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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Observations on William Gilpin's criticism of literature and the visual arts Retzleff, Garry Victor


This thesis is essentially concerned with analyzing William Gilpin's criticism and relating it to the critical ideas of his age. Gilpin was a man of taste who lived during a significant transitional period in the history of criticism. His criticism is rooted in the classical tradition and centered around classical principles. But many of his ideas, values, and tastes are radically different in emphasis from, or directly opposite to, those of classical theory. Gilpin, in his criticism of literature, subscribes to the theories that literature imitates nature, that it imitates the ideal rather than the actual, and that it must appeal to the reason. He stresses the objective aspects of literature and asserts the importance of such classical principles as decorum, unity, simplicity and clarity. But his interest in the sensational aspects of literary pictorialism, his non-humanistic concern with landscape poetry, his interest in intuitionalism, his defence of sublime obscurity, his occasional delight in emotions for their own sake, all reveal a turning away from classical values. Gilpin makes little effort to reconcile the inconsistencies and self-contradictions in his literary criticism. In his criticism of painting Gilpin is strongly influenced by the classicism of contemporary British painting. Again he advocates the imitation of ideal reality. He believes that the image is all important in painting and that it must be a generalized representation of the ideal central form of an object. He also believes that painting must appeal to the reason, and he usually treats the perceptive imagination as an essentially rational faculty. Occasionally he acknowledges painting's ability to cause emotional transport. Of the painter Gilpin requires knowledge of objects and of the rules of art. The painter's knowledge and technical skill are, however, useful only if they are directed by genius. Gilpin judges paintings by the principles established by the Roman school—design (decorum), composition, harmony, simplicity, exactness—and discusses these principles in an essentially classical manner. But he uses them to praise the Venetians, the Baroque masters, and landscape paintings. His criticism of painting has many inherent contradictions but is superficially fairly coherent. Sculpture is treated only briefly by Gilpin. He believes in idealization and praises simplicity, grace, proportion. But he opposes the rigid neo-classicists of his day by praising animation and even recommending strong action and emotion in sculptured figures and groups. Gilpin has high praise for the classical tradition in English architecture, especially for Burlington-Palladianism. And his criteria of architectural judgement— symmetry, proportion, simplicity—are essentially those of the classical tradition. He is concerned with formal rather than associative architectural values, and he is insistent that architecture be intellectually satisfactory and not only visually effective. He defends the Gothic, especially late Gothic, by attempting to prove its conformity to classical principles. The defence is not very successful, but his appreciation of the Gothic is obviously sincere. He discusses in terms of picturesque or associative values only such minor architectural forms as cottages and ruins. Gilpin defends and evaluates the natural garden in terms of essentially classical principles. The garden is nature methodized, and the method is selection and arrangement according to the rules of art. But Gilpin's acceptance of irregularity, his concern for purely visual values, and his praise of wild nature are in conflict with his basic critical attitude to the garden. Gilpin, in his criticism of the fine arts, attempts to reconcile various conflicting critical attitudes and principles. He is not always successful, but his attempt is an interesting example of late-eighteenth-century eclectic criticism.

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