Plantation Slavery and Landownership in the West Highlands and Islands: Legacies and Lessons by Iain MacKinnon and Andrew Mackillop [blog post, 2018]
Violence, Colonialism and Empire in the Modern World, ed. by Philip Dwyer and Amanda Nettelbeck [book, 2018]
The picturesque was an aesthetic and cultural ideal that emerged in the late 18th century in Britain, and later spread to other countries, including France and Germany. It was associated with a fashion in landscape gardening that reacted against the artificiality of the trend in pleasure garden design, which organised nature into geometric and symmetrical shapes, along with man-made features such as elaborate fountains, as exemplified by the grounds of the Palace of Versailles or the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. During the industrial revolution, as populations became concentrated in urban industrial centres to work in factories, and cities became more built up and polluted, the picturesque ideal represented a new appreciation of the natural beauty of the wilderness. As the desire to experience nature’s sublime wonder grew in the 19th century, infrastructures such as railways and steamships were built to more easily transport populations of urban dwellers to the countryside. However, the romanticisation of natural landscapes promoted by picturesque ideals resulted in great swathes of the countryside being transformed to meet a human-centred image of the wild, whilst disguising the violence that lay within the landscape. The social and ecological catastrophe of the Highland Clearances was, for example, accelerated when the compensation paid out to slave and plantation owners after abolition enabled the emergence of huge estates in the Scottish Highlands. These were often managed to promote the leisure pursuits of their wealthy owners for hunting and fishing, to the detriment of natural ecosystems.
The Slavery Compensation Act of 1837, enabled slavery-derived wealth to become the primary driving force shaping the landscape of the Highlands into the form it takes today. As the capital from slavery was laundered through Highland estates the land was cleared of the Caledonian Forest and native Scots Pine to introduce deer and sheep for sport and agriculture. The iconic picturesque imagery of the Scottish Highlands is, in reality, a depleted ecosystem better understood as a wet desert, providing a complex example of the ecological destruction wrought by racial capitalism.
In painting, the picturesque was characterised by landscapes that evoked the visceral experience of the outdoors. Painters using a concave black mirror called a Claude Glass would create compositions of the landscape by painting from the reflected image. As historian Carl Thompson explains:
“Viewed through these mirrors, landscapes became more tightly composed and better suited to sketching. In this way the picturesque tradition celebrated nature – but usually nature in an idealised form, subtly shaped and manipulated by artifice…”
As such the picturesque created standards of beauty and composition encompassing vastly different territories across the British colonies and subsequent empire into a homogenised set of images that emphasised the continuity of British colonial rule. Picturesque painting therefore disguised the violence of colonialism and the plantation. As Thompson notes of the painter James Hakewill on his picturesque tour of the Caribbean, in all his images he:
“kept a tasteful distance from the brutalities of contemporary slave plantations, or else presented slaves as a seemingly contented, colourful addition to the landscape.”
The colonial subjects of picturesque paintings therefore appear, as Thompson highlights, “happy and untroubled by colonial rule.”
In this sense, by establishing an aesthetic practice that masked the brutal realities of the colony, the picturesque ideal perpetuated the myth of the ‘white man’s burden’, promoting the false notion of a benevolent Western rule over the world.
Today we see this cycle repeating with arms and fossil fuel companies buying up estates as a means to deflect the filth and violence of their operations through the marketing opportunities afforded under the emerging energy regime of carbon credits and offsetting.