Beautiful, Sublime and Picturesque

Initial capitals have been used in the account of Knight, Price and Repton for the words Beautiful, Sublime and Picturesque, to mark their use as part of a specialised aesthetic vocabulary. As explained by Edmund Burke, ‘Beautiful’ meant smooth, flowing, like the body of a beautiful woman. ‘Sublime’ meant wild and frightening, like a rough sea or the views that might be obtained while crossing the Alps on a rocky track in a horsedrawn coach. ‘Picturesque’ was an intermediate term, introduced after Burke, to describe a scene with elements of the Beautiful and the Sublime. Without its initial capital, ‘Picturesque’ means ‘like a picture’. In what is called the landscape style in this book, Picturesque gardens have a sequential transition from a Beautiful foreground, through a Picturesque middle ground to a Sublime background. Composing gardens like paintings integrated the design ideas of the eighteenth century to create a landscape design concept of significant grandeur and exceptionally wide application.

The landscape style is the chief support for the claim that British designers made a unique contribution to western culture during the eighteenth century. In his 1955 Reith Lectures Nikolaus Pevsner used the term ‘English picturesque theory’ for what he described as an ‘English national planning theory’. Pevsner stated that it ‘lies hidden in the writings of the improvers from Pope to Uvedale Price, and Payne Knight’ and that it gave English town planners ‘something of great value to offer to other nations’. He then asked whether the same can be said ‘of painting, of sculpture, and of architecture proper’. His answer was that Henry Moore and other sculptors had ‘given England a position in European sculpture such as she has never before held’, but that English painting and architecture of the period were of markedly lower quality.

Tom Turner, Garden History (2005)

Humphry Repton, Woburn Abbey Gardens (1805)


Strange Absurdities

In the affected rage for following nature, as it is called, persons of acknowledged good sense and good taste, have been misled into the strangest absurdities. Thus, forgetting that a road is an artificial work of convenience, and not a natural production, it has, at one time, been displayed as the most ostentatious feature through the centre of a park, in the serpentine line described by the track of sheep; and, at another, concealed between two hedges, or in a deep chasm between two banks, lest it should be discovered: and such, alas! is the blindness of system, that, in a place where several roads are brought together (like the streets at the Seven Dials), within two hundred yards of the hall door a direction post is placed, as necessary to point out the way to the house.

Humphry Repton, An inquiry into the changes of taste in landscape gardening (1806)

Humphry Repton, Site at Wentworth, South Yorkshire before and after proposed landscaping


Thomas Medland’s Humphry Repton Business Card