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  • William Gilpin and the Latitudinarian Picturesque
  • Robert Mayhew (bio)

Eighteenth-century historians writing in the wake of Jonathan Clark’s book, English Society (1985), have increasingly recognized the continuing importance of church politics and denominational disputes to the intellectual milieu of the period. 1 More recently, the complex debates within eighteenth-century Anglicanism have started to receive the attention they deserve. As Young has shown, themes of space, the system of nature, and the design of the earth were often central to those debates within Anglicanism. 2 This growing awareness of the continued strength of ecclesiological and theological issues in eighteenth-century English society has yet to feed into the study of eighteenth-century literature in general, let alone into analyses of literary representations of landscape and nature. 3

This essay exemplifies the fruitfulness of reinvestigating the literary treatment of landscape and the natural world in the light of theological debates in the eighteenth century. William Gilpin’s picturesque aesthetic, so influential in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, is shown to draw on low-church Anglican apologetics, and, in doing so, Gilpin is shown to have been continuing a link between Latitudinarianism and literary treatments of landscape which, as I only have space to hint en passant, had been forged by Addison, Edward Young, Fielding, and others.

I. Gilpin and Posterity

William Gilpin (1724–1804) is remembered as the pioneer of an aesthetic approach to landscape, “the picturesque.” 4 Indeed, the standard modern biography of Gilpin is exclusively concerned with his picturesque drawings and tours. 5 If that is [End Page 349] Gilpin’s legacy, it is certainly not the one that he had hoped to leave. Writing an autobiographical Memoir (1801), Gilpin’s own evaluation of his life’s work was rather different from that which might be expected of an aesthetic theorist: “Thus Mr G[ilpin] has given an account of the only two transactions of his life, which make it worth the attention of his posterity—his mode of managing his school at Cheam, which was uncommon—and his mode of endowing his parish school at Boldre, from the profits of his amusements.” 6 The “profits” Gilpin refers to were the result of publishing his picturesque tours; therefore, as literature, the tours clearly occupied a marginal position in Gilpin’s own estimation of his achievements. Evidently, Gilpin was most proud of his affiliation to the two schools at Cheam and Boldre. From his own account of his “uncommon” management of those schools, we learn much about his scale of values. The Memoir suggests that Gilpin tried to inculcate political and religious values of liberty and Protestantism in his pupils. Politically, the boys were taught the laws of the school and, with literal Lockeanism, signed contracts promising to obey those laws, thereby “impressing young minds with an early love of order, law and liberty.” Equally, Gilpin’s schools were uncommon in the emphasis they placed on moral and religious instruction, at the expense of a classical education, because of Gilpin’s belief that “where one boy miscarries for want of classical knowledge, hundreds are ruined for want of religious principles.” 7

In one sense, Gilpin’s self-assessment of his achievements as a religious and political educator has started to attract attention through studies of the “politics of the picturesque,” which move the grounds of assessment of his life’s work away from the purely aesthetic. 8 But the role of religion in Gilpin’s achievement as a writer has not attracted attention: while Barbier accepts that “in the last analysis” nature for Gilpin is “a divine work of art,” 9 there has been no attempt to draw out the lines of influence between Gilpin’s dual religious roles of Anglican clergyman and religious educator and his picturesque oeuvre. Following the hierarchy of values in Gilpin’s Memoir, I will move from his neglected moral and religious writings, in particular their construction of nature and landscape, to the picturesque tours, showing how an attenuated and aestheticized form of the Latitudinarian approach to the face of nature influenced Gilpin’s picturesque. Before doing this, however, I will first sketch the approach to nature and landscape forged by...

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pp. 349-366
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