William Gilpin, Doctor Prosody and the Picturesque: Capturing Scotland's Landscape.

"Doctor Prosody Discovers a Curious Relic of Antiquity"

I have recently been grappling with the concept of the Picturesque. This was an 18th century school of thought that was was applied to art, its principal proponent being William Gilpin (1724 - 1804). But it affected other fields as well, such as landscape gardening, and it reflects changing attitudes to landscape as a whole. It seems to consist of contradictory elements: on the one hand what was called the sublime (the 'horrible' or 'awesome' - precipes, mountains, wilderness) and on the other hand, a control over nature. Artists, many of them amateur were encouraged to view nature as if it were a picture, such as that painted by Claude Lorraine. If the view accorded to such a scheme, then it was worth painting. Tourists could even buy a "Claude Glass", small, tinted convex mirrors that helped them frame an intended view for painting.

William Gilpin was a cleric and schoolmaster as well as an author. He developed his theories on art, and on what constituted a suitable subject for painting, in the south of England, where he famously suggested taking a mallet to Tintern Abbey: he considered it not sufficiently ruined! 

After he had written various volumes on different parts of England, he inevitably headed for the Highlands, and in 1789 published Observations Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, made in the year 1776, On Several Parts of Great Britain; Particularly the Highlands of Scotland.

In this book he continued to expound his views on the picturesque.

Arthur's Seat, for example, he thought "appears still as odd, misshapen and uncouth...a view with such a staring feature in it, can be no more picturesque, than a face with a bulbous nose can be beautiful."

At Loch Awe, on the other hand, "We took two drawings...upon this lake. In one of them, two of the islands appeared with great advantage; and the mountain screens behind them, consiting only of simple parts [my italics], were magnificent."

Inveraray Castle he thought "equally adapted to all the purposes of greatness, beauty, and accommodation." He was much taken with the nearby mountain 'Doniquaick' [Duniquaich], and the lonely watch-tower that stood on its summit "which like everything characteristic has a good effect. Had it been an ornamental building of any kind, thus loftily seated , it had been absurd."

Such a controlled, self-conscious approach to beauty and art was of course open to ridicule, and no one did this better than William Combe. In 1812, Combe published a book in the form of a comic verse titled The Tour of Doctor Syntax, In Search of the Picturesque.

A miniature edition of Combe's book, published by Ackermann in 1823.

A miniature edition of Combe's book, published by Ackermann in 1823.

The Reverend Doctor Syntax determined to make his fortune with a book describing a tour of England he proposed to make:

"I'll prose it here, I'll verse it there/ And picturesque it everywhere." 

The poem relates the various adventures he underwent on this tour. His model was Doctor Johnson:

"At Doctor Pompous give a look/ He made his fortune by a book."

Combe's book was a great success, helped by the set of fine caricatures by Thomas Rowlandson, and it was followed in 1821 by The Tour of Doctor Prosody in search of The Antique and Picturesque through Scotland, The Hebrides, the Orkney and Shetland Isles.

My volume has off-setting from the frontispiece - apologies!

My volume has off-setting from the frontispiece - apologies!

This volume adpoted much the same format as that of Doctor Syntax, the caricatures this time being provided by C. Williams and W. Read.

There is little doubt as to who is the subject of parody: in 1773 Dr Johnson and his friend Dr Boswell made their famous tour of the Highlands. Combe's main character is Doctor Prosody, and his companion on this journey, Doctor Factobend. They are accompanied by their faithful servant, Archy.

Prosody is a typical antiquarian, and seeker of the picturesque, and what better place than Scotland, "where/The picturesque is never rare"? So poor Archy is given "...a load which you must bind/ Upon your back, 'tis Atlas size,/ And filled with Bristol- Board, a prize/ Such as I fear we might find rare/ 'Midst Scottish Glens, and mountains bare" [Bristol-board being drawing paper]. Archy reluctantly accepts his burden: "So I am ready to receive it/ Though I protest I'd sooner leave it."

In almost every scene that is depicted in caricature, poor Archy can be seen bearing his load.

"Prosody Arrives in the Vicinity of Edinburgh." Archy is on the right, with his load.

Combe satirizes both the antiquarian, and the seeker for the picturesque in Prosody and his companions. At Holyrood, Prosody finds an old blade on which can be made out "A-D- FERR AR". Doctors Prosody and Factobend agree this must date from 1 A.D. (!), and therefore must be Roman, the FERR AR referring to iron (Ferrum). It is left to a local to explain that the inscription is the name of the maker, Andrea Ferrara.

He "left our sages in chagrin/ To find their gross mistake was seen/ And that their boasted antique lore/ Had been eclipsed by a boor."

"Doctor Prosody Discovers a Curious Relic of Antiquity".

Unlike Gilpin, Prosody admired Arthur's Seat:

"....This is sublime/ And it would really be a crime/ If I should lose another minute/ In sketching it, for there is in it/ All that can charm the eye of taste/ It is most picturesque at least."

Later, he is found sketching at Cora Linn, the falls near Glasgow, which have a sublime aspect:

The Falls "Astound the ear with deaf'ning din/ The river pent by mural rocks/ In dreadful eddies, whirls and smokes/ Until the horrid precipice/ Conducts it to a black abyss..."

Inevitably, Prosody goes too near the edge and has to be rescued.

"Doctor Prosody Tries his Friends at the Falls fo Clyde."

Prosody's tour follows a classic path: they brave the gulf of Corryvreckan, and later take in Staffa; then on to Skye, and even to St Kilda; back on the mainland they sail on the new Caledonian Canal, whence they head further north to John o' Groats and on to Orkney and Shetland. You may not be surprised to find that I point out that they did not visit Ross-shire or Sutherfland!

They enjoy a meal in Edinburgh Castle, served by Archy in full antique regalia.
They are thought to be poachers near Stirling. Prosody again loses his wig, which Factobend shoots, thinking it is a game bird.
Prosody is not impressed by Highland Inns.
On Mull, Prosody adopts the full Highland garb
On Iona, Prosody the antiquarian 'improves' the worn tombs etc. with mallet and chisel. So incensed are the locals that they attack with stones and missiles. Archy's folio folder acts as a shield!
The journey across the gulf of Corryvreckan.
The journey to Staffa
St Kilda, where Doctor Factobend is persuaded to be lowered down a cliff in a bird basket.
On Skye, where Prosody is conned into buying pearls.
On the Caledonian Canal, where the antics of a festive wedding party upset the horses.
On Hoy in the Orkneys, where the party is attacked by Solan Geese.
On Shetland, where they are captured by smugglers. Archy still has his folio on his back!
The journey over, Prosody is at the publisher's office, trusting that his book will make his fortune.

Finally, back to Gilpin. I have an original drawing, a view near Perth looking down onto the river Almond. The work is attributed to Gilpin. Who knows if it is, though the provenance suggests it might be, but it is certainly in the style of the master of the picturesque.

An original drawing, attributed to William Gilpin.

An original drawing, attributed to William Gilpin.