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Gilpin, William

    Image Credit: Doctor Syntax Blog

    Full Name: Gilpin, William

    Other Names:

    • William Gilpin

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1724

    Date Died: 1804

    Place Born: Scaleby, Cumbria, England, UK

    Place Died: Boldre, Hampshire, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): art theory and prints (visual works)


    Clergyman, garden theorist and early historian of prints. Gilpin was the son of Captain John Bernard Gilpin (1701-1776) and Matilda Langstaffe (1703-1773). He attended school in Carlisle, then at St. Bees, near Whitehaven in Cumberland, England. He entered Queen’s College, Oxford in 1740, graduating with a B.A. in 1744. After ordination as a deacon in 1746, he was appointed curate of Irthington in Cumberland. He returned to Oxford for an MA in 1748. There he began collecting prints, developing a sophisticated appreciation well beyond the simple criteria of verisimilitude. The same year he wrote of his experiences of the gardens at Stowe, Buckinghamshire in his anonymous, Dialogue upon the Gardens of the Right Honourable the Lord Viscount Cobham at Stowe. Gilpin married his first cousin, Margaret Gilpin (1725-1807), in 1751/52. In 1753 he became headmaster at Cheam School for Boys, Surrey. At Cheam, he introduced new scheme for educating his wards, including esthetic appreciation and sports. At the time, Gilpin’s early garden theory his his Dialogue was overshadowed by the 1756 essay on The Sublime and the Beautiful by the philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797). Gilpin turned his attention to graphics, issuing his 1768 Essay on Prints, again written anonymously, as a primer to the collecting and appreciation of graphics. The essay, which included a discussion of types of print and on individual artists, went through numerous editions. Between 1768 and 1776 Gilpin spent his summers traveling throughout England making notes for a further book. These writings circulated privately until William Mason (1725-1797) and the Dorothy (Cavendish), Duchess of Portland (1750-1794), convinced him to publish the accounts. These influenced aesthetic perception for amateur artists and travelers for the next generation. In 1777 Gilpin retired as headmaster to be the Vicar of Boldre in the New Forest, Hampshire. A third edition of his Essay on Prints appeared in 1781, the first to carry Gilpin’s name. Among later works, Observations Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty […] of Cumberland and Westmorland (1786) was particularly important for its prefiguring of romantic appreciation of ruins (Scaleby Castle, in that case) and the Lake District. By the end of his life, Gilpin’s Essay on Prints had gone through four editions. Although Gilpin is today most remembered for his esthetic theory, his Essay on Prints was an early art history of the graphic medium. His concept of “the Picturesque,” first appearing in the Essay on Prints as an additional concept to “sublime” and “beautiful,” was intended to encompass landscape appreciation in the paintings of Nicolas Poussin or Claude Le Lorrain. His theory formed one of the bases for the late eighteenth-century theories of the landscape architects Sir Uvedale Price (1747-1829) and Humphry Repton (1752-1818), and the connoisseur Richard Payne Knight. Gilpin was mocked by William Combe (1741-1823) in his Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque of 1812 as well as in the etchings of Thomas Rowlandson and to a lesser or kinder degree in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey. His picturesque definition took on broad acceptance in continental European thought. His notions of the picturesque led him, along with Marc-Antoine (Abbé) Laugier (1713-1769) in France and August Wilhelm Schlegel in Germany, to reevaluate Gothic art, elevating it to a positive conception (Grodecki).

    Selected Bibliography

    An Essay on Prints: containing Remarks Upon the Principles of Picturesque Beauty, the Different Kinds of Prints, and the Characters of the Most Noted Masters, illustrated by Criticisms upon Particular Pieces to which are Added some Cautions that may be Useful in Collecting Prints. London: J. Robson, 1768 [editions one and two published anonymously]; Observations on the River Wye and Several Parts of South Wales, etc. Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; Made in the Summer of the Year 1770. London: 1782; Observations Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty Made in the Year 1772, on Several Parts of England, Particularly the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland. London: 1786.


    Barbier, Carl Paul. William Gilpin: his Drawings, Teaching, and Theory of the Picturesque. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1963; Templeman, William D. The Life and Work of William Gilpin (1724-1804) Master of the Picturesque and Vicar of Boldre. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois press, 1939; Grodecki, Louis. “Definitions and Theories/Historical and Physical Circumstances.” Gothic Architecture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1977, p. 9.

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Gilpin, William." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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