Grotto Preservation Trust
Samuel Lewis’ 1786 sketch of Pope’s “Grotto,” c/o Pope’s Grotto Preservation Trust

When the aesthetic of the sublime would be redefined and reinterpreted by Enlightenment-era philosophers, the works of Salvator Rosa provided a ready-made visual vocabulary for aspiring British gothicists to incorporate sublimity into their own projects. However, there is another, less obvious, antecedent to the Gothic Revival, and it is one with an almost uniquely British pedigree.

The “picturesque,” defined by Georgian-era poet par excellence Alexander Pope, evokes “the swan just gilded with the sun amidst the shade of a tree over the water on the Thames.” On its surface, the “picturesque” seems disarmingly simple; applied to landscape design and gardening, it meant to create a scene of novelty and charm, such as would make a suitable subject for a painting of the time. In reality, the concept is dizzyingly complex, calling into scrutiny the correspondence between painting and other forms of art, the subject-matter and its depiction in such a “picture,” and the many ways a connoisseur might interact with a work of art.

It took Alexander Pope, a prolific writer and Renaissance man, and one the most celebrated poets of his era, to enunciate and develop this aesthetic into an idea that continues to influence British landscape design down to the present day. The picturesque’s influence is not limited to gardening, however; it also provided relief and counterpoint to the sublimity described by Burke and Kant and discovered in the paintings of Rosa.

Alexander Pope was born in London on May 21st, 1688, a few months before the Glorious Revolution which would put an end for good to Catholic rule in England. As the son of a linen merchant, Pope was a member of the newly arisen urban middle-class. As Catholics, his family was prohibited from owning land within the City of London, and so, in 1700, the moved to the village of Popeswood in Binfield, just west of the capital. If the Popes were the pioneers in the expanding middle class, then Berkshire could be considered one of the first suburbs. It took in small, prosperous estates with greater space than the city provided, yet wasn’t so remote as to be considered legitimately “rural.”

Pope’s move to Binfield coincided with his affliction of tuberculosis of the bone, which caused him a number of physical ailments and deformities. For the rest of his life, Pope would suffer from pain, fevers, respiratory difficulties, and stunted growth. In fact, Lord Chesterfield once wrote that Pope’s “poor, crazy, deformed body was a mere Pandora’s Box, containing all the physical ills that ever afflicted humanity.” These physical afflictions did not constrain Pope’s sense of social adventure, however. Charming, witty, and often provocatively acerbic, Pope made friends among both the Whigs and Tories (opposing political parties still smarting from the English Civil War). He also developed close ties within the aristocracy, despite his unimposing background and problematic Catholicism. Pope was a true intellectual’s intellectual. He once wrote that “I feel no thing alive but my heart and my head.”

Pope’s sprawling intellect made its public debut with his 1709 Pastorals, a collection of poetry, and 1711’s Essay on Poetry, a discursive ars poetica. At about the same time he befriended Jonathan Swift and other writers, who together formed the famous satirical Scriblerus Club. His literary career continued to flourish with subsequent publications of The Rape of the Lock in 1712 and Windsor Forest in 1713. (I find myself drawing (unlikely?) comparisons with Jimi Hendrix’s prolific early career, and wondering how much more he would have produced had he not succumbed to the curse of the 27 Club.) Pope followed up with a six-year translation of The Iliad which brought him both fame and fortune. He used his newfound wealth to purchase a villa in the pleasant London suburb of Twickenham, and this is where he experimented with landscape design and developed his aesthetic of the pictuesque.

The estate at Twickenham (henceforth “Twickenham”) – essentially “suburban” in that early sense of refined and calculated pastoralism — was to be a blank canvas for Pope to translate his mental reveries into real space. In his nuanced analysis of the Pope aesthetic, Morris Brownell writes astutely about the way such a vision of reverie interacts with and responds to the sublime:

“[Pope] conceives the idea in the ‘Postscript to the Odyssey‘ (1725):

‘The Odyssey is a perpetual source of Poetry: The stream is not the less full, for being gentle; tho’ it is true (when we speak only with regard to the Sublime) that a river, foaming and thund’ring in cataracts from rocks and precipices, is what more strikes, amazes, and fills the mind, than the same body of water, flowing afterwards thro’ peaceful vales and agreeable scenes of pasturage.’

Despite Pope’s awareness of the terrible in ruined architecture and the frightful in landscape, his normal response to landscape is neither terror nor fright. Natural scenery interpreted as in painting, playhouse, or garden does not arouse turbulent emotion; it yields ‘a delicious feeling about the heart’, not the tremor cordis of the sublime.”

And so, we encounter an altogether delightful atmosphere when Pope writes a letter to Martha Blount, his lifelong friend and possible lover, describing a journey he had taken by land:

“I hardly knew what I undertook when I said I would give you some Account of this place. Nothing can do it but a Picture, it is so unlike any Scene you ever saw. But I’ll begin at least, & reserve the rest to my next letter. From Bath you go along the River, or its Side, the Road lying generally in sight of it, on each Bank are steep rising Hills cloathd with Wood at top, and sloping toward the stream in Green Meadows, intermixt with white Houses, Mills & Bridges, this for 7 & 8 miles, then you come in sight of Bristol, the River winding at the bottom of steeper banks to the Town where you see twenty odd Pyramids smoking over the Town (which are Glasshouses) and a vast Extent of Houses red & white. You come first to Old Walls, & over a Bridge built on both Sides like London bridge, and as much crowded, with a strange mixture of Seamen, women, children, loaded Horses, Asses, & Sledges with Goods dragging along, all together, without posts to separate them. From thence you come to a Key along the old Wall with houses on both sides, and in the middle of the street, as far as you can see, hundreds of Ships, their Masts as thick as they can stand by one another, which is the oddest & most surprising sight imaginable… at certain times only, the Water rises to carry them out; so that at other times, a Long Street full of ships in the Middle & Houses on both sides looks like a Dream.”

This description, taking in both the countryside approaching Bristol and the city itself, is a world apart from Rosa’s craggy landscapes populated with hermits and bandits. Notable is a lack of regularity and symmetry, but equally absent is threat. The landscape is not precisely regimented according to Neoclassical or Continental tastes (see Versailles for a very different approach), but this natural world, despite acting with some measure of independence from human influence, does not manifest danger, fury, or chaos. It may be harder to discern the picturesque in the more bombastic of the early gothic writers (Walpole, Lewis), but those with higher literary aspirations – Radcliffe and Shelley, for example – used it to effectively contrast the serenity of safe havens with the violence of the predatory wild. Other writers, even if they did not evoke the picturesque in such specific terms, called upon its definition of novelty, studied movement, and the use of optical illusion to create specific, natural-seeming effects.

Of course, Pope writes that “nothing can do it but a Picture,” but in fact his new estate at Twickenham offered him opportunities to do precisely this. After all, if painters painted landscapes, then the conscientious gardener could create landscapes that emulated painterly effect. With practice, Pope and his successors even discovered that there were advantages to a landscape that surpass a painting of a landscape. Most significantly, a painting can only depict a landscape from a single point-of-view, but someone moving through a garden in three-dimensions will encounter a succession of images, and even have the option of selecting which perspectives and which succession.

This concept was powerfully expressed in the grotto, easily the most famous project that Pope undertook at Twickenham. As he designed it, his Palladian villa overlooked the River Thames, while a long expanse of gardens and orchards separated the back of the house from the country road. In considering how to connect his grassy “front yard” with the gardens behind the villa, Pope designed a grotto that passed underneath the house. Standing in the front yard, one could see the gardens on the other side of this little “cave.” From the gardens, one saw the moving river. And passing through the grotto from either direction, it was discovered to have picturesque features of its own. In a 1740 letter, Pope writes:

“I have opened the whole into one Room, groin’d above from pillar to pillar (not of a regular Architecture, but like supporters left in a Quarry) by which means there is a fuller Light cast into all but the narrow passage (which is cover’d with living and long Mosse), only behind the 2 largest Pillars there is a deep recess of dark stone, where two Glasses artfully fix’d reflect the Thames, and almost deceive the Eye to that degree as to seem two arches opening to the river on each side, as there is one real in the middle. The little well is very light, ornamented with Stalactites above, and Spars and Cornish Diamonds on the Edges, with a perpetual drip of water into it from pipes above among the Icicles.”

The fruits of Pope’s design experiments were not limited to the intimate spectacle of the grotto. His gardens were connected by paths, alternately straight and sinuous, connecting features such as the Obelisk, the Orangery, and the Shell Temple, all designed with the intent of providing vistas and terminating objects which would punctuate a walk, lend interest, and inspire reverie.

Pope also participated in the design of another influential illusion, whose deception was more historical than optical: the sham ruin.

While Pope’s influence is more associated with the Palladian and Georgian aesthetics, Alfred’s Hall at Cirencester Park a direct and intentional evocation of the gothic: a small, ruined, castle-like edifice, designed to look ancient from the day on which it was built. By the time of his death in 1744, Pope had, in addition to his prodigious literary achievements, provided English designers, gardeners, and gothicists a coherent aesthetic of visually-inspired reverie and a toolkit of optical devices with which to work. As we’ll see, an ambitious generation of landscape designers had started exploiting these tools to their greatest effect.

Morris R. Browness, Alexander Pope and the Arts of Georgian England
Richard Davenport-Hines, Gothic

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