My trip to Westonbirt last month introduced me to the theories of the early 19thc landscape designer William Sawrey Gilpin, who I’d heard of, but who had never really figured on my garden history radar.
Gilpin had a career as an artist before at the age of 58 launching himself into landscape gardening. He quickly became the greatest exponent of the Picturesque school of landscape design, and effectively the historical intermediary between Humphry Repton and Sir Charles Barry.
So read on to find more about this elusive man and his work…
Despite being born into a family of painters, and being a painter himself, there is no known portrait of William Sawrey Gilpin. His father Sawrey who was a member of the Royal Academy, specialised in painting animals, particularly horses, while his grandfather Captain Bernard Gilpin was a very competent amateur landscape painter whose work is eminently collectible. But of course his most famous relation was the schoolmaster and writer, the Reverend William Gilpin – and it’s probably to distinguish the two that William Sawrey sports his double name.
As so often, little is known about WS’s upbringing but as his father’s patron was the Duke of Cumberland it’s likely that he spent time in London, Windsor and Brighton where the duke and his nephew, the Prince Regent spent most of their time. The young WS may well have also boarded at his uncle’s school at Cheam in Surrey where in the school regulations, gardening was mentioned alongside drawing as “a useful amusement. If any hath a genius for it, it is encouraged.” It certainly worked in young WS’s case. He had also obviously inherited the family talent and later set up as a drawing master. However it’s his work for his uncle that began to establish his reputation.
The Rev William Gilpin wrote a series of travelogues which acted as a theoretical and practical foundation for the Picturesque movement. WS did the illustrations for Observations on the River Wye (1782). He also began exhibiting his watercolours at the Royal Academy in 1797 with a scene of Rydal in the Lake District where he seems to have been living.
His life was changed completely when in 1799 one of his pictures on show at the Academy caught the attention of the great patron of the arts Sir George Beaumont [He was one of the founding donors of the National Gallery, and gave the Royal Academy the Michelangelo Tondo]. Beaumont then introduced him in turn to Sir Uvedale Price, author of Essays on the Picturesque.
In 1804 WS was elected president of the newly founded Society of Painters in Water Colours and in 1806 was appointed as a drawing master at the Royal Military College in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, which was relocated to Sandhurst in 1812.
In the days before photography topographical drawing was a fundamental part of both army and naval officers’ training, since they needed to be able to produce accurate and detailed surveys of sites. As a result the military schools gave employment to a series of talented artists like Gilpin and Paul Sandby.
However, with the end of the Napoleonic Wars the schools were gradually run down and in 1820 Gilpin was made redundant. At the age of 58 he was not best pleased and complained about the ‘cruelty of suddenly tearing me from my means of livelyhood, which I had every reason to rest upon as secure … abandoned at that age to begin the world again in search of a precarious support’
The shock made him review his career options and it was then that he decided to try landscape gardening. But despite its semi-enforced nature Gilpin found himself in the right place at the right time. Humphry Repton had just died with no obvious heir and the Romantic movement was getting into full swing. His introduction to Uvedale Price now paid dividends. Price began to champion Gilpin in his new profession and recommended him to friends and acquaintances.
Gilpin began crisscrossing the country gradually building up a clientele and a reputation. He claimed to have worked on ‘some hundreds of properties’ although, according to his biographer Sophieke Piebenga, so far only about 70 have been identified, mostly in England and the southern half of Scotland, with a small number in Ireland and one in Wales. [Ph.D, York, 1995] There 66 sites associated with WS on our database.
As one would expect Gilpin’s clients were from the landed gentry and aristocracy for whom he became a gentleman adviser – their ‘man of taste’ – guiding them in both the theory of landscaping as well as the more hands-on practical aspects of laying out an estate. One of the disadvantages from a historians point of view about this way of working is, that unlike Repton, there is little documentary evidence of his work and what there is scrappy, often unsigned and undated.
Gilpin’s ideas, like those of Price, were based on the view that the 18thc English landscape style of designers like Capability Brown was “too sweeping, too shapeless, too smooth, too tidy and too monotonous.” Irregularity was what was needed. Plantations and clumps of trees should never be symmetrical, but always as varied as possible – indeed many [like those of Loudon’s gardenesque designs] look like blobs of amoeba. Gilpin argued, howveer, that they had an internal unity by tint, density etc . This desire for asymmetry echoed similar movements in architecture, with the move to Gothic with all its turrets, gables, battlements and pinnacles what Charles Quest-Ritson called “the Waverley Novels effect.” [Country Life 25 Sept 2010] The other thing that was needed was a frame for the garden, just as for a picture. This meant that there should be no more Brownian lawns that swept up to the house, but instead the views from each principal room should be considered as paintings and be carefully composed and ‘improved’.
In 1832 Gilpin formalised his theories in Practical hints upon landscape gardening: with some remarks on domestic architecture, as connected with scenery. A second edition followed in 1835. It is obviously based on Price’s Essays on the Picturesque (1794), indeed Gilpin opens the book by saying “this little work may seem superfluous” to those who have read Price “where the subject is so ably and fully discussed as to leave no room for improvement and no ground for dissent.” His aim is merely to offer practical and useful applications of Price’s theories.
The full text can be found at:
The book is strange to our eyes because Gilpin almost scientifically classifies elements of the landscape into clearly defined categories with exemplars for each. Country residences are ‘Castles, a Grecian or Italian edifice, a Manorial Buildings, a Hunting Lodges or a Cottage ornee – a general name for that sort of building that claims no place among the former.’ Scenery is divided into Grand, Romantic, Picturesque, Beautiful or Rural and although there can be some overlap each has a buiding style best suited with it.
In it WS showed how to use a painterly eye to improve the landscape and scenery, asserting in particular that ‘composition in landscape embraces three distinct parts, the distance, the middle distance, and the foreground.’
‘The first of these is out of the reach of improvement in itself’,but ‘contributes more or less to the general effect of the scene’, depending on what is done with the parts under the owners control. ‘The middle distance will sometimes be within the influence of immediate improvement, particularly where the domain is extensive’ but there is no doubt that to Gilpin ‘the principal improvements will be limited to the foreground.’
Foregrounds are classified too, into the natural and the architectural and Gilpin expresses both ‘astonishment’ and ‘regret’ that the architectural elements ‘should have fallen a sacrifice to the undistinguished and desolating hand of the modern system of improvement.’ Gilpin was as you see no great friend of Capability Brown. ‘The habitation of man should be distinct from that of the cattle around him.’
The art of improvement consisted of uniting all three into ‘one harmonious whole.’ This requires ‘variety’ and ‘intricacy’, and it is the connection between these two factors that creates the right effect. This is, effectively, what John Claudius Loudon described as ‘picturesque improvement’, in his 1806 Treatise on Forming, Improving and Managing Country Residences, 355). So it’s not surprising that Loudon too was among Gilpin’s proponents (The Suburban Gardener and Villa Companion, 1838)
Trees play an important part in Gilpin’s designs, and he pays a lot of attention to their siting and distribution because ‘they create a variety in the scenery as viewed from the different windows and varying points of the walks.’ Even when it is clear that the landscape require improvement Gilpin advises against their hasty removal. The owner had better wait until ‘he has accurately observed the effect in winter as well as summer.’
Gilpin offers specific examples at every turn of his argument, as well as illustrations usually before and after his subtle interventions. Unfortunately the sites are not identified and the plates are not even given titles or referenced in the text. But usually the architectural foreground was created by well detailed long terraces and intricate parterres, ornamented with balustrades, urns and statues, which in a way marked the return of formality into the areas immediately around the house, and then into the wider garden.
Gilpin died in 1843 aged 81, working until almost the very end of his life. His biographer, Sophieke Piebenga, sums up his significance at a time when gardening was dominated by horticultural innovations and exotic plant introductions, that he adhered rigourously to the picturesque principles advocated by Sir Uvedale Price.
For more information there is a Country Life article by Charles Quest-Riston which can be found at:
There is some archival material at Bowhill, Gorhambury, Wolterton, Wembury and Sandhurts, and if you have access to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography then there is an entry by Sophieke Piebenga. She has also written an article, “William Sawrey Gilpin (1762-1843): Picturesque Improver” in Garden History, Vol. 22, No. 2, The Picturesque (Winter, 1994) Her PhD thesis is lodged at York and could be consulted there but it is not available on-line.