Picture of William Gilpin

William Gilpin

places mentioned

Bristol to London

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FROM the ferry-house to Bristol, the views are amusing. The first scene was a spacious lawn, about a mile in diameter, the area of which was flat; and the boundary a grand woody bank, adorned with towers and villas, standing either boldly near the top, or seated in woody recesses near the bottom. The horizon line is well varied, and broken.

The whole of this landscape is too large; and not characterized enough to make a picture; but the contrast between the plain and the wood, both of which are objects of equal grandeur, is pleasing; and many of the parts, taken separately, would form into good composition.

When we left the plain, the road carried us into shady lanes, winding round woody eminences; one of which was crowned with an artificial castle. The castle indeed, which consisted of one tower, might have been better imagined: the effect however was good, though the object was paltry.

About three miles on this side of Bristol, we had a grand view of rising country. It consisted of a pleasing mixture of wood and lawn: the parts were large; and the houses and villages scattered in good proportion. The whole, when we saw it, was overspread with a purplish tint, which, as the objects were so near, we could not account for; but it united all the parts together in very pleasing harmony.

Nature's landscapes are generally harmonized. Whether the sky is enlightened, or whether it lowers; whether it is tinted, or whether it is untinted, it gives its yellow lustre, or its grey obscurity, to the surface of the earth. It is but seldom however, that we meet with thosestrong harmonizing tints , which the landscape before us presented.

AS the air is the vehicle of these tints, distant objects will of course participate of them in the greatest degree; the foregrounds will be little affected, as they are seen only through a very thin veil of tinted air. But when the painter thinks it proper to introduce these strong tints into his distances, he will give his foregrounds likewise, in some degree, a participating hue; more perhaps than in reality belongs to them; or, at least, he will work them up with such colours, mute or vivid, as accord best with the general tone of his landscape.—How far it is proper for him to attempt these uncommon appearances of nature, is not a decided question. If the landscape before us should be painted with that full purple glow, with which we saw it overspread, the connoisseur would probably take offence, and call it affected.

The approach to Bristol is grand; and the environs everywhere shew the neighbourhood of an opulent city; though the city itself lay concealed till we entered it. For a considerable way, the road led between stone-walls, which bounded the fields on each side. This boundary, though of all others the most unpleasing, is yet not an improper approach to a great town; it is a kind of connecting thread.

The narrowness of the port of Bristol, which is formed by the banks of the river, is very striking. It may be called a dry harbour, notwithstanding the river: for the vessels, when the tide ebbs, lie on an ouzy bed in a deep channel. The returning tide lifts them to the height of the wharfs. It exhibits of course none of those beautiful winding shores, which often adorn an estuary. The port of Bristol was probably first formed when vessels, afraid of being cut from their harbours by corsairs, ran up high into the country for security.

The great church is a remnant only of the ancient fabric. It has been a noble pile when the nave was complete, and the stunted tower crowned with a spire, as I suppose it once was. We were sorry we did not look into Ratcliff church, which is said to be an elegant piece of Gothic architecture.

The country around Bristol is beautiful, though we had not time to examine it. The scenery about the Hot-wells is in a great degree picturesque. The river is cooped between two high hills; both of which are adorned with a rich profusion of rock, wood, and verdure. Here is no offskip indeed, but as far as foregrounds alone make a picture, (and they will do much better alone than distances^) we are presented with a very beautiful one.—Between these hills stands the pump-room, close to the river; and every ship, that sails into Bristol, sails under its windows.

The road between Bristol and Bath contains very little worth notice. We had been informed 'of some grand retrospect views, but, we did not find them. We were told afterwards, there are two roads between Bath and Bristol; of which the Glocestershire road is the more picturesque. If so, we unfortunately took the wrong one.

At Bath the buildings are splendid; but the picturesque eye finds little amusement, among such objects. The circus, from a corner of one of the streets that run into it, is thrown into perspective; and if it be happily enlightened, is seen with advantage. The crescent is built in a simpler, and greater style of architecture.

I have heard an ingenious friend, Colonel Mitford, who is well versed in the theory of the picturesque, speak of a very beautiful and grand effect of light and shade, which he had sometimes observed from an afternoon sun, in a bright winter-day, on this structure. No such effect could happen in summer; as the sun, in the same meridian, would be then too high. A grand mass of light, falling on one side of the Crescent, melted imperceptibly into as grand a body of shade on the other; and the effect rose from the opposition and graduation of these extremes. It was still increased by the pillars, and other members of architecture, which beautifully varied, and broke both the light and the shade, and gave a richness to each. The whole seemed like an effort of nature to set off art; and the eye roved about in astonishment to see a mere mass of regularity become the ground of so pleasing a display of harmony and picturesque effect. The elliptical form of the building was the magical source of this exhibition.

As objects of curiosity, the parades, the baths, the rooms, and the abbey, are all worth seeing. The rising grounds about Bath, as they appear from the town, are a great ornament to it : though they have nothing pleasing in themselves . There is no variety in the out-line; no breaks, no masses of woody scenery.

From Bath to Chippenham, the road is pleasant; but I know not, that it deserves any higher epithet.

From Chippenham to Marlborough, we passed over a wild plain, which conveys no idea but that of vastness, unadorned with beauty.

Nature, in scenes like these, seems only to have chalked out her designs. The ground is laid in, but left unfinished. The ornamental part is wanting —the river, or the lake winding through the bottom, which lies in form to receive it; the hanging rocks, to adorn some shooting promontory; and the woody screens to incompass, and give richness to the whole.

Marlborough-down, is one of those vast dreary scenes, which our ancestors, in the dignity of a state of nature, chose as a repository of their dead. Everywhere we see the tumuli, which were raised over their ashes; among which the largest is Silbury-hill. These structures have no date in the history of time; and will be, in all probability, among its most lasting monuments. Our ancestors had no ingenious arts to gratify their ambition; and as they could not aim at immortality by a bust, a statue, or a piece of bas-relief, they endeavoured to obtain it by works of enormous labour. It was thus in other barbarous countries. Before the introduction of arts in Egypt, kings endeavoured to immortalize themselves by lying under pyramids.

As we passed, what are called, the ruins of Abury, we could not but admire the industry and sagacity of those antiquarians, who can trace a regular plan in such a mass of apparent confusion.1

At the great inn at Marlborough, formerly a mansion of the Somerset-family, one of these tumuli stands in the garden, and is whimsically cut into a spiral walk; which, ascending imperceptibly, is lengthened into half a mile. The conceit at least gives an idea of the bulk of these massy fabrics.

From Marlborough, the road takes a more agreeable appearance. Savernake-forest, through which it passes, is a pleasant, woody scene: and great part of the way afterwards is adorned with little groves, and opening glades, which form a variety of second distances on the right. But we seldom found a foreground to set them off to advantage.

The country soon degenerates into open corn-lands: but near Hungerford, which is not an unpleasant town, it recovers a little spirit; and the road passes through close lanes, with breaks here and there, into the country, between the boles of trees.

As we approach Newberry, we had a view of Donnington-castle; one of those scenes where the unfortunate Charles reaped some glory. Nothing now remains of this gallant fortress, but a gate-way and two towers. The hill, on which it stands, is so overgrown with brush-wood, that we could scarcely discern any vestiges either of the walls of the castle, or of the works which had been thrown up against it.

This whole woody hill, and the ruins upon it, are now tenanted, as we were informed by our guide, only by ghosts; which however add much to the dignity of these forsaken habitations, and are, for that reason, of great use in description.

In Virgil's days, when the Tarpeian rock was graced by the grandeur of the capital, it was sufficiently ennobled. But in its early state, when it was sylvestribus horrida dumis , it wanted something to give it splendor. The poet therefore, has judiciously added a few ideas of the awful kind; and has contrived by this machinery to impress it with more dignity in its rude state, than it possessed in its adorned one:

Jam turn religio pavidos terrebat agrestes
Dira loci; jam tum sylvam, saxumque timebant.
    Hoc nemus, hunc, inquit, frondoso vertice collem,
    (Quis Deus, incertum est) habitat Deus. Arcades ipsum
    Credunt se vidisse Jovem, cum fæpe nigrantem
    Ægida concuteret dextrâ, nimbosque cieret."

Of these imaginary beings the painter, in the meantime, makes little use. The introduction of them, instead of raising, would depreciate his subject. The characters indeed of Jupiter, Juno, and all that progeny, are rendered as familiar to us, through the antique, as those of Alexander and Cæsar. But the judicious artist will be cautious how he goes farther. The poet will introduce a phantom of any kind without scruple. He knows his advantage. He speaks to the imagination ; and if he deal only in general ideas , as all good poets on such subjects will do, every reader will form the phantom according to his own conception. But the painter , who speaks to the eye , has a more difficult work. He cannot deal in general terms: he is obliged to particularize : and it is not likely, that the spectator will have the same idea of a phantom which he has.—The painter therefore acts prudently in abstaining, as much as possible, from the representation of fictitious beings.

The country about Newberry furnished little amusement. But if it is not picturesque , it is very historical .

In every historical country there are a set of ideas which peculiarly belong to it. Hastings , and Tewksbury ; Runnemede , and Clarendon , have all their associate ideas. The ruins of abbeys and castles have another set: and it is a soothing amusement in travelling, to assimilate the mind to the ideas of the country . The ground we now trod, has many historical ideas associated with it; two great battles, a long siege, and the death of the gallant Lord Falkland.

The road from Newberry to Reading, leads through lanes, from which a flat and woody country is exhibited on the right, and rising grounds on the left. Some unpleasant common fields intervene.

In the new road from Reading to Henley, the high grounds overlook a very picturesque distance on the right. The country indeed is flat; but this is a circumstance we do not dislike in a distance, when it contains a variety of wood and plain; and when the parts are large, and well-combined.

Henley lies pleasantly among woody hills: but the chalk, bursting everywhere from the soil, strikes the eye in spots; and injures the landscape.

Hence we struck again into the road across Hounslow-heath; having crouded much more within the space of a fortnight (to which our time was limited) than we ought to have done.


1 See an account of Abury, by Dr. Stukely.

William Gilpin, Observations of the River Wye, and several parts of South Wales (London: Cadell Junior and W. Davies, 1800) Conversion to HTML and placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall, 2012.

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