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)

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