"Picturesque": the "instagrammable" of the 1700s
With the popularity of Instagram, the built environment is increasingly designed to be documented and shared through images.
What makes an interior space instagrammable? According to one account: good lighting, tiled floors, graphic walls, and kitsch.
In an interesting long-form piece for the Boston Review, Daniel Penny argues this recent trend closely resembles the pursuit of the pictureseque at the end of the 1700s.
"Wealthy eighteenth-century English travelers... used technology to mediate and pictorialize their experiences of nature just as Instagrammers today hold up their phones and deliberate over filters. To better appreciate the picturesque, travelers in the late 1700s were urged to use what was known as a gray mirror or “Claude glass,” which would simplify the visual field and help separate the subject matter from the background, much like an Instagram filter."
"While the word “picturesque” came into circulation in the early 1700s to describe anything that looked “like a picture,” it solidified into a stable aesthetic by the late 1700s, when travelers began recording their trips through Europe and England with sketches, etchings, and the occasional painting. The method for circulating their images was more cumbersome than ours, but largely followed the same formula as today. A wealthy traveler trained in draftsmanship (whom we would now call an influencer) would take a months-long journey, carrying art supplies to record picturesque scenes. When he returned home, these images were turned into etchings, which could then be mass-produced, sold individually or bound together to create a record of his travels for his friends and family to peruse."
"The relationship between image and nature became more complicated when the picturesque traveler, laden with drawings, returned home to his estate. The picturesque images and writings of Price, Gray, and Gilpin not only ushered in a new era of tourism, but also a new way of designing the built environment. "
"This led the wealthy to design their properties according to a new set of aesthetic criteria, a kind of artificial naturalness."
"Following Repton’s lead, a legion of landscape architects theorized their clients’ land as a series of pleasurable vistas, employing groves of trees, riverbanks, and even farm animals to draw the eye into the landscape and create visually striking compositions. Though Repton liked using sheep to show scale, he called for the removal of working farms from estates because he believed they spoilt the scenery. Old barns, however, abandoned by cottagers who had been forced off their land by enclosures, were ideally suited to picturesque designs.
To give their clients’ estates the appearance of age, some landscape architects even built sham ruins called “follies.” These buildings often bore little relation to the main house’s architectural style, and if they had any function (as a teahouse or greenhouse, say), it was secondary to their principal purpose as simulations of lost time."