- A Tour of the English Lakes with Thomas Gray and Joseph Farington R.A. by John R. Murray
From Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage onwards, the house of Murray has had a long association with travel literature, so it seems fitting that the seventh John Murray should make a distinguished contribution to the field. A Tour of the English Lakes with Thomas Gray and Joseph Farrington R.A. is an imaginative and edifying juxtaposition of verbal and visual responses to the now-iconic Lake District landscape.
In 1993 John Murray inherited from his father six small holograph notebooks mainly devoted to the journeys of Thomas Gray, the author of ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ and one of the founding fathers of modern travel writing. Gray travelled through Westmorland and Cumberland during the autumn of 1769, appreciating and articulating in his journal the picturesque and sublime features of a landscape refracted through his Claude glass and his aesthetic sensibility. In the decades following Gray’s tour, an increasing stream of landscape-loving tourists trod in his footsteps, as well as those of Gilpin and West, each of whom published a best-selling guide to the Lakes. One such traveller was the artist Joseph Farington, who made watercolours and sepia sketches of sites visited by Gray – Ullswater, Borrowdale, Keswick and Skiddaw, Lodore Falls, Grasmere and Helm Craig, Rydal Water. Engravings based on Farington’s sketches were published in Views of the Lakes etc. in Cumberland and Westmorland: Engraved from drawings made by Joseph Farington R.A. (1789) and in Thomas Hartwell Horne’s later compilation The Lakes of Lancashire, Westmorland, and Cumberland: Delineated in forty-three engravings from the drawings of Joseph Farington R.A. (1816). Farington’s representations, unlike those of many landscape artists contemporary with him, don’t put an aesthetic spin on terrestrial realities. Farington’s calmly beautiful sketches are concerned, as Murray astutely points out, with accurate representation more than with interpretation.
Merely uniting Gray’s prose with Farington’s engravings would have been a task worth doing, but A Tour of the English Lakes offers a great deal more. Murray reproduces not only Farington’s published engravings but also his watercolours and ink-and-wash sketches from the Lake District, works contained in an album housed at the Yale Center for British Art. It’s instructive to view scenes depicted in the two visual media on the same page, and Murray patiently elucidates the not altogether straightforward relationship of the watercolours to the published engravings. Complementing the two versions of Farington’s view are photographs Murray himself took in 2009 and 2010, from sites as close as practically possible to Farington’s vantage points. Thus images from a third medium enrich the visual mix, as do prose extracts from relevant texts: William Cookson’s words on engravings from the 1789 publication, Thomas Horne’s commentary on engravings from the 1816 book, and Murray’s own concisely helpful comparative descriptions of watercolours, engravings, and photographs.
Unpretentious, thorough, and empirical, John Murray’s book does not engage abstractly or theoretically with the emergence of the picturesque as an idea and its cultural importance during the Romantic era; but nonetheless the materials assembled in this labour of love are potentially valuable to critics and academics. Most important, however, Murray whets a general reader’s appetite for her or his own tour of the Lakes. That being the case, a welcome insight offered by the juxtaposed views is how remarkably unspoiled – despite tourism, the coming of railroads and motorways, population growth, and the Victorian mania for planting non-native [End Page 72] evergreens – many of the views and vistas described by Gray and loved by subsequent generations remain to this day.