Monday, 4 May 2009

Syntax meets landscape

A nice example of how a term of brief vogue can persist in the language as a verbal fossil. Language Log's Syntacticians' hotels and bars mentions a number of pubs and bars called "Doctor Syntax". As is explicit in this example in Fylde Road, Preston, the pub names allude to a celebrated racehorse of the 1820s-30s. The horse in turn took its name from the hero of an immensely popular illustrated series by the artist Thomas Rowlandson and the author William Combe. During 1809-1821, they took Dr Syntax, an eccentric low-grade cleric and schoolmaster, off freeloading around the country on three picaresque misadventures - pretty ponderous stuff by modern standards, such as falling in lakes while sketching views - Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque, Dr Syntax in Search of Consolation, and Third Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of a Wife.

See Google Books for the full illustrated texts of The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque and The second tour of doctor Syntax in search of consolation.

As described in an earlier LL post, The discovery of Dr. Syntax, the Doctor's excursions were a parody on the tours of the Reverend William Gilpin (1724-1804). Starting with his 1792 Essay on Prints, Gilpin expounded a theory on the nature of the "picturesque" - what aesthetic rules governed our appreciation of a picture of natural scene. For instance:

For Gilpin, both texture and composition were important in a "correctly picturesque" scene. The texture should be "rough", "intricate", "varied", or "broken", without obvious straight lines. The composition should work as a unified whole, incorporating several elements: a dark "foreground" with a "front screen" or "side screens", a brighter middle "distance", and at least one further, less distinctly depicted, "distance". A ruined abbey or castle would add "consequence". A low viewpoint, which tended to emphasise the "sublime", was always preferable to a prospect from on high. While Gilpin allowed that nature was good at producing textures and colours, it was rarely capable of creating the perfect composition. Some extra help from the artist, perhaps in the form of a carefully placed tree, was usually required.
- William Gilpin (clergyman), Wikipedia, retrieved May 5th 2009

Probably Gilpin's worst misfortune was to be followed by such able satirists, and some of his ideas were easy to ridicule, such as his statement in The Wye Tour about the ruins of Tintern Abbey being insufficiently picturesque:

... a number of gabel-ends hurt the eye with their regularity, and disgust it by the vulgarity of their shape. A mallet judiciously used (but who durst use it ?) might be of service in fracturing some of them; particularly those of the cross aisles, which are most disagreeable in themselves, and confound the perspective.

More recent commentators have given Gilpin better press, however. For instance, the paper by Francesca Orestano, 'The Revd William Gilpin and the picturesque; or, who's afraid of Doctor Syntax?' (Garden History, 31:2 (2003), 163-79. ISSN 03071243) - see intro - credits him as originator of a modern aesthetic of judging scenery simply by eye, rather than through some metaphorical moral filter, and many of his compositional ideas aren't much different from the kinds of decisions made in taking a photograph nowadays. But it would have been pretty radical in the face of an aesthetic shaped by upper-crust travellers who had been on the Grand Tour and were conditioned to approach ruins with emotions such as "pleasing melancholy" and "agreeable horror", and by Edmund Burke's 1757 Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful that divided aesthetic experience of landscape into the "beautiful" (the soft and reassuring) and the "sublime" (the deeply scary). The picturesque, according to one strong advocate, the landscape architect Uvedale Price:

holds a station between beauty and sublimity
- Essays on the Picturesque, as Compared with the Sublime and Beautiful, 1794

(This reminds me, in many ways, of the writer and computational scientist Rudy Rucker's term "gnarly", that he uses for the area of meaningful and productive complexity that lies between simplicity and chaos). The 18th -19th century categorisations of landscape may seem peculiar, but travel for the middle-classes, even within Britain was very much a novelty. People had little idea what to do and feel about landscape: how to handle, for instance, landscapes so unfamiliar that they seemed in equal measure beautiful and terrifying, as with Thomas Gray's comment on the Scottish Highlands, which left him feeling that the pretty and mundane images of art were pretty trivial in comparison:

the mountains are ecstatic, and ought to be visited in pilgrimage once a year. None but those monstrous creatures of God know how to join so much beauty with so much horror. A fig for your poets, painters, gardeners, and clergymen, that have not been among them, their imagination can be made up of nothing but bowling-greens, flowering shrubs, horse-ponds. Fleet ditches, shell-grottoes, and Chinese rails.
- Gray's Works, edit. E. Gosse, vol. iii. p. 223.

It really was a kind of culture-shock on experiencing alien environments, and the observers can't be blamed for being fazed and coming up with rather flaky theories about why. (One might compare the modern Paris syndrome).

The picturesque is so formative of perception of landscape that it has been heavily discussed. See, for instance, Keith Waddington's thesis Pictures and Poetry. Debunking the Bunk: An Examination of Picturesque Influence. Google Books also has extensive preview of The search for the picturesque: landscape aesthetics and tourism in Britain, 1760-1800 (Malcolm Andrews, Stanford University Press, 1989, ISBN 0804714029). One feels the early analysts would have liked prospect-refuge theory.

- Ray


  1. This really reminds me of Komar and Melamid's Painting by Numbers.

    See more here.

  2. Interesting. They say their core ideal landscape is based on a painting by Domenichino: I'd guess that'd be a left-right reversal of the one in Landscape with Moses and the Burning Bush. Worrying when you find out how predictable you are: compare here. Tree-framed promontory, with cliff on right, sea on left, is close to my favourite landscape.

  3. Boy, those are nice cliffs -- begging for close exploration (if allowed?). You've probably been all over them.

    The next picture (#23) is also really nice.

  4. PP> ...and many of his compositional ideas aren't
    PP> much different from the kinds of decisions
    PP> made in taking a photograph nowadays.

    This is one of the areas in which photography is still haunted by the Ghost of Artforms Past.

    I agree with him about making aesthetic judgement simply by eye, but his rules rather sabotage that ... they replace the moral filter with a prescription of a different kind. Not (as you point out) that he's the only one.

    In my experience, most photographers do it by eye ... but most advisors on composition do it by a rulebook which jumbles together several historical pundits under the dominant influence of Hogarth's
    The analysis of beauty
    The number of students I watch destroying their own clear vision and reducing great shots to mediocrity by slavishly worshipping S-shaped curves cramped into a Rule of Thirds and chasing them down with Sloshua Reynolds' proportions of warm to cold...

    Not that any of those things are in themselves bad. They are often found in good images assembled by eye. A lot can be learnt from them and, better still, from performing one's own analysis of how one sees. It's their presentation as "rules" that kills off seeing.

    Apologies ... I appear to have made a mess on the carpet :-(

  5. Oh, just so. That issue of Ten.8 I mentioned in Views of the Countryside a while back mentioned the influence of Pictorialism (via Henry Peach Robinson) in bringing into photography various historical artistic tenets, such as asymmetrical placement of the subject and the obsession with Golden Section (which is presumably where the Rule of Thirds * originated).

    * Blimey, am I slow or what? It'd never actually occurred to me that that's the function of the 3x3 viewfinder grid brought up by the Disp button on Fuji digital cameras. Maybe it's a good sign that I've never used it.

  6. PP> the obsession with
    PP> Golden Section
    PP> (which is presumably
    PP> where the Rule of
    PP> Thirds* originated)

    The obsession with Golden Section, Golden Ratio, and the rest of the Golden Clan (yes, they are the origin), is an interesting case.

    I have a standard exercise in which I ask students to bring in one image they wish they had made themselves, six images drawn from across the last six hundred years which they like, and six from the same period which they actively dislike. As a group, we look at the resulting hundreds of images and compare their aspect ratios.

    According to the gospel according to Saint Composition, we ought to find a cluster concentrated around 1.6 or somewhere closely thereabouts ... but in fact we get a remarkable absence of data points in that region.

    The closest thing to it is a cluster of contemporary images around 1.4 (client defined to fit A-size format paper) and another at 1.5 (always photographs – it's the shape of a 35mm frame).

    Go further back, and there are very few images echoing the aspect ratio (1.625) of A4's predecessor equivalent. And paintings, etchings, engravings, drawings, etc, from before 1840 (invention of photography) are either much "squarer" than Golden or well beyond Golden.

    My sample there, of course, samples my students' likes and dislikes, not the actual output of artists ... so I always have with me dimensions and ARs for a truly random sample of catalogued art objects from 1200-2000, and the pattern in those is exactly the same.

    It seems that the artists of the past, whatever they said, actually preferred either an aspect ratio of somewhere around 1.25 (the same shape, interestingly, as all the original standard shapes in photography - 10×8in, 5×4in, 55×45mm) or somewhere in the range 2.5-3.

    *Fuji claim, by the way, that the grid is primarily to assist in getting horizons level and verticals aligned - but that the exact placement of the lines "has a secondary purpose in assisting good composition".