‘When in Sense and Sensibility Marianne Dashwood lamented that “every body pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was”, the ‘him’ in question was the Reverend William Gilpin. Perhaps Jane Austen’s reluctance to name her hero in the book came from her disinclination to make him conspicuously the subject of her ironic humour. Nonetheless, when it was said of Marianne that were she rich she “would have every book that tells her how to admire an old twisted tree”, for “any object of picturesque beauty within their view drew from her an exclamation of delight”, there can be no doubt that it was from the works of the Reverend William Gilpin that she had derived her taste and her admiration.
In the case of Austen, it may be that this reluctance was fortified by the parody of Gilpin that William Combe had begun to publish in 1809 (The Three Tours of Doctor Syntax, in Search of the Picturesque). However Repton (also profoundly influenced by Gilpin), also seldom referred to him by name. The few examples begin with his comments of Milton Park in 1791 “Mr Gilpin, in his Forest Scenery, has given some specimens of the outlines of a wood, one of which is not unlike that beautiful screen which bounds the park to the north of MILTON ABBEY, and which the first of the annexed sketches … more accurately represents.” In the following year he proceeded to admire Gilpin’s skill with drawing the sky in his red book for Stoke Park (1792): “The Unity of artificial Landscape is often produced by the Light and Shadow, by accidental gleams of Sunshine, and some of the most pleasing effects in Mr Gilpin’s sketches arise from the form of the Clouds themselves; but it is evident such advantages cannot be taken at pleasure in Natural Landscape.” He went on to applaud Gilpin’s theory of painting in his red book for Rudding: “Mr. Gilpin has very ingeniously shewn, that a picture can hardly be an exact imitation of nature, without producing disgust as a picture; but the question, whether landscape is reducible to a scale, can only proceed from a total inexperience of the art of painting.”
Repton was anxious to work out his own thesis on the relationship between landscape gardening and landscape painting – and it was a difficult one, he wanted to use painting to illustrate his ideas, while insisting that the two arts were fundamentally distinct.
However there might be a further reason for the reticence of Austen and Repton. Gilpin was an early herald and apostle of the Romantic. He admired landscape only as it excites sensation, whether of sight, smell or sound. To him we bow. Both Repton and Austenthought this to be the case yet did not want to admit it, being English, and therefore (our editor and the Professor are in agreement here) repressed stuffed-shirts: Repton wanted to base his advice on good practice, knowledge of the countryside and efficient farming, and Austen sought to place herself in the camp of sense rather than sensibility, with Elinor rather than Marianne Dashwood. Yet both Austen and Repton described their worlds almost entirely through sensation, through the effect it would have on them and their subjects. If you will not believe me, then believe Henry James who wrote in 1883: “All that there was of [her heroines] was feeling–a sort of undistracted concentrated feeling which we scarcely find any more. In of course an infinitely less explicit way, Emma Woodhouse and Anne Elliot give us as great an impression of ‘passion’–that celebrated quality–as the ladies of G. Sand and Balzac. Their small gentility and front parlour existence doesn’t suppress it, but only modifies the outward form of it.” In just the same way Richard Payne Knight ridiculed Repton’s profession “as that of walk-maker, shrub planter, turf cleaner or rural perfumer.” The belittling may have stung, and the reference to the sensation of smell it may have encouraged Repton to keep his distance from Gilpin, not least because there was some truth in Payne Knight’s slur. [Notes from the Professor, trans. the Type-Setter]