Tag Archives: picturesque

Folkloresque and Picturesque

I’m currently reading The Folkloresque – a collection of essays edited by Michael Dylan Foster and Jeffrey A. Tolbert. Reading Paul Manning’s chapter on pixies in the Victorian era brought something into focus for me – the similar ways in which Victorian picturesque and folkloresque work.

The picturesque is the process of making a landscape into something to be consumed. It can mean artistic depictions but it can also mean knocking down peasant cottages to make a more pleasant view, or building a fake ruin. It’s the process of making charming landscape walks with lovely views that you can enjoy only a short distance from your large country house. It turns the living landscape into scenery for amusement. Anyone poor living in this landscape had better be quaint and appealing, or there is no place for them.

Folkloresque productions of the period take the same approach – focusing on what’s charming and delightful that can be taken from the place and sold to people for money. As with the land, the stories are made to confirm to what the money wants to buy – we are to have charm, and whimsy and something nice for the children. The people whose stories these were of course get no money from the sale of them, get no kudos for carrying them and won’t be named in person. If any of those ‘simple rural folk’ made their stories up, no one wants to know – it does not suit the Victorian folkloresque agenda. We don’t really know what the relationship between the people sharing folk tales and the folk tales really is, because the people themselves are vanished from the story landscape as much as they are from the picturesque landscape.

There is no place in the picturesque or the folkloresque landscape for the people who live, work and tell stories there. They are simply something to exploit – for their labour and their raw materials. Other people take the money. Other people get the kudos for collecting, or for improving the view. Knock down the cottage in which the storyteller lived because it isn’t pretty enough to be seen from your windows and claim the stories as your own. It’s much the same underlying logic.


Spring Views

In a landscape dominated by deciduous woodland, the views change with the season. Once the leaves are on the trees, it can become harder to see any great distance. Views are caught occasionally, through the gaps.

We have a history of cutting down trees to create views. The eighteenth century notion of the picturesque landscape had landowners creating views by cutting down trees. This movement has informed landscape art and is part of the story of what we tell ourselves a good view means. We expect distance, drama, and plenty of scope for looking at it. Where the views are to be enjoyed, and where the trees are to grow for being viewed distorts the landscape itself. If we’re trying to make it something pretty to look at, if we want to see the dramatic shape of the land, we take out nature to replace it with human ideas of beauty.

We may see beauty in landscapes that are ravaged. If we come to them not knowing what should be living there and how they might look if we’d not pared them back to a few inches of closely cropped grass, we may perceive the drama and not the damage. The Lake District in the UK is an example of a close grazed landscape revealing the drama and views of big landforms. It is a landscape that should have a lot more trees in it. That we want to have a certain kind of experience when looking at it has an impact on the land.

Seeing a long way should, I think, be treated as a seasonal activity. It’s a pleasure available in spring before the leaves emerge and in autumn after they are gone. We can have the trees and the views, if we don’t insist on having the views all year round.