The Landscape Guide


The Romantic Movement was a dominant trend in many European countries (particularly Germany and Britain) in the early part of the nineteenth century. It was strongest in 1820s and 1830s but its origin can be traced a long way back.

Nicholas Pevsner traces its origin to a remark by Sir William Temple. Here it is: 

What I have said of the best forms of gardens, is meant only of such as are in some sort regular; for there may be other forms wholly irregular, that may, for ought I know, have more beauty than any of the others… something of this I have seen in some places, but heard more of it from others, who have lived much among the Chinese; a people, whose way of thinking seems to lie as wide of ours in Europe, as their country does.

Pevsner's comment on this passage was: 

This passage is one of the most amazing in the English language. It started a line of thought and visual conceptions which were to dominate first England and then the World for two centuries. It is the first suggestion ever of a possible beauty fundamentally different from the formal, a beauty of irregularity and fancy.

Seen in a broader context, Romanticism is seen as a reaction to both the empiricism and rationalism of the Enlightenment. Instead, the Romantics emphasised  the self, creativity, imagination and art. Norman Davies, in Europe (OUP 1996 p. 783) writes that 'Where the Enlightenment had stressed man's growing mastery over nature, the Romantics took delight in trembling before nature's untamed might: in the terror of storms and waterfalls, the vastness of mountains, the emptiness of deserts, the loneliness of the seas'. He therefore points to John Keats (1795-1821) as a typical romantic poet. One could add the names of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and William Wordsworth (1770-1850).

The  roots of Romanticism in the preceding century can be traced to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant .Johann von Goethe (1749-1832), Freidrich  von Schelling (1775-1854), and George Hegel (1770-1831). Romanticism involves a shift from the objective to the subjective. 'Imagine three people looking at a landscape, one is a farmer, another a property developer and the third an artist. The farmer would see the potential for raising crops and livestock, the property developer the chance to build houses and the artist at the shades and subtleties of colour and form. None of these individuals is seeing the landscape objectively; they are seeing it from a particular or subjective viewpoint.The move from the objective to the subjective is a result of Kant's idea that human beings do not see the world directly, but through a number of categories. We do not directly see "things-in-themselves"; we only understand the world through our human point of view. If we agree with Kant that we can never know things-in-themselves, we may as well discard them. This leads to Idealism; the belief that what we call the "external world" is somehow created by our minds.'