Wednesday, 8 July 2009

picturesque picaresque

I've been looking at Wordsworth's travels in the Bristol area lately, and was pleased to discover that he and Dorothy had once stayed at the Co-op in Shirehampton. It wasn't actually the Co-op back then, but it's fun popping in to buy your baked beans there and imagining the Wordsworths studying the frozen pizzas with wild surmise.

When William and Dorothy set out to walk from Shirehampton for Wales on the morning of July 1oth 1798, they would have walked past Blaise Castle, in Henbury. It occured to me that there was some similarity between the landscaping at Blaise, and Wordsworth's poem "Tintern Abbey", which he would be composing over the following days. So I popped up to Blaise yesterday to check it out. I had visited the house before; it is now a museum in the care of Bristol City Council. What I had remembered was the 'Red Book' of the designer, Humphry Repton, laid out in a glass case with the landscape neatly delineated in watercolour, with paper overlays showing his proposed alterations. Upon what, on the 'before' picture, was a wooded hill, he created a small field with a rustic cottage in the far corner.

The view across to the cottage has been obscured by the passage of time and the regrowth of trees. And unfortunately, the roof of the museum had leaked last summer, and the book had been damaged; but a guide helpfully fetched us a copy of it, and I was able to see a facsimile of Repton's designs and a transcript of his proposals.

This is an excerpt from what I'm writing about it...

.the sham castle which gives Blaise Castle its name


We then passed Blaise Hamlet, a little cluster of thatched ‘gingerbread’ cottages where retainers of the adjacent Blaise Castle House would once have been installed in order to look picturesque for the people in the big house. I wondered what William and Dorothy would have made of it; but on that July morning in 1798 as they passed by, the hamlet was still thirteen years in the future, though Humphry Repton was already at work creating a picturesque landscape for the owner of the house. I was struck by the area of common ground in the aesthetic sensibilities of Repton and Wordsworth, although they seem worlds apart in other ways. Here is Repton describing the effect of cutting back the trees on the hill behind the house and installing a cottage:


…this by its form will mark its intention, and the occasional smoke from the chimney will not only produce that cheerful and varying motion which painting cannot express…. It must look like what it is, the habitation of a labourer …but its simplicity should be the effect of Art and not of accident.


Red Book for Blaise Castle


..and here is Wordsworth, on his return from this short expedition to Wales, describing what he saw in the Wye Valley:


…these wild pastoral farms,

Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke

Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!

With some uncertain notice, as might seem

Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,

Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire

The hermit sits alone.

These beauteous forms,

Through a long absence, have not been to me

As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:

But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din

Of towns and cities, I have owed to them

In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,

Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;

And passing even into my purer mind

With tranquil restoration….


Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey


At least I know what I think of Blaise Hamlet. Pevsner describes it as


the nec plus ultra of picturesque layout and design. ….(it) is indeed responsible for some of the worst sentimentalities of England. Its progeny is legion and includes Christmas cards and teapots. Why then are we not irritated but enchanted by it?


Why indeed, Nikolaus? I am not enchanted but irritated by it. So there. I said as much to James as we drove by, and if he disagreed, he wisely kept his own counsel.


(some more here...)