Thursday, 3 February 2011

A Stop on the Way to Elsewhere: The Picturesque and the Sublime

[Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, picture taken by the Idle Historian, May 2010]

The artistic and literary Romantic Movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was deeply involved in extolling nature and in reconsidering the state of human existence within it. They have bequeathed to us dramatic paintings, impassioned verse, and the wonderfully named school of "Sturm und Drang." The Romantics have also intensely influenced our aesthetic notions of ideal landscapes, of beauty, and of grandeur. They were the notorious inventors of the "picturesque," the "sublime," and also to large extent our conception of tourist sight-seeing. As a reaction to the perceived deficiencies in human society, the Romantics looked to nature for inspiration in a way hitherto unknown in Western society. In modern terms, you might say that they craved "experience," "thrill," and the bragging rights of detailing the mountaintops, glaciers, precipices, and thundering waterfalls they had seen. They sought out ruins, follies, and wonders both natural and man-made. In one sense, you can probably thank them for each viewing of other people's holiday photographs, pleasurable or otherwise, that you have sat through.

This rushing to and fro in search of wild and romantic scenery was satirized by one of the earliest English cartoonists and caricaturists, Thomas Rowlandson, for the humourous volume The Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque (1812). But even if contemporaries were well aware of the ridiculous elements involved in the search for the sublime, it became ingrained in Western culture and we have never looked back.

[Thomas Rowlandson, "Dr Syntax Sketching at the Lake"]

At which point I shall return to my own holiday photograph, the one at the top of this post (and one of my favourite taken throughout that particular journey). It epitomizes how my own aesthetic taste in landscape, scenery, and the picturesque has been informed by the Romantic Movement. There are two ways in which the experience did not echo the Romantics -- I did not go in search of this landscape, nor was it quite wild and fearsome enough to qualify as the truly "sublime." Nevertheless, it was a stunning scene stumbled upon on the way to somewhere else. The stop was an afterthought along the way from York to the Victorian spa town of Harrogate -- famed for its tea production and the curative powers of its waters for the gouty and sickly middle and upper-middle classes of previous times.

The town is Knaresborough; old enough to be named in the Doomsday Book and possess a castle dating back to the Norman conquest. Such towns are everywhere in England, so much so that even this piece of extraordinary history seems commonplace. From the train station one hikes up a rather ordinary street, past a car park, and into the ruins of the old castle gardens. And then, all of a sudden, one is upon this breathtaking river gorge with the town in the foreground, and the Victorian railway bridge and North Yorkshire stretching into the distance. It was unexpected, and supremely delightful. It was a bit of the grand Romantic vision intruding almost unnoticed on the more jaded modern soul.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

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