Opinion: do the roots of today's Instagram visual cliches lie in the ideal of the picturesque?

Anglican cleric and artist William Gilpin defined the picturesque as "that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture" and developed a prescriptive account of how to experience natural beauty: "make it rough" Positioned as an intermediate beauty between the smallness and smoothness of the beautiful and the awesome terror of the ungraspable sublime, this middle ground was pleasing for Gilpin in its energetic presentation of singularly irregular vistas.

"The Giants causeway in Ireland may strike (the picturesque eye) as a novelty, but the lake of Killarney attracts its attention" he explains. Furthermore, the inclusion of a ruin in a picturesque scene can spark the imagination and create an atmosphere of "agreeable suspense" for the gentleman beholder in a nationalistic pursuit of picturesque scenery.

Gilpin developed his ideas as a tourist. In Observations on the River Wye 1770, illustrated with sketchings of his trip on the river Wye from Ross to Chepstow, he alters the landscape to suit the picture, privileging visual perception, formal composition and bypassing ethical considerations in appreciation.

River Landscape with Ruins by William Gilpin. Photo: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Picturesque tourists, now conceived as viewfinders, were expected to produce sketches of the sites they visited. By identifying specific viewing points best suited to capturing the picturesque, such journals functioned as popular travel guides. Standard 18th century tours included, North Wales, the Lake District, and the Scottish Highlands. The popularity of the picturesque tour throughout the long 19th century can be seen in Landseer’s images of Victoria and Albert in the Scottish Highlands. We can even see the touring queen capturing the picturesque and her subsequent sketch.

A defining possession of the picturesque tourist was the "Claude-glass". The Instagram filter and selfie stick of its day, this small black convex pocket mirror was framed like a picture. It weakened and bordered the landscape, emphasising conspicuous features at the expense of detail. The mirror represented both landscape in practice but the increased control and management of the landscape. It afforded an "obscurity" that produced "rich" and "beautiful distance" so admired by Gilpin. The resulting paradox of the picturesque tourist is the combination of an adventurous search for new aesthetic experiences that conform to established and familiar pictorial standards.

Unsurprisingly, the rules and tourists were mocked. Gilpin was caricatured as the hapless and rigid Dr. Syntax with his unruly horse Grizzle in The tour of Doctor Syntax in search of the picturesque (1809), William Coombe's satirical poetry and Thomas Rowlandson's absurd colour illustrations. Presented as "Don Quixote of the Lake District," this memorable figure was popular for many decades as the volume of merchandise, ranging from plates to board games testify.

From Gresham College, Malcolm Andrews looks at the late 18th and early 19th century vogue for the Picturesque

The picturesque is a capitalist and gendered aesthetic as it assumes a gentleman citizen/beholder defined by leisure, privilege, education and property. Malcolm Andrews explains that there is "something of the big-game hunter in these tourists, boasting of their encounters with savage landscapes, 'capturing’ wild scenes, and ‘fixing’ them as pictorial trophies in order to sell them or hang them up in frames on their drawing room walls."

This revaluation of English scenery occurred at a time when foreign travel was limited due to the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. With the leisured class limited to the local "staycation", the picturesque quickly become the term that theorists and tourists alike employed to form an image of pre-industrial England. It was then extended to Welsh, Scottish and Irish landscapes in the service of generating a British visual identity. Finola O’Kane shows how the concept played into a "seductive reconfiguration of Ireland’s visual identity" which reconstructed Ireland as a "theme park...where the design principles of the English informal garden attempted to transform the material structures of the Irish landscape by creating ‘little Englands’ in Ireland."

Gilpin’s reference to Killarney isn’t random. Irish picturesque tourism is exemplified by Jonathan Fisher’s portfolio of aquatint engravings of Killarney. Fisher’s 1789 images are even arranged for visitors follow the ideal (clockwise) direction around the lake. Such a rigid approach to landscape scenery inevitably become formulaic and stultifying. The pure formalism of Gilpin’s approach, where the poor are to be depicted as idle objects, is in time seen by writers such as John Ruskin, George Eliot and Charles Dickens as cold, overused, superficial, commercial and heartless.

1st View of Killarney (1789) by Jonathan Fisher. Image © Crawford Art Gallery

It was inevitable that the picturesque gaze of the elite, loaded with gendered, religious, political, leisure, economic and class assumptions, was questioned. Gilpin’s universalising approach means that the historical distinctiveness of the ruins and landscape of a non-English setting are overlooked to accommodate the assumption of a singularly British aesthetic. The unrivalled home of the picturesque cliché today is Instagram and there are endless articles bemoaning how influencers are ruining tourist sites.

Yet ethical considerations in aesthetic appreciation cannot be bypassed. Today, theory is explicitly cognisant of what Michel Foucault called the "gaze", how social norms define what is made visible and how it is presented. This has blossomed into a literature that includes a critique of the tourist gaze, where the world is obsessively consumed through postcard images; the rural gaze that idealises a rural idyll; the male gaze and the orientalising imperial, romantic and extractive gazes that assume a western male and colonial perspective. All of these gazes have traces of the picturesque.

The potency of Gilpin's theory lies in "its simple rules, its easy implementation as a leisure activity, available to the not so rich, to the unacademic dilettante, to women [it] goes beyond the exclusive domain of high art to become part of middle-class culture."  For good or ill, he offers us a proto-cinematic vision of the visual experience landscape which tourists still seek to actively and ritualistically capture. While we may scoff at the idea of an "Instagram butler", who shows travellers the most picturesque spots, we can now see that 21st century tourism does not constitute a new inauthenticity. Its roots are in the picturesque theory conceived by Gilpin 250 years ago on the river Wye.

This is an abridged version of a talk delivered at the Hugh Lane Gallery to mark World Philosophy Day 2020.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ