The Sensibility of Aesthetic Landscape Concepts in the Case of British West Indies Travel Narratives, 1815-1914

By Nelson, Velvet | Journal of Cultural Geography, June 2009 | Go to article overview

The Sensibility of Aesthetic Landscape Concepts in the Case of British West Indies Travel Narratives, 1815-1914


Nelson, Velvet, Journal of Cultural Geography


In the tradition of landscape traced back to the emergence of landscape painting, the techniques of art provided the basis for selecting a vantage point or prospect, from which to view the landscape, and for framing the scene. Meanwhile, the development of aesthetic concepts such as the sublime, beautiful, picturesque, and romantic provided the means of evaluating landscape scenery. These concepts provided a highly structured way of seeing intended to standardize the experience of landscape and remove the personal response. The purpose of this paper is to explore the trends of landscape appreciation based on the use of these four aesthetic concepts in the case study of the British West Indies during the formative years of tourism between 1815 and 1914. In travel narrative descriptions of landscape experiences, writers continued to use each of the terms: sublime, beautiful, picturesque, and romantic. However, with increasing emphasis on personal experience and emotional response, these terms were used less to depict specific types or characteristics of landscape than to generally indicate the sensibility of an attractive landscape.

Keywords: Caribbean; travel writing; landscape; sublime; picturesque; romantic

Introduction

One of the most important traditions of the landscape concept may be traced back to the sixteenth century when landscape painting emerged and gained prominence in the Italian and Dutch schools. The genre later spread to the French and English schools, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, landscape painting had become one of the most popular genres in Europe (Cosgrove 1998; Whyte 2002; Chu 2003). Landscape came to signify the appearance of an area and the representation of its scenery, and the appreciation of landscape paintings helped bring about a new way of looking at and judging actual landscapes (Cosgrove 1998; Baker 2003). Such landscapes came to be understood as an object for a spectator intended for contemplation and aesthetic response. From this aesthetic response, the development of a landscape sensibility emerged based on a visual experience that promoted a means of engaging with and expressing feelings toward the natural world (Olwig 1996; Cosgrove 1998). Therefore, geographer Denis Cosgrove's (1998) seminal work explained landscape as a "way of seeing."

In this tradition of landscape the techniques of art provided the basis for selecting a vantage point or prospect, from which to view the landscape, and for framing the scene (Aitchison et al. 2000). Meanwhile, the development of aesthetic concepts provided the means of evaluating landscape scenery for its color, character, and attractiveness (Howett 1997; Whyte 2002; Chu 2003; Lambert 2005). Concepts such as the sublime, beautiful, picturesque, and romantic attempted to classify landscapes, qualify particular landscape features, and instruct others in how to appreciate such landscapes. These concepts provided a highly structured way of seeing that standardized the experience of landscape even as they encouraged people to seek new landscapes for appreciation. Foreign landscapes could be viewed and judged on the same basis as familiar ones, and they could easily be represented to those who might never have the experience of that landscape for themselves. The types of landscapes were intended to evoke specific aesthetic responses, which removed the personal element from the experience. Despite the popularity of these aesthetic landscape concepts, their restrictions and rigidity were increasingly recognized, and the language of these concepts continued in widespread usage. With increasing emphasis on personal experience and emotional response, however, these terms were used less to depict specific types or characteristics of landscape than to generally indicate the sensibility of an attractive landscape.

The purpose of this paper is to explore the macro trends of landscape appreciation based on the use of these four aesthetic concepts in the popular geographies of travel narratives. …

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