Picturesque Restoration

Restoration, picturesque, canal aqueducts, Pontcysyllte, Chirk, romantic feature, William Jessop, Thomas Telford

The problems of defining the word ‘picturesque’ are similar to those defining the meaning of the expression ‘advanced technology’—it is so dependant on the time it is written or is written about.

In the eighteenth century advanced technology was iron and steam power, today it is electronics and space exploration. The picturesque clearly has a relationship to the concept of pictures but in the eighteenth century the pictures were the classical Italienate landscapes of Claude Lorraine and his copyists, austere distant views of ancient buildings and bridges framed by trees, an expression of the imagined Golden Age of antiquity when the contented shepherds in the foreground didn’t need to wear many clothes to keep warm. By the nineteenth century we had discovered a more home-spun aspect, the romance of our own rustic cottages and ruined castles, the pig sties and humble farm workers in the pictures of George Morland and other painters in this genre. By the twentieth century the word picturesque was rather devalued in the minds of art pundits to mean almost anything in the popular pictorial taste, the chocolate box art of ragamuffin children, puppies and the perennial cottage garden in the sun-- “some measure of beauty with much quaintness or immediate effectiveness” says my old dictionary, with faint damning praise.

This is worlds away from the enlightened cultural aspirations of so many of the early canal engineers and architects whose cultured understanding of art and landscape was built into their education, part of the unconscious aesthetic of the time, even when they were building a mundane waterway transport system. When the Ellesmere canal was in its most formative stage, aiming at a line from Shrewsbury via Ruabon to Chester, William Jessop was faced with the problem of crossing two big rivers, the Ceiriog at Chirk and the Dee at Trevor. The first idea at Trevor was to lock down into the valley and cross at a low level on a heavy three arched aqueduct and to cross the Ceiriog on an embankment but in the nick of time his assistant Telford came up with the idea of an iron water trough atop tall masonry pillars that could keep the canal at its high level and save water at the same time This design for Pontcycyllte was obviously going to be spectacularly beautiful in any landscape but it demanded a high level crossing at Chirk as well and Jessop therefore recommended in his report to the directors of 1795 an aqueduct there too because “instead of an obstruction it would be a romantic feature of the view.” It wouldn’t block the view! A romantic feature! This was aesthetics really influencing money-making, a sensibility to the landscape affecting the appearance of his modern transport system! How refreshing. These men were landscape artists of the most sculptural and monumental calibre, creating art in the cause of industry and commerce.

It is this concept of the picturesque landscape that is niggling away at the back of my mind again, how to recognise it and enjoy it and, in the arena of canals, how to preserve it without standing in the way of progress and public access. My thoughts have been focussed somewhat by a book, an impulse-buy that led to the acquisition of ‘A Holiday on the Road’ by James John Hissey, published in 1887. It is a pretty dreadful book by a pompous long-winded upper class ass, a sort of travel book describing “an artist’s wanderings in Kent, Sussex and Surrey” with a horse and carriage, although it gradually emerges that this adventurous soul is actually being driven by his manservant in a phaeton and pair. His compulsive need to use at least four words when one would do makes it even more hard going. No wall is just made of stone—it needs to be moss encrusted, weather bleached and redolent of medieval monks, whilst farms are ivy covered and asleep in the soft sunshine, weathered and gabled. But the man is a professional landscape artist of his time and his observations on the picturesque, cloyingly sentimental as they may be, are also very much of his time and have a peculiar resonance today. He is exploring roads that have only recently been deserted by the stage coaches, made redundant very quickly by the still spreading network of railways, but already, only half a century after the Stockton and Darlington Railway, time had given the slow, bumpy and uncomfortable stage coach era an aura of romance. Hissey waxes eloquently about the quaint old low-beamed coaching inns that he finds slumbering in by-passed villages, forgotten by the rushing hordes of railway travellers heading for suburbia or the coast. Boy, he really hates railways, and if anyone had suggested to him that one day some lines would be preserved as objects of romance he would have thought them quite mad. However he does have a broad enough imagination to see that some of the railway engineering might one day be seen as an addition to the landscape, like a Roman aqueduct of antiquity. Unfortunately, being so far south he does not comment on the canal architecture of an earlier generation of landscape engineering. That would have been an interesting mid-Victorian viewpoint to compare to our own, and to Rolt’s discovery and exploration of the forgotten byways of the canal world in the 1930s.

And now we are faced with the modern problems of preserving the picturesque from the pressures of too many people, of trying to hand on to the future the gems of the past without ruining them in the process. Like the words ‘technology’ and ‘picturesque’ the word ‘conservation’ is being remodelled to accommodate modern situations and sensibilities. ‘Restoration’ is no longer synonymous with conservation. Indeed it probably never was, but the lazy thinkers amongst us thought that restoring a waterway would de facto conserve the heritage, the buildings, the way of life, the wildlife and the environment in general. Restore a navigable canal to what it was built for, we thought, and the job was done to everyone’s benefit. Oh no, say the modern nature conservationists on the Montgomery canal, not so fast (…thirty years later, and after a two year consultation period…) rare plants have rights too! We want the canal kept in a semi-restored state please, in a state of frozen dereliction for ever, and we certainly don’t want boats to stir up the mud. Oh dear, if only life were simple and times didn’t change! Back to the negotiating table lads.

Top: Pontcysyllte Aqueduct from the Dee
Second: Chirk Aqueduct with railway viaduct behind
Third: 'A Wayside Inn' by J.J. Hissey 1887
Fourth: railway viaduct at Chirk
Bottom: 'The End of the Journey' by J.J. Hissey 1887

© Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere, May 2004

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