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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Guidebooks to ‘the picturesque’: creating a new generation of traveller

Travel writer, artist, teacher, and reverend, William Gilpin obsessively collected drawings and sketched, and, as a student at Oxford in 1748, self-published ‘A Dialogue upon the Gardens at Stow in Buckinghamshire’. With practical tips for travellers on how they could get the most out of their visits to the country and best enjoy the scenery, the book was probably the world’s first travel guide. A unique combination of guidebook and reflective essay on aesthetics, it explored Gilpin’s ideas to do with ‘the picturesque’. A mad fan of landscapes – the craggier, more rugged and wilder, the better – Gilpin ruminated on the beauty of nature and perception in a way that hadn’t been done before. In his ‘Essay on Prints’ on landscape painting, published 20 years later, Gilpin defined ‘the picturesque’ as the kind of beauty that pleases us when we look at a painting, and formulated (often amusing) full-blown theories on picturesque beauty. Gilpin travelled widely during the 1760s and 1770s and on his trips began to apply his theories to what he was seeing, filling journals with sketches and thoughts, which he then circulated among friends. A decade later in 1782 Gilpin published ‘Observations on the River Wye’, based on a summer there, followed by ‘Observations on the Lake District and the West of England’, a guidebook series in the making… Both books were incredibly popular, inspiring people to travel to the English countryside simply for a spot of ‘scenic touring’, and to enjoy the landscapes in the ways Gilpin suggested – in much the way contemporary guidebooks direct us to today. When Gilpin’s readers travelled they too spent their time sketching and talking about their experiences in the way they might chat about visiting a gallery and the paintings they’d seen. I like to wonder whether Gilpin was created this new generation of traveller or whether he simply preached to the converted (no pun intended) and wrote for a readership of travellers like himself.


Prêt à Voyager said...

So interesting. I love the idea of the world's first travel guidebook!


Lara Dunston said...

I need to research this further but I'm pretty sure Gilpin's would be it, but it's not a travel guide as we know it today - it's full of practical stuff but no practicalities (address, phone, website etc!) and unlike most contemporary guidebooks it's heavy on prose and evocative description. I'd love to see a copy in the flesh. When we eventually settle somewhere I'll have to get myself a copy.