History and Landscape:

York 1795-1825

The West Towers of the Minster, Paul Sandby Munn, 1810, pencil and watercolour on paper.

Depictions of York went through significant flux during the late Georgian period, especially between the years 1795 and 1825, which form the parameters of this research. Such changes, however, were more than a matter of differences in aesthetic taste. Interest in Picturesque, Topographical, and Realistic representations of York are tied to the historical contexts in which works were created. Ramifications of accelerated Enclosure (privatization of communally used farming lands) in the late 18th century, alongside the Napoleonic Wars, and the post-war economy of Northern England were particularly influential on artistic approaches to the city. Such contexts alter how we, as viewers, approach these prints, revealing much about attitudes towards York, Northern England, and national identity in the British imagination between 1795 and 1825.

British Landscape Genres: 1795-1825

The landscape genre has a rich history in British art, but major aesthetic divisions within the genre can be identified. Such divisions include Picturesque, Topographical, and Realist approaches to visualizing a landscape, with each emphasizing different features. Picturesque depictions highlight nature as peaceful, orderly, and in harmony with man's dominion over the land in a rural setting. The other two categories, meanwhile, emphasize a more observational (and sometimes truer-to-life) approach but differ from one another.

Picturesque Genre

The Picturesque, developed by the Reverend William Gilpin in the 18th century, refers to an approach where the viewer finds or ‘observes’ a landscape in its natural state.1 Picturesque scenes are usually peaceful, feature broad vistas, and emphasize harmony between man and landscape. Often such depictions conceal hardships or imperfections found in a location in order to aestheticize the site, or make it beautiful. Markers of poverty and signs of industrialization do not feature in the genre. Instead, artists present a scene as if the viewer had discovered a landscape in perfect condition: a view into a location that is aesthetically pleasing and uplifting. A formula for creating a Picturesque view came into being: comprising a darkened and detailed foreground, a strongly lit middle ground, and a hazy background. Motifs including a shepherd and sheep, trees, ruins, or a soaring cathedral, were added to create a balanced composition with man and nature in equilibrium. Picturesque views were fictitious through the details they added or omitted. However, such an approach engages with a genuine desire for pastoral nature when industrialization rendered these kinds of landscapes rare.

Topographical Genre

The Topographical landscape was also a popular approach to landscapes during the Georgian period. Like the Picturesque, Topographic works presented a positive vision for viewers of a particular place. Often understood to be descriptive rather than imaginative, this approach often features delineated details of buildings or estates, showing an interest in a specific location. In 1804, when delivering a lecture at the Royal Academy, Swiss artist and Professor of Painting Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) noted that Topography was a 'map-making' approach to landscape. 2 While Fuseli is right to pick up on the attention to detail that artists in this tradition were showing, Topography was not as true-to-life as he suggests. Artists would remove features that they felt marred the scene they were depicting, such as muddy labourers or signs of industrialization. Topographical views were usually produced for specific people who had a clear economic interest in the particular location recorded by the artist.3 Artists in this mode would remove details that did not elevate the scene.4 In this way, Topographical depictions differed from the Picturesque, as the latter genre highlighted rural locations and, if a city were featured, would represent distance from the city and the city's lack of industry.5

York from the South East, N. Whittock, 1835, engraving.
York Cathedral from the North West, engraved by F. Bedford, 1820-50, lithograph.

Realism Genre

Landscape Realism is radically different from both Picturesque and Topographical views. While Realism is a broad artistic movement, in landscape views, it entails an approach that features the economic realities of an urban landscape and the people within it. These views show the realities of industrialization: the plight of the poor and the dirtiness of the city environment.6 Landscape Realism visualizes the troubles of life for people outside of the upper class. Realist artists often added affective detail, emphasizing the shabbiness of a home or drawing attention to differences between economic classes in the city. Such emotional motifs are not unlike those that artists represented in Picturesque scenes but are its social opposite. The Realist landscape focuses on the urban rather than the rural, highlights the suffering of the poor rather than the happiness of a shepherd, shows tenements instead of quaint cottages, and does not shy away from picturing the effects of industrialization.

These three approaches to landscape result in a variety of depictions of York, revealing transformations in attitude and geography over thirty years. These genres, so different from one another, ask us to consider why this change occurred. What historical and political events ushered in such a difference in artistic approaches to York?

1Ann Bermingham. Landscape and Ideology, the English Rustic Tradition, 1740-1860. Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1989, 65. 2Martin Myrone. "What Did Henry Fuseli Mean to Say About ‘Topography?’." British Library https://www.bl.uk/picturing-places/articles/what-did-henry-fuseli-mean-to-say-about-topography#. 3Bermingham, 85. 4By looking at a survey of topographical prints, made by a series of artists of different locations, details that would detract from the grandiosity of the location rendered, or that would suggest a negative air to the ownership/politics of a location were omitted. While Bermingham notes that the Topographical genre is the “production of a semi-objective record devoid of any conceptual or affective interpretation,” such a summary does not do justice to the patronage networks and associated desires of this genre. See Bermingham, 85-106. 5Ibid, 68-69. Bermingham notes extensively the elevation of the rural that is the foundational setting of the Picturesque. She does not discuss the application of the Picturesque to semi-urban spaces like that of York, but the concepts of the genre still can be applied to areas that are not strictly rural. 6Realism is an art movement that is tied to 19th century France, which aimed to depict subject matters more truthfully, without care for conventions, and was often directed towards subjects like the poor or social ills which went against conservative patronage structures and subjects. Realism is not often defined in landscape terms, but towards peoples. In this exhibit, Landscape Realism connotes the elements of Realism, towards representing subject matters with greater veracity rather than with convention, whether it be the urban setting itself or peoples within the city. For more information on the foundations of Realism see Jessica Gunderson’s Realism. Jessica Gunderson. Realism. Mankato, MN: Creative Education Publishers, 2008.