[The following passage comes from “Centralisation,” a lecture Kingsley delivered at the Royal Institution, London. I have excerpted it from the Project Gutenberg online version of The Ancien Régime (1867). — George P. Landow

Like John Ruskin the the fourth volume of Modern Painters (1856), Charles Kingsley examines the picturesque from a political perspective. Both expose the grim human realities lying under and hidden by the picturesque, but whereas Ruskin provides a powerful British example in a scene of poverty set in the Highlands, Kingsley, who places the origins of the aesthetic in the Ancien Régime, concentrates on how the Industrial Revolution destroys it, and unlike Ruskin he finds something wonderful in the nineteenth century’s steamboats and railroads. — George P. Landow

Decorated initial A

n age of decay, incoherence, and makeshift, varnish and gilding upon worm-eaten furniture, and mouldering wainscot, was that same Ancien Régime. And for that very reason a picturesque age; like one of its own landscapes. A picturesque bit of uncultivated mountain, swarming with the prince’s game; a picturesque old robber schloss [castle] above, now in ruins; and below, perhaps, the picturesque new schloss, with its French fountains and gardens, French nymphs of marble, and of flesh and blood likewise, which the prince has partially paid for, by selling a few hundred young men to the English to fight the Yankees. The river, too, is picturesque, for the old bridge has not been repaired since it was blown up in the Seven Years’ War; and there is but a single lazy barge floating down the stream, owing to the tolls and tariffs of his Serene Highness; the village is picturesque, for the flower of the young men are at the wars, and the place is tumbling down; and the two old peasants in the foreground, with the single goat and the hamper of vine-twigs, are very picturesque likewise, for they are all in rags.

How sad to see the picturesque element eliminated, and the quiet artistic beauty of the scene destroyed;—to have steamers puffing up and down the river, and a railroad hurrying along its banks the wealth of the Old World, in exchange for the wealth of the New—or hurrying, it may be, whole regiments of free and educated citizen-soldiers, who fight, they know for what. How sad to see the alto schloss desecrated by tourists, and the neue schloss converted into a cold-water cure. How sad to see the village, church and all, built up again brand-new, and whitewashed to the very steeple-top;—a new school at the town-end—a new crucifix by the wayside. How sad to see the old folk well clothed in the fabrics of England or Belgium, doing an easy trade in milk and fruit, because the land they till has become their own, and not the prince’s; while their sons are thriving farmers on the prairies of the far West. Very unpicturesque, no doubt, is wealth and progress, peace and safety, cleanliness and comfort. But they possess advantages unknown to the Ancien Régime, which was, if nothing else, picturesque. Men could paint amusing and often pretty pictures of its people and its places.

Consider that word, “picturesque.” It, and the notion of art which it expresses, are the children of the Ancien Régime—of the era of decay. The healthy, vigorous, earnest, progressive Middle Age never dreamed of admiring, much less of painting, for their own sake, rags and ruins; the fashion sprang up at the end of the seventeenth century; it lingered on during the first quarter of our century, kept alive by the reaction from 1815-25. It is all but dead now, before the return of vigorous and progressive thought. An admirer of the Middle Ages now does not build a sham ruin in his grounds; he restores a church, blazing with colour, like a medieval illumination. He has learnt to look on that which went by the name of picturesque in his great-grandfather’s time, as an old Greek or a Middle Age monk would have done—as something squalid, ugly, a sign of neglect, disease, death; and therefore to be hated and abolished, if it cannot be restored. At Carcassone, now, M. Viollet-le-Duc, under the auspices of the Emperor of the French, is spending his vast learning, and much money, simply in abolishing the picturesque; in restoring stone for stone, each member of that wonderful museum of Middle Age architecture: Roman, Visigothic, Moslem, Romaine, Early English, later French, all is being reproduced exactly as it must have existed centuries since. No doubt that is not the highest function of art: but it is a preparation for the highest, a step toward some future creative school. As the early Italian artists, by careful imitation, absorbed into their minds the beauty and meaning of old Greek and Roman art; so must the artists of our days by the art of the Middle Age and the Renaissance. They must learn to copy, before they can learn to surpass; and, meanwhile, they must learn—indeed they have learnt—that decay is ugliness, and the imitation of decay, a making money out of the public shame.

The picturesque sprang up, as far as I can discover, suddenly, during the time of exhaustion and recklessness which followed the great struggles of the sixteenth century. Salvator Rosa and Callot, two of the earliest professors of picturesque art, have never been since surpassed. For indeed, they drew from life. The rags and the ruins, material, and alas! spiritual, were all around them; the lands and the creeds alike lay waste. There was ruffianism and misery among the masses of Europe; unbelief and artificiality among the upper classes; churches and monasteries defiled, cities sacked, farmsteads plundered and ruinate, and all the wretchedness which Callot has immortalised—for a warning to evil rulers—in his Misères de la Guerre. The world was all gone wrong: but as for setting it right again—who could do that? And so men fell into a sentimental regret for the past, and its beauties, all exaggerated by the foreshortening of time; while they wanted strength or faith to reproduce it. At last they became so accustomed to the rags and ruins, that they looked on them as the normal condition of humanity, as the normal field for painters.

Related material


Kingsley, Charles. The Ancien Regime. London: Macmillan and Co., 1902 Project Gutenberg [eBook #1335] Produced by David Price. Web. 23 June 2018.

Last modified 23 June 2018