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The Beautiful, Picturesque and Sublime


Distinctions between these three concepts — beauty, picturesqueness and sublimity — are at the heart of Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, an 18th century philosophical treatise important to understanding the Romantic period. In each case, an emotional response is evoked from the viewer. I’ve found more utility in applications of the picturesque, where it can be found in literature, fine art (most directly, for me, in painting), as well as in architecture and landscape design:

  • In the novel, a new literary form of the late 18th century, strong words create vivid mental images: verbal depictions of settings where the action takes place. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), the first Gothic novel, permits its readers to travel in both space and time by means of these word pictures.
  • Landscape painting was also “invented” about the same time, a new genre where dabs of pigment stand in for words; where raw natural landscape dominates and human presence (and influence) is minimized. Previously, painted contours, water features, incidental buildings, trees and shrubs were there to fill embarrassing voids between and among heroically composed figures engaged in dramatic action. From Claude Lorain to John Constable, the landscape itself became the active element.
  • Eventually, the emerging profession of landscape design reconfigures actual contours, manipulates lakes and streams, positions trees, shrubs, flowers and strategic architectonic features to create living examples of the static landscape painting. Visit the gardens at Stourhead (as I did with my friend Dennis Colliton almost twenty years ago) for a consciously choreographed series of spatial experiences that may approach the sublime.


Curious, how long it’s taken to see Edmund Burke’s trinity in even the earliest phases of the Agincourt Project. Especially the picturesque. Despite Rene Descartes and the Enlightenment rationality of the original townsite — or, more probably, as a reaction to it — I’ve subconsciously framed public space with religious (i.e., spiritual) imagery; allowed our institutions to generated axes of tension and movement; and permitted an organic evolution of the vistas that knit neighborhoods together. I am neither painter nor writer, yet those media have been my tools.

Agincourt has been a product of the late 19th century and the early 20th. I’m comfortable drawing real characters like Frederick Law Olmsted and Lawrence Buck and even Europeans Adolf Loos and Sigmund Freud into the narrative. So it’s a stretch to invoke an 18th century personality like Nicholas Hawksmoor, assistant to Sir Christopher Wren and collaborator with Sir John Vanbrugh yet overshadowed by both of those giants. I wonder if dabbling in the 18th century’s issues cleanses my palette for the 19th and 20th.

Nicholas Hawksmoor [1661-1736]

In 1985 Peter Ackroyd won the Whitbread Award for the Best Novel of the year. I bought and devoured it in a single week. I also remember waking one morning with vivid mental pictures of having visited Nicholas Hawksmoor’s church of Little St Hugh, a design from about 1736.

Dream-walking through the London’s streets, lanes, and courts, I popped through an “Alice-like” constriction and there it was before me. I was alone in the square while late afternoon light played on its rounded apse. Once inside, ribbons of orange rippled over wood pew boxes. All of this is unremarkably ordinary, except that Nicholas Hawksmoor designed just six London churches, not the seven discussed in Ackroyd’s book. His depiction of the imaginary #7 triggered something in me: I saw the place he described. So detailed (relatively) were those mental pictures that I rushed to school, taped a piece of white tracing paper to the desk and drew (i.e., draughted) as quickly as I could the building’s plan still in my mind’s eye. Now, more than thirty years later, I need to complete the church of Little St Hugh. Let it not be said that I have a short attention span.


The “empty” part of the plan was the chancel, which concerned me because I doubted being able to install an adequate choir. Things are going better than I’d hoped and soon I’ll be giving much needed attention to the elevations and sections.

Let’d hope it doesn’t take another thirty years to get this done. I haven’t got the time.


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