The Beautiful, the Sublime and the Picturesque

On Monday, our first day at Wye House, we were given a tour of the property. I particularly enjoyed Beth’s discussion of the picturesque, the sublime and the beautiful.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a movement to reconnect with nature.  For a long time people had been scared of nature and believed that it should be viewed from afar.  Ideas about nature gradually began to change and people slowly introduced plants into their landscapes.  However, most people were still wary of the power of nature, so they devised a system to better control the pieces of nature they planted in their property.

The beautiful in the side garden. Source: M. Isobel Taylorch

The beautiful in the side garden. Source: M. Isobel Taylorch

Landowners divided their wildlife into two categories so as to maintain dominance over the natural world around them.  On one hand there was the beautiful, the carefully maintained plants, and on the other was the sublime, the property’s collection of wild and untamed vegetation.  According to Uvedale Price, a landscape architect of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the beautiful is light, playful, intricate and varied while the sublime elicits awe and terror caused by the appearance of infinity brought on by rows and rows of a single type of plant.  At Wye House, the rows and rows of overgrown grass at the front of the property represents the sublime, whereas the small garden to the side of the main house, the mowed lawn directly in front of the main house, and the ordered and controlled bushes and trees on the side of the front lawn demonstrates the beautiful (see pictures).

The ha-ha in front of Wye House

The ha-ha in front of Wye House. Source: M. Isobel Taylorch

In order to keep the beautiful separated from the sublime, the landowners would employ a devise known as a ha-ha wall, which Emily described in a previous post, but which I would like to re-define here for the purposes of my discussion.  Since I’ve included an image of the ha-ha wall at Wye house, it seems fitting to describe that particular wall.  A few feet from the side of the sublime over grown grass nearest to the main house is a small trench in which workers added a low wall (the ha-ha).  It is also known as an invisible wall because, if you stand on the porch of the main house and look out at the front yard, you can’t see the wall because it is so low.  In this way, even if the occupants of the house could not see it, the ha-ha wall separated them from the sublime, thus protecting them from the power of raw nature. 

View of the ha-ha from the house

View of the ha-ha from the house. Source: M. Isobel Taylorch

Price also mentions that beauty combined with sublimity produces the picturesque, which subdues the effects of the beautiful and the sublime – two ends of the extreme – and creates curiosity on the part of the viewer to explore the landscape further.  Picturesqueness relies on the clear presence of consciously planted boundaries to create comfort in the viewer, rescuing them from the fear of infinity which the sublime creates.

In his article “White and black landscapes in 18th century Virginia,” Dell Upton mentions that some plantation owners placed plants near their houses to form social barriers and make their houses, which stood on terraces, appear more impressive.  Specifically, he uses the example of an informal park near the house contrasted with a very formal and imposing house.  I wonder if this same boost in social status could be achieved with the sublime versus the beautiful plants.  For instance on the Wye House property there is a gradual shift from the sublime (the rows and rows of overgrown grass), to the beautiful (the mowed grass, the ordered and controlled trees and bushes on the side of the front lawn, and the garden adjacent to the house).  In other words, the front lawn of the main house goes from awesome, scary and uncontrollable to a state of presentation more suitable for a house of that social standing.  I’m curious whether the architect intentionally designed the front yard in this manner so as to afford the owners of the house a higher social standing that unconsciously comes with being associated with the neat, rather than the unkempt plants.

2 Comments
  1. Nice post. I wonder if there is possible to find some old photos of this property?
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