History of the Picturesque Architecture Movement

Picturesque architecture, popular from the late 1700s to early 1800s, drew inspiration from several sources including landscape painters Claude Lorrain and Salvatore Rosa.

Rather than being a rigidly identifiable design, the Picturesque movement is "an aesthetic point of view which grew out of the English love for natural scenery and around which a new approach to landscape design was formulated during the last decade of the 18th century." So says Janet Wright in Architecture of the Picturesque in Canada.

The Picturesque was concerned with the variety and irregularity of nature, particularly in the play of light and shadow. Though interest in the design and composition of the landscape was paramount, its influence on architecture was significant. As the structure itself was viewed as a minor component in the total scheme, it was allowed to display a more eclectic style than previously accepted.

English Architecture and Palladian Classicism

Until the first half of the 18th century, the predominant style of English architecture followed the Palladian school of thought. Its academic classicism observed precise rules of proportion and design which were believed necessary to create perfection.

However, later in the century, it was discovered that ancient Greek and Roman monuments had period style variations. This had a liberating effect on subsequent English design.
Pompeii and Herculaneum Excavations Influence Architecture

In 1738 the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum renewed interest in antiquities and classical art. According to Louise Ade Boger in The Complete Guide to Furniture Styles, the Classic Revival "was accelerated by the publication from 1752 to1767 of the great illustrated works on the Herculaneum frescoes by the Compte de Caylus and in 1766-67 of the books on Greek and Etruscan vases and antiquities by Sir William Hamilton."

Boge also believes that part of the popularity of Neo-Classic movement was due to a rebellion against Rococo or Louis XV style.

Italian Design and Picturesque Architecture

Italy was once again the centre of artistic and archeological activity, just as it had been in the Renaissance. Its influence was evident in the number of Italianate villas produced as part of the Picturesque genre in Britain and even more so in North America.

Chippendale and Chinese Design

Around this same time in England, travel books published on China helped to fuel a mania for anything in the Chinese manner. In particular, J.B. Du Halde's scholarly tome on China, Korea and Tibet, which was translated into English in 1738.

This interest could also be due to a Chinese drawing room executed for the Prince of Wales' London residence, Carlton House. Later work in the Chinese style was undertaken at Brighton Pavillion (1815-1821), prompting Chippendale and other contemporary designers to produce Chinese furniture in response to increased demand.

Effect on Picturesque Architecure

It is not surprising that the architects of this later style, the Picturesque, should draw their inspiration from a variety of souces and combine them in previously unheard of ways.

The Picturesque philosophy used accepted styles such as Gothic or Classical, but also introduced Hindu or Chinese designs. Even modest structures like the vernaular English cottage were considered suitable. Elements from each mode could also be combined.
The Importance of Landscape in Picturesque Architecture

The Picturesque building was seen only in relation to its surroundings, rather than as an isolated object. The landscape itself would be rough and natural rather than artificial and controlled and the ensuing vistas were of primary importance.

As designers and architects sought to orient the principal rooms and windows towards sunlight and the outdoor views, interiors became more irregular in plan. However, most exterior elevations remained symmetrical. The positioning of nearby trees, the use of chimneys, recessed wall planes or bow windows all contributed to the play of light and shadow that was a crucial element of the Picturesque strategy.

Recommended Colours for Picturesque Exteriors

A transition was necessary to bridge the surrounding areas from the house to the wilderness beyond, therefore the grounds surrounding the house would still be carefully cultivated.

Landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752-1818) thought white walls or red brick were unsatisfactory choices and recommended that trim, including porches and shutters, be painted green to blend into the surrounding foliage. Wright states that grey or pale yellow exterior walls, preferably of stucco or stone, were the perfect foil to the dark green grounds.

Advocates of the Picturesque Movement

Some of the leading advocates of the Picturesque movement in Britain were landscape gardener Humphry Repton, designer Sir Richard Payne Knight (1750-1825) and architect John Nash (1752-1835).