Book Review: A Tour of the English Lakes

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A Tour of The English Lakes with Thomas Gray and
Joseph Farington RA
John R. Murray (Frances Lincoln, £25, *£22.50)

John Murray has here brought together Thomas Gray’s journal of his visit to the Lake District in 1769 with Joseph Farington’s near-contemporary watercolours and the engravings published after them. These prints and the journal were key to popularising the Lake District in the late 18th century as part of the English Grand Tour. In addition, Mr Murray has photographed the same views as they are today, many of them heart-stoppingly unaltered and unspoilt. The similarity of the photograph and watercolour of Stock Ghyll Force Ambleside, for instance, is positively uncanny. Gray described it as a ‘Grand Cas-cade… of singular beauty’.

Mr Murray was inspired to undertake this project by a series of chance discoveries, notably that of Gray’s original manuscript in the archives of John Murray, his family’s old publishing company, and then the original Farington water-colours for his engravings of the Lakes in the Mellon Collec-tion at the Centre for British Art at Yale University.

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William Mason, the 18th-century poet, had suggested publishing Gray’s journal with illustrations of the views des-cribed in it, but we have had to wait until now for the two strands of description of the Lake District-in words and watercolour-to be brought together. The result is a delightful publication that perpetuates the Picturesque aesthetics of the early generations of English lovers of mountain scenery. As the 18th-century Cumbrian Dr John Brown, who was admired by Gray himself, wrote to Lord Lyttelton of Cobham Hall about Keswick, to delineate its ‘beauty, horror and immensity’ would require the ‘combined powers of Claude, Salvator Rosa, and Poussin’.

Gray’s writing was calculated to attract such devotees of the Picturesque. His descriptions, however, are not romantic exaggerations, but objective prose, admired by a later generation of enthusiasts and writers, such as Wordsworth, who described the journal as being imbued with ‘distinctiveness and unaffected simplicity’.

It was the precursor of all later guides to the Lakes, including Wordsworth’s own, and later 18th-century classics by Thomas West (a Jesuit priest) Guide to the Lakes of 1778-and William Gilpin-Observations on the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmorland of 1786. The former was a straightforward practical guide, but the latter was the application of high Picturesque theories to the Lakes landscape: ‘No tame country, however beautiful, can distend the mind like this awful and majestic scenery.’

Despite the fact that they are more topographical views than artificial compositions, Gilpin thought ‘Mr Farington’s prints render any other “portraits” of the Lakes unnecessary. They are by far, in the author’s [Gilpin’s] opinion, the most accurate and beautiful views of that romantic country which he has seen’. Mr Murray explains this paradox. Farington’s foregrounds follow the Picturesque formula of framing a view with carefully arranged trees, fallen rocks and colourful peasants, but his back-grounds are, in most cases, remarkably accurate, with the lakes, hills, crags and mountains exactly delineated.

These quiet and calm watercolours are a good foil to Gray’s descriptions, with which they have much in common. They concentrate on the landscape per se, not people, botany or history, and Gray and Farington both describe what they see. This is a book that is a delight to read at home. But, because the scenes described are so unaltered, it also makes a very good guide to the Lakes today. Providing an extra layer of 18th-century visual sensitivity to the views described, this interesting and useful publi-cation is a new tool for the traveller who wants to be accompanied by something more literary and historical than standard British Tourist Board fodder. And Mr Murray’s beautifully contrived photographs and editing are a worthy homage to Gray and Farington.

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