He published his influential treatise Essay on Prints in 1768, defining the picturesque as ‘that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture’. In the following decade he travelled extensively in the summer applying his principles to the British landscape.
After circulating his tour journals to friends, he was encouraged in 1782 to publish an artist’s travel guide: Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales, etc. relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty. Rev Gilpin’s notes were accompanied by sepia plates etched by his nephew William Sawrey Gilpin (c.1761-1843) in the new medium of aquatint.
Gilpin’s focus on his own ideas of beauty was much mocked. In one oft-quoted passage, he suggested that Tintern Abbey would be improved if ‘a mallet judiciously used’ would ruin a gable or two. Such passages were easy pickings for satire (he was the inspiration for Thomas Rowlandson’s Dr Syntax and welcome fodder for Jane Austen). Nonetheless, at a time when travel to war-torn continental Europe was restricted, his sketching holidays proved a popular Grand Tour replacement. There followed Observations on the Lake District and the West of England and Remarks on Forest Scenery, and other woodland Views…
The first edition of Gilpin’s first guide offered at Forum Auctions in London on November 18 was the artist’s own copy. Two original pen and ink sketches have been pasted in and 15 of the plates have been coloured, seemingly by Gilpin himself. To the title page is a note in the artist’s hand: In this copy the prints have been all touched with the brush WG.
Other ink inscriptions read (to the half-title) WH Harmer bought at the author’s sale and (to the front free endpaper) This was purchased by me at a sale at Rugby and I gave for it the enormous sum of one penny, MH Bloxam. The latter references Matthew Holbeche Bloxam (1805-88), an antiquarian who himself was the author of a popular guide to Gothic architecture and the original source of the tale of William Webb Ellis and the invention of the game of rugby.
A decent first of Observations on the River Wye… might bring £200 at auction. This special association copy, estimated at £400-600, sold at £7000 (plus 25% buyer’s premium).