The cult of the picturesque view ignores the reality of modern Britain

Campaigners from the Lake District to London are outraged at building plans that could alter cherished landscapes – but their inflexibility to change is elitist

Across Britain, views, apparently, are being spoiled. In Cumbria, the great-great-great-great grandson of William Wordsworth is supporting a campaign to stop the National Grid building pylons close to the Lake District National Park that would allegedly wreck some beautiful vistas. Meanwhile down south, Richmond is appalled by a new skyscraper in Stratford – on the opposite side of London – that will wreck a famous view of St Paul’s from Richmond Park.

So in an age of ecological catastrophe, political chaos and refugee crisis, there are still some people who have time to fret about the view from their Lakeland cottage or Richmond mansion. Is there any justification for preserving the picturesque in this ever-changing world?

It might help if we defined it. What we call a “view” is a landscape or townscape that pleases the eye, because it has something harmonious, inspiring or exciting about it, and also an underlying impression of coherence. It is, in short, like a picture. In the 18th century, when views started to be cherished, the term “picturesque” was enthusiastically applied to them. People went on tours to look at the picturesque. If they were rich enough they created picturesque landscapes on their estates.

The view that campaigners are saying is being ruined by a new development in Stratford.
The view that campaigners are saying will be ruined by a new development in Stratford. Photograph: Architect's Journal

If they were rich enough – and that’s the problem. Throughout its 250-year history, the cult of views has been tainted by elitism. The very word “picturesque” implies dishonesty and self-delusion. It means that from my point of view, the landscape in front of me appears pleasing. Things that don’t fit the picture don’t belong there, or must be ignored. Forget the peasant children starving in that lovely copse at the bottom of the hill. I can’t see them, or hear them crying from up here. And the woods look lovely.

In the same way it seems a bit rich (literally) for residents of Richmond to complain that a building project in a part of east London that needs all the economic stimulus it can get is spoiling a particularly privileged view of St Paul’s. It is perhaps equally shortsighted for lovers of the Lake District National Park to worry about pylons infringing on this well-preserved landscape while implicitly letting other parts of the country be tangled up with as many pylons as energy companies feel like installing.

I’ve always found the Lake District a bit twee anyway, and not just because Wordsworth’s poetry used to bore me to tears at school. It is because it stands for a particularly false image of the picturesque. In Wales, not only are the mountains bigger and the lakes colder, but the idea of a landscape totally free from industry is obviously absurd. Anyone who walks in Wales, which has some of Britain’s most genuinely natural landscapes, knows that Britain’s long industrial history marks even the most breathtaking views. Every path up Snowdon leads past abandoned mining and quarrying sites. Even the names of the Miners’ Track and Pyg Track refer to these haunted relics of a working past.

Crossing the Brook, c.1815, by JMW Turner.
Crossing the Brook, circa 1815, by JMW Turner. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images

Britain’s Romantic artists did not ignore the industrial revolution but saw energy and beauty in it. In JMW Turner’s painting Crossing the Brook (exhibited in 1815) the view in the foreground is rustic and timeless, yet in the distance, Turner shows industrial workings along Devon’s Tamar Valley in great detail. John Constable is even more forthright about modern reality in his painting The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (exhibited in 1832). He shows thick black smoke pouring out of chimney stacks on the south bank of the Thames, putting colossal amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and unwittingly contributing to a global warming of which people in 1832 knew nothing.

Hang on, wait – Constable is looking eastward along the Thames, and the dark smoke from those billowing chimneys overshadows his view of St Paul’s. So what would the view of Wren’s dome from Richmond have been like in 1832? Would you even have seen it through the thick smoke enveloping the capital?

There has never been a time when the landscape was pure and free from the mess of modern life. That is why the 18th-century idea of a “view” is such a false and complacent way of thinking about our environment. Views can’t be preserved, and anyway, they always tell some sort of lie. If cables are buried in the earth instead of being carried by pylons it may make for a better view, but it won’t change the damage to the planet being done by irresponsible energy use.

We need a new way of thinking about what makes a beautiful environment, one that includes humans and their creativity. We cannot be like 18th-century aristocrats enjoying a landscape from which we’ve had the tenant farmers evicted to improve the view. Instead we need to love the living, changing, growing world in which we live, and protect that.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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