The Picturesque in Eighteenth-Century Herefordshire

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In the eighteenth century, the lower Wye in Herefordshire became the first tourist honey-pot in Britain and a detailed assessment of its virtues was published in 1782 by the Rev. William Gilpin.

This prompted two Herefordshire gentlemen, Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight, to define more closely the character of the shire as a whole. From this emerged the picturesque: a comprehensive system for evaluating the aesthetic value of the countryside, which remains relevant today.

Perhaps uniquely among the West Midland shires, Herefordshire writers in the eighteenth century developed an aesthetic theory, which defined its distinct landscape character. With its broken topography of hills and hollows – ‘hopes’ and ‘combes’ – and ancient enclosures, it was owned and farmed by an indigenous gentry who had emerged in the late Middle Ages with the passing of the warlike Marcher lordships.

Its special qualities were first noticed in the late seventeenth century by an Anglican divine, John Beale (1608-83), who tried to persuade the writer, John Evelyn, that his idealised Elysium Britannicum – the epitome of the best of British gardening - really did exist at the confluence of the Rivers Wye and Lugg, a few miles to the south of the city of Hereford.

Beale also published a eulogy of the Herefordshire orchards (1653) in which he believed a ‘true paradise’ could be found. Orchards, he proclaimed, not only nourished the poor and benefited the rich but also transcended utility with their blossom, provided an ‘aviary of sweet singers’ and ‘purified the ambient air’.

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