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Nikolaus Pevsner: In defence of the Picturesque

Nikolaus Pevsner defends the AR’s promotion of the Picturesque; ‘The first feeling-your-way theory of art in European history and far the greatest contribution England has made to aesthetic theory’

Originally published in AR April 1954, this piece was republished online in September 2012

‘Must English art be picturesque? The historical answer is that many English artists have managed wholly or partially to escape from this imperfect vision. Hogarth at his best, Gainsborough when he was most himself, least subject to the influence of taste, Stubbs and Constable consistently. Turner after a process of emancipation, Sickert at his best.

These are a few of the painters who have achieved the seriousness and the truth which the picturesque does not provide. The list could be extended to the present day- and into the fields of architecture and design. But as long as the man of taste or those institutions which have so largely superseded him continue to maintain their influence, as long as they strive to live up to the picturesque identity which we discovered during the years of war, then Stendhal’s condemnation will continue to apply to a very great deal of English art.’

This was the last paragraph of three talks broadcast recently by Mr. Basil Taylor on the Third Programme. They were called English Art and the Picturesque and combined an analysis of eighteenth century picturesque theory with an indictment of its effects on England in the last twenty years, effects which Mr. Taylor attributed largely to THE ARCHITECTURAL REVIEW.

The paragraph quoted sums up Mr. Taylor’s attitude. The picturesque is a sign of imperfect vision. It lacks seriousness and truth. It prevents the English from facing up to the realities of an industrial age and draws them into irrelevancies and a nostalgia for the past.

Mr. Taylor’s arguments ran approximately as follows: The picturesque, viewed historically, came as a reaction against Neo-Classicism and as a kind of Transitional before Romanticism, ‘related to them as Mannerism is to the High Renaissance and the Baroque’. There is an historical mistake here (Lord Burlington and Pope started Neo-Classicism and picturesque garden layout at exactly the same moment, in exactly the same places, and with exactly the same conviction)- but we can let that stand for now. Mr. Taylor proceeded to define the qualities of the picturesque.

The characteristic qualities of the picturesque, according to Mr. Taylor, are ‘irregularity of form, of colour, of light and shade, of texture,’ and in addition ‘intricacy and sudden variation’. It was an excellent touch to link these qualities to the emergence of historicism in architecture, that is, to the admission of various styles of building all acceptable in their place and their mood, and also to the new belief in nature, according to which ‘nature is virtuous in herself and not only when subject to man’s refinements’.

So far no quarrel. But Mr. Taylor then almost imperceptibly exchanged such terms as varied and irregular against ‘accidental’ and ‘disorderly.’ Here to my mind lies his fundamental error, an error especially fatal in considering the Picturesque today. Its full implication will only gradually come out.

But even if we confine ourselves for the moment to confine ourselves for the moment to the theorists of 1800, what Uvedale Price and Payne Knight taught was not to let accident have its way or create disorder. Their message was: Keep your eyes open. See, analyze what impresses you, and for what reasons. You will then realize that we have available an infinitely richer body of materials for artistic creation than classical theory would make you believe. Use it in your work. To this day we cannot do better than follow that advice.

The Picturesque improvers themselves planned carefully and self-consciously and with aesthetically highly successful results. It is true that Shelley said that Price and Knight ‘could not catch the hare.’ But that statement is valid only from a point of view which is not ours. The true Romantic looked at nature to provide him with certain valuable sensations. To attain them he had to abandon himself to her embrace, to undergo her full impact. Any interference with her would spoil that. So to him any improving of nature blunts his chance of revelation.

All that art can do is to resuscitate the impact, and that is not a job for the planner but for the painter or poet. A Constable landscape is the perfect expression of this attitude. Landscaped ‘landscape,’ compared with it, must be ‘imperfect’ because human preconceptions have come between the adept and his source of inspiration. But all this is only valid as long as we look at a landscape garden as a substitute for painting. It becomes wrong when it is applied, as Mr. Taylor tries to, to architecture, and especially townscape.


A design for Christmas greetings by a student of the Royal College of Art. It is work of this kind which seems to have influenced Basil Taylor in his antagonism against what he erroneously regards as the REVIEW’s attitude to design and to the Victorian age.

Perhaps Mr. Taylor was bound to lose the certainty of his argument at this point. For he is an art critic rather than an architectural critic, and his own work has been concerned mainly with painting and the history of painting.

The paragraph quoted was typical of his talks in bringing in architecture and design only once and only by the way. This is explained perhaps by the immediate personal reasons which Mr. Taylor seems to have had for delivering them. He teaches at the Royal College of Art. There he meets students of painting and sculpture as well as design and finds many of them lacking in seriousness of purpose. He sees with concern that they don’t take the hard road, and that they like ready-made clichés.

How true that is; but has it ever been otherwise? Should one blame Michelangelo for the sprawling super-nudes in the foregrounds of third-rate Mannerist providers of frescoes. Mr. Taylor said, referring explicitly to The Architectural Review, that it must be a mistake to contrive a pattern book of approved forms and elements.’ He should have said that the mistake is only made when forms and elements approved for certain specific purposes and in certain specific locations are imitated pattern-book-wise.

That is what often happens amongst students, even talented students, before they can stand on their own feet. I illustrate the frontispiece of a recent issue of the Journal of the Society of Industrial Artists, designed by a student of then Royal College. Am I wrong in thinking that this is what embitters Mr. Taylor? That he sees this kind of Victorian Revivalism as an easy way to avoid a fully thought-out answer to a set problem? I am probably right: for Mr. Taylor contrasts the items whose fashionableness he regrets (and ascribes to the influence of THE ARCHITECTURAL REVIEW) with ‘the more real determinants’ of planning.

But the ‘real determinants’ of planning arc exactly the forces which have brought to the front the valid argument in favor of the Picturesque in the twentieth Century. The argument runs in my opinion something like this. If one looks at the work of the pioneers of twentieth century architecture, say as early as about 1925, Gropius’s Bauhaus at Dessau or better still Le Corbusier’s Stuttgart houses of 1927 and his Centrosoyu project of 1929, what are their aesthetic qualities? First those that everyone is familiar with; cubic shapes, no mouldings, large openings and so on.

But, in addition, the free grouping of the individual building, a mixture of materials, synthetic and natural, rough and smooth, and, beyond that, the free planning of a whole quarter, with differentiation of levels, differentiation of vehicular traffic and pedestrian ways, with interaction between landscape and building (the tree inside the  PavilIon  de  l’Esprit Nouveau), and between buildings of different shapes and heights.

Do not these qualities define the difference between the free exercise of the imagination stimulated by the disciplines of function and technique (e.g., Wright’s in the nature of materials ‘) and academic rule of thumb, within whose strait-jacket architecture was confined before the modern movement set it free? And do they not show that, albeit unconsciously, the modern revolution of the early twentieth century and the Picturesque revolution of a hundred years before had all their fundamentals in common?

The qualities of the modern movement were not developed to please the eye, but because without them no workable, no functioning, no functional architecture is possible in our age. Impose symmetry, impose axiality and grids, impose rules even where the artist is feeling his way, and you reduce usefulness. Le Corbusier was already following the new principles in the years in which Mr. Hussey wrote The Picturesque (1927) and Sir Kenneth Clark The  Gothic  Revival (1928). The two events had superficially nothing to do with each other, and only some years later, in the REVIEW, was it argued that no other existing aesthetic theory fits the demands of modern architecture and planning so well as that of Price and Knight.

As this discovery was made, it became clear that it had a special application to planning in a town. Here the architect, instead of creating variety, has to achieve it by means of a mixture of what he finds on the site and has reasons to preserve, with what he designs himself. So the variety of shapes and materials within the individual building now grows into a larger variety of new and old elements within any one townscape.

That is what townscape meant, when the term was coined. To make townscape requires an architect wholly in sympathy with today, but at the same time sensitive to the character of a site and the character of what he finds standing on it when he starts. The procedure of modern urban planning is as different from Mr., Taylor’s accident and disorder, attributed wrongly to the eighteenth century Picturesque improvers, as it is from the revival of Victorianna attributed to the REVIEW.


Le Corbusier’s two houses at Stuttgart, 1927

The difference is summed up in the phrase ‘Genius loci.’ Here again (to my surprise) Mr. Taylor is displeased. Paul Nash, in 1933, must have been the first to restore to it that meaning which the eighteenthcentury planners had endowed it with. It is a twofold meaning, when applied to the architectural tasks of the twentieth century.

One refers to the fact thateach country (on the rich soil of its traditions) will find its own suitable variations on the theme of the universal style of a period. The other refers to the fact that each individual task must be treated on its own merits, according to its own locus and usus. So the attitude is the very opposite of that pattern-book attitude which Mr. Taylor ascribes to it, and incidentally,quite unjustifiably, calls taste.

His use of the word ‘taste’ brings us to the real point of difference between Mr. Taylor’s approach to Picturesque theory and the REVIEW’s. He sees the whole Picturesque movement as a  beau geste on the part of talented but whimsical amateurs, entertaining but from the point of view of art not serious. A diversion, dear to the British just because it avoids the profounder preoccupations of art.

In this, I venture to suggest, Mr. Taylor parts company with the REVIEW - and Payne Knight and Uvedale Price - where he least expects it; that is, most certainly not in his belief that all art, including architecture and town planning, should involve a coming to grips with the ‘real determinants,’ but in his belief that Picturesque theory is either its 1800 or its 1950 aspect denies that necessity.

Surely this is a fantastic misrepresentation or misreading of the history of the movement, when one considers that it was just because, in the mid-eighteenth century, the Picturesque conceits of Pope and Addison had become a ‘taste’ in the derogatory sense in which Mr. Taylor uses the word, that is, a rule-of-thumb, a recipe unconcerned with the real determinants - it was just because of this that Uvedale Price and Payne Knight raised up Picturesque theory as a counterblast. They were combating the trivialities of a thoughtless landscape taste. Apply these conditions to today and you will at once recognise that it is exactly ‘taste’ in this superficial sense against which the REVIEW - not to mention Mr. Betjeman (Ghastly Good Taste, 1933) - are doing combat.

But substitute for this superficial meaning the real meaning of taste, namely ‘feeling disciplined by judgment,’ and you have the whole falsehood of the effort to brand as trivial, merely because they partake of taste, the efforts of those who are trying to increase visual sensibility within the planning fraternity. Is it not highly desirable that decisions on architecture and planning should be taken by men of sensitivity who take trouble to sharpen their visual understanding?

Think of the architects and planners, the City engineers and housing committees. No one in his senses would suggest that these specialists should neglect statistics, finance, traffic, hygiene and so on. But would anyone hold that their exertions would suffer by the exercise of ‘feeling disciplined by judgment’ If there be let him go and look at our towns.

That is the functional function of the Picturesque, meaning the Varied, the Intricate, the On-its-own-Merit, in the twentieth century. That is how the Egyptian lettering on a fascia-board and the cast iron convolutions on the arms of a Victorian garden scat had to make their reappearance, not as a revival of the last style not yet revived, nor as a scholar’s desire to unearth data which earlier scholars had not bothered about, nor as a whimsical or nostalgic fashion- all these being taste in Mr. Taylor’s sense.


Le Corbusier’s Centrosyrus project, Moscow, 1929

The real point at issue, which this example illustrates most vividly, is the one I have tried to deal with under genius loci, the issue between feeling and principle - both equally valid, indeed complementary, though contrary, stimuli to art. It happens that the first half of the twentieth century was a period of innovations, that the old principles of academy and Beaux Arts were no longer acceptable or indeed applicable.

The artist had to feel his way, explore, risk, and often fail, but the architect doing the same succeeded- succeeded in reaching the safe ground of locus and usus. For him at this moment the Picturesque movement, the first feeling-your way theory of art in European history and far the greatest contribution England has made to aesthetic theory, is, as I maintain, supremely significant. For the town planner it is more than significant, it is the life-line by which he can defeat chaos.


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