The Architecture of Robert Adam (1728-1792)

The Beautiful, the Sublime and the Picturesque in the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century






Concise Oxford Dictionary defines beautiful as 'delighting the eye', sublime as 'so distinguished by elevation or size or nobility or grandeur or other impressive quality as to inspire awe or wonder', and picturesque as 'fit to be the subject of a striking picture'.


1756 - Edmund Burke. "A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful".

In 1756 Edmund Burke published an essay entitled "A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful".

The essay had an enormous impact on the visual arts including architecture, as well as on the writers, painters and composers of the mid to late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries.

Burke described the sublime as whatever excites in us a sense of awe or delightful fear...when we are not actually in danger.

“The passions which belong to self-preservation, turn on pain and danger; they are simply painful when their causes immediately affect us; they are delightful when we have an idea of pain and danger, without being actually in such circumstances; this delight I have not called pleasure, because it turns on pain, and because it is different enough from any idea of positive pleasure. Whatever excites this delight, I call sublime.”

Culzean Castle - clifftop setting

Culzean Castle. The clifftop setting, the giddy heights, and the apparently precarious position of the building which seems to be both growing from and forming part of the naked rock along the cliff edge, all evolk feelings of the sublime.

Close inspection of this photograph will also show ruins built into the cliff edge below the castle. The sense of antiquity increases and enhances a sense of the sublime.

Click to see large image.

Salvator Rosa (1615-73)
Italian landscape painter with a preference for romantic, wild and brooding scenes. Salvator Rosa created a new type of landscape that was boldly depicted, darkly evocative, and wildly romantic. His scenes were filled of jagged rocks, bushy broken trees, and picturesque figures. His dramatic figure paintings were of obscure subjects from ancient myth, history and the Bible. His works were most avidly collected in 18th and 19th century England. He was praised and honored as the antithesis of Claude Lorrain and idealistic art.

 His landscapes were greatly admired in the 18th and 19th centuries as embodiments of the picturesque and romantic landscape.

Salvator Rosa was a prolific artist who is best known for the creation of a new type of wild and savage landscape. His craggy cliffs, jagged, moss-laden trees, and rough bravura handling create a dank and desolate air that contrasts sharply with the serenity of Claude Lorrain or the classical grandeur of Nicolas Poussin

River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumean Sibyl. c. 1655 Oil on canvas, 174 x 259 cm. Wallace Collection, London. Has in the background a castle on a rocky clifftop overlooking a river.

A Friar Tempted by Demons. 1660-65. Oil on canvas 65 x 83 cm. Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome
In the backgrounds of the National Gallery's two oval canvases, savage nature devours the remains of classical buildings. In such pictures, Rosa anticipated the eighteenth century trend for pictures of ruins. Conversely, the later taste for such romantic expressions explains why Rosa's pictures were particularly prized by connoisseurs of the following centuries.

Adam would have seen reproduction of these paintings and other of this school at the library at Blair Adam.(footnote).

Writng home from his grand tour in "



Alexander Pope

His work is described by Alexander Pope's poem

Epistle to Lord Burlington, 1731

Consult the Genius of the Place in all;
That tells the Waters or to rise, or fall,
Or helps th’ambitious Hill the Heavens to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the Vale,
Calls in the Country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’intending Lines;
Paints as you plant, and as you work, designs.

William Wordsworth

Wordsworth immerses us in the natural sublime, taking us out of the role of spectator, making us sympathetic participants, in the passage where the Solitary stirs the feelings of the narrator by recalling the ecstatic joys of wandering amid the tumult of mountain cataracts:

How divine,
The liberty, for frail, for mortal, man
To roam at large among unpeopled glens
And mountainous retirements . . .
. . . regions consecrate
To oldest time! and, reckless of the storm
That keeps the raven quiet in her nest,
Be as a presence or a motion -- one
Among the many there; and while the mists
Flying, and rainy vapours, call out shapes
And phantoms from the crags and solid earth
As fast as a musician scatters sounds
Out of an instrument; and while the streams
(As at a first creation and in haste
To exercise their untried faculties)
Descending from the region of the clouds,
And starting from the hollows of the earth
More multitudinous every moment, rend
Their way before them -- what a joy to roam
An equal among mightiest energies;
And haply sometimes with articulate voice,
Amid the deafening tumult, scarcely heard
By him that utters it, exclaim aloud,
"Rage on, ye elements! let moon and stars
Their aspects lend, and mingle in their turn
With this commotion (ruinous though it be)
From day to night, from night to day, prolonged!" [Works, 5.125]

The Solitary does not gaze, a spectator, upon nature as-object; for unlike Gilpin, he is not in search of the picturesque. Instead, he immerses himself in nature-as-process, trying with his roaming descent, with his passionate exclamations, to make himself part of the scene he encounters. Many of Burke's "qualities" present themselves to our notice: "the mists/Flying and rainy vapours" exemplify obscurity, the "deafening tumult" loudness, and the "mightiest energies" magnificence and power. But our point is not that the Solitary notices these qualities in a scene before him, but that he immerses himself in the tumult, joining his energy for a brief moment to mightiest energies, as the power, tumult, and magnificence of nature make their incursions upon his consciousness. So powerfully do they act upon him, so powerfully does he project himself toward and into them, that he enters the scene as participant, as one who experiences the sublime. The Solitary's apostrophe to the raging elements suggests chaotic merging of earth, sky, and water -- in short, the Turnerian vortex. But it is not the vortex which here chiefly represents the sublime experience. Using a narrative technique that is analogous to cinematic "panning," Wordsworth first places us high on the crags with the speaker, then brings us downward "from the region of the clouds," and finally plunges us into the tumult below *The visual organization, the Miltonic sonorous verse, and the apostrophe in the manner of Lear (who would also participate in the energies of the universe) all involve us in the sublime experience.

DOMENICHINO 1581 - 1641
Landscape with a Fortified Town
Oil on canvas 113.2 x 197 cm

National Gallery L885.
The composition of this painting is closely based on Annibale Carracci's 'Flight into Egypt', the most famous of the lunettes painted by Annibale for the chapel of the Aldobrandini Palace and now in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome. The fortified town is almost identical, even to the extent of there being the same number of windows on individual facades. However, unlike Annibale's painting, Domenichino's work has no narrative focus; it is instead peopled with genre figures: a recumbent woman watching a fisherman sorting his catch, boatmen, a woman and a playful child, a shepherd and his flock.

The painting is one of Domenichino's most celebrated landscapes and was much admired by Constable.


Jame Norrie. painter

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