The Picturesque as Ownership

Once a domestic aesthetic pleasure, the picturesque was extended to a national and international scale, eventually transitioning its values into an imperialist effort that shaped, Stephen Copley and Peter Garside propose, “British … accounts of colonial landscapes and cultures. Even within the British Isles,” they write, “the discourse of the Picturesque intersects with and is shaped by the discourses of colonialism at various points”.[5] 

Mr. and Mrs. Andrews

Mr. & Mrs. Andrews (1750) shows a
landed gentry couple standing 

before their newly acquired property

The picturesque—hospitable to the object of colonialism, the possession of lands and all contained therein—surveyed far-off agricultural and commercial economies, demonstrating the political viability of the empire’s exploration and development of such regions.[6] As Britain’s agricultural efforts were unsupportive of the quickly growing population, apprehending the suitability of other regions to expand agricultural and economic development was deemed necessary.[7] Among the primary goals of the survey—including mapping the geographical characteristics of new terrain—was to re-name lands deemed ‘new’ and to attribute ownership of natural worlds;[8] the ideological investment in the picturesque accelerated colonial efforts to subdue other lands and absorb them into the British Empire.

While the scenes in a picturesque painting appeared to display a rough and irregular environment, indicating its organic and undisturbed nature, these images were in fact highly ordered, relying on a specific structuring of background, middleground, and foreground, which sometimes required a complete reorganization of the landscape to appropriately fit picturesque criteria.[9]

An Example of the Picturesque by William Gilpin

An example of a picturesque
landscape taken from Gilpin's Observations

The artist’s mediation of the landscape onto the canvas complicated the relationship between land and representation, leading to an ideology of mutation and the need for improvement of native subjects.[10] For the picturesque artist, the landscape exists as a mélange of parts that must be reordered for aesthetic appeal and consumptive pleasure. This manipulation of the land to enhance the desirability of the landscape suggested a mastery of the land and an aestheticization of its discrete components, transforming subjects into commodities, thus making the picturesque akin to the colonial survey: where the colonial survey designs the landscape for production, the picturesque designs it for consumption.[11]

 Whale, “Romantics, Explorers and Picturesque Travellers,” 176-177.
[5] Copley and Garside, The Politics of the Picturesque, 6.
[6] Copley and Garside, The Politics of the Picturesque, 7.
[7] Roy Bridges, “Exploration and Travel Outside Europe (1720-1914),” in The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing, eds. Peter Hulme and Tim Youngs. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 60.
[8] Susan Bassnett, “Travel Writing and Gender,” in The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing, eds. Peter Hulme and Tim Youngs. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 231.
[9] Whale, “Romantics, Explorers and Picturesque Travellers,” 178.
[10] Whale, “Romantics, Explorers and Picturesque Travellers,” 178.
[11] Leask, Curiosity the Aesthetics of Travel Writing, 169; Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2008), 205.