Updated: Feb 9, 2021
'... there is a certain picturesqueness and old-fashionedness about Sydney, which brings back pleasant memories of Old England, after the monotonous perfection of Melbourne and Adelaide.'
Richard Twopeny, Town Life in Australia, 1883.
Until comparatively recently, reference to the ‘picturesque’ had been a regular refrain within discussions of Australian architecture. Its usage has now become everyday within heritage circles (and exuberant real estate ads), although perhaps more as a substitute adjective to describe good-looking historic compositions and landscapes than in the identification of a discrete historical concept.
Sydney's character is Picturesque
This can be misleading, as the Picturesque within Australian history, while always ambiguous, did evoke a particular way of reading and appreciating the built and natural landscape. While never an architectural style in itself, the Picturesque was influential across several popular design fashions in Australia, the products of which are still notable features within many of our contemporary environments. Some academics have even gone as far as suggesting that by the end of the inter-war period, Picturesque elements formed something of a national characteristic within the Australian scene. Noted architectural historian Joan Kerr has made the strong case that the fundamental ‘character’ of Sydney’s built environment is Picturesque (which she contrasts wit Melbourne’s dominant Neo-classical style).
Touring the Past thought it would be interesting to lightly sketch the presence and sway of the Picturesque within our historic landscapes as well as equip readers with a more discerning eye for its assorted features.
The Picturesque means ... charmingly varied compositions
By the mid-eighteenth century, a deep appreciation for the visual qualities of planned landscapes had become rooted within English culture. While the creation of a thousand minds, the Reverend William Gilpin (1724-1804) is often credited with promoting a loose definition of the Picturesque as a way of seeing a place, scene or object and their inter-relationships by assessing its fitness for inclusion within a picture. Then and now however, debates about its meaning rage. A serviceable definition is provided by one of the key contemporaneous participants in the debate, the delightfully named Sir Uvedale Price (1747-1829), who identified the Picturesque as situated somewhere between the Sublime and the Beautiful (for a succinct summary, click here) and characterised by roughness, sudden variation and irregularity. To put it another way, any scene or vista that appeared well-suited for inclusion in a painting because of such characteristics as variety, irregularity and individuality would be classified as Picturesque.
Despite never being a particularly coherent theory, the Picturesque had pervaded multiple discourses by the early 1800s and, via the Port Jackson colony, imposed itself on the nascent Australian design and artistic field, with an early, oft-cited example being Francis Greenway’s Turnpike gate on the Parramatta Road (1819). The Picturesque can also be sighted in Sydney’s appetite for clusters of Gothic Revival houses, churches and schools as well as comely cottages ornees and rows upon rows of terraces. Many of which were situated in verdant settings and, if possible, approachable by sea.
The tradition of Picturesque design in Australia become entrenched within popular consciousness with the mid-nineteenth century proliferation of architectural pattern books, many of which evoked various Picturesque styles, for example, Government House in Sydney (1837-47, designed by Mortimer Lewis) or Charles Laing’s ‘Coryule’ in Melbourne (1849-50).
Over the twentieth century, the Picturesque continued to infuse much of the new suburban growth that attached itself to the expanding rail and tram network in Sydney, with an array of styles – now all frequent flyers on heritage registers - such as the Arts and Crafts movement, Federation architecture and various English domestic revival designs. All illustrated the Picturesque principles of planned informality, intricate roofscapes, strong sense of tactility and asymmetrical façades.
The popularity of the Picturesque fuelled various anti-picturesque movements, particularly from architectural commenters who considered it flippant and shallow (they instead preferring the functionalism and reductionism of international modernism). Yet such ‘elite’ censure did little to shift its mass appeal.
Even in the austerity of the post-World War II period, vestiges of the Picturesque endured in the rows upon row of newly minted double and triple fronted cream brick veneer houses with their irregular form and massing and borders of lawn and shrubs.
A more in-depth unpacking of the Picturesque might also consider its influence on Brutalism and the Sydney School of architecture, particularly in the visual relationship encouraged by examples of this style between built and natural forms.
The Picturesque proclivities of the Australian built environment then are many and varied. It is a designation impregnated with far more meaning and interest than mere beauty, denoting a multi-layered and yet to fully explored, connection to an eighteen-century British mentality, both at home and across the Empire. So widen your vision and stay attuned to the potential presence of the Picturesque in your day-to-day outings.
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This overview drew on the excellent analysis of Cameron Logan – see the ‘Picturesque’, in J. Willis and P. Goads (Eds.), The Encyclopaedia of Australian Architecture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)