The writer who made the countryside enjoyable

TODAY, many city dwellers look forward to entering the country, especially in the summer, but it was not always so. Roads were often in very poor condition and even when the advent of toll roads made it easier for travelers to get around there was always a risk of theft, especially in places like Bagshot Heath and the Alton Pass in the north of the county.

The idea of ​​going to “the desert” for fun was considered absurd until about 200 years ago. One of those who helped change attitudes was the New Forest clergyman, William Gilpin (1724-1804).

In a movement called “the Picturesque”, he was one of those who raised awareness of the beauty of nature in a way that became hugely influential in English taste in landscaping and other matters . Trees were “the most beautiful of all the productions of the earth”. Water enriches the landscape “both by its own beauty and by its use in the composition”.

He came from a family of painters and in 1768 in his Essays on prints he defines the picturesque as “that particular kind of beauty which is pleasing in a picture”. To pursue his ideas, he traveled extensively to discover natural landscapes that were pleasing to the eye – including what we would today call “corners of beauty”.

This was part of a philosophical debate that proposed that something was beautiful not because it satisfied some rational or practical attribute, but because it somehow triggered natural instincts. Edmund Burke even suggested that soft, smooth curves were attractive because they evoked thoughts of the female body!

Hampshire Chronicle: Gilpin's take on the New Forest, not 'sterile' but 'magnificent'.  Image: Hampshire Registry Office

Gilpin’s ideas were detailed in the 1780s in Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales. In 1791 they were further developed in Notes on the forest landscape – that is, the New Forest – with engravings by his brother Sawrey, then in 1804, the year of his death, in Observations on the coasts of Hampshire, etc..

He grew up in Cumberland, with a father “considered one of the best amateur painters of the time”. After Oxford – like so many young men – he entered Holy Orders. In his late twenties he married and took charge of the preparatory school Cheam School for Boys in Surrey (now located in Headley, Hampshire), which was at a very low level.

Gilpin quickly turned the tide, increasing the number of students from 15 to 80. He was an enlightened principal who shunned corporal punishment and encouraged students to get involved in hands-on activities — like gardening and trading — in order to inculcate “righteousness and usefulness”. ‘. As a result, the school grew stronger and stronger.

However, it took time for the financial rewards to follow and he was forced to make money from his pen. He turned to writing biographies – nine in all. Then after more than 20 years in Cheam, with the help of a former pupil, he quietly settled in Boldre in the New Forest near Lymington. His parishioners were “little better than a bunch of bandits.”

Despite its small size and remoteness, Boldre has a surprising number of historical associations. Here, in 1839, on the brink of insanity, the poet Robert Southey, who had previously lived for some time near Christchurch, married the poetess Caroline Bowles. Native botanist W. Arnold Bromfield, author of works on the Isle of Wight, and the namesake father of Victorian author Charles Kingsley lived in the area.

Hampshire Chronicle: The Needles, a classic example of the picturesque.  Image: Hampshire Registry Office

As for Gilpin, his name lives on in Boldre in the local school, William Gilpin Primary School, which he endowed in 1791 for the education of 20 boys and 20 girls. He used the proceeds from his artwork: a sale at the Christies sale fetched £170,000 in today’s money. He also built a poor house.

By promoting the idea of ​​the picturesque, Gilpin had seized on the right idea at the right time. It was becoming easier for people, now called ‘tourists’, to travel to beautiful parts of the country – the Wye Valley, the Lake District and elsewhere. Additionally, more country estate owners were having their parks beautified by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who in Hampshire alone worked at Broadlands Romsey, Highclere, Paultons Park, Exbury, Warnford Park, Cadland and North and South Stoneham.

Although Gilpin was primarily interested in natural beauty, he took a fresh look at the work of landscapers. Nature presented “greater exposures, but greater deformations” than artificially designed parks, and there were rarely “sublime passages in an enhanced landscape”.

He called man-made features such as “temples, Chinese bridges, obelisks” “disgusting” and was particularly scathing about man-made bodies of water. In his Forest Scenery he writes: “Mr. Brown, I think, has failed more in the making of rivers than in any of his attempts. An artificial lake sometimes has a good effect; but… success is risky.

There is no doubt that Gilpin had an enormous influence on people’s view of the natural world. Instead of a place where life was hard and the people very poor, it became a place where you could break free from the constraints of the city and enjoy the scenery.

Sure, for the vast majority of people, a lot of this was whimsical (think Swing Riots), but it was the start of a more endearing attitude towards nature, which had huge implications. It also triggered tourism, which – some would say – was a less desirable consequence.

If Gilpin were alive today, it’s hard to imagine he would be anywhere but at the forefront of climate activism. But after his death he became an amusing figure, parodied by hack satirist William Combe.

One of the bestsellers of the time was The visit of Dr Syntax in search of the picturesque. The lovable eccentric Dr Syntax travels in search of natural beauty on his old Grizzle mare. And he encounters all sorts of mishaps – falls into a lake, gets charged by a bull, loses all his money at a racetrack.

The 266 pages were written by Combe in verse, slightly above Rupert Bear’s mark, but highly readable and a tour de force of composition. The book obviously imitated Don Quixotebut what made it even more successful was that it had Thomas Rowlandson cartoons.

Hampshire Chronicle: Portsmouth Harbor from Portsdown Hill, in Gilpin's Observations.  Image: Hampshire Registry Office

Two other books follow in the same vein, one entitled Dr. Syntax’s third round in search of a wife. They have been hugely successful, not only in Great Britain, but also in translation in Denmark, Germany and France. They remained in print in various editions for a century or more, and the first volume is now on Kindle.

Poor Gilpin and his wife were thankfully dead by the time Combe went to work. He was an inveterate hack with a long history of domestic turmoil and he had been repeatedly asked to “write the typography” for Rowlandson’s cartoons. With Dr. Syntax, he finally made his fortune (but later lost it!).

As for Rowlandson himself, he must have known Gilpin, especially since he had made many drawings of Lymington in 1784 for Tower in a Post Chair. From a 12-day trip, he produced 70 watercolors. They show many local scenes of the time – the sea water baths, the boarding of the oxen on the quay, the interior of the saltworks then active on the marshes and much more. Some are held by the city’s St Barbe Mueum and Art Gallery.

Gilpin’s influence is still recognized today. When geographer Nicholas Crane created his television series Great British tripsGilpin was one of ten chosen subjects, alongside Celia Fiennes, Daniel Defoe, William Cobbett and others.

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