Planning the Picturesque

Through four architectural motifs, this story takes you on a scenic trail to experience the aesthetically delightful but highly choregraphed 'Picturesque’ movement.

By Royal Institute of British Architects

This story is based on a RIBA commission with You+Pea, displayed in the RIBA Architecture Gallery, 2019

You+Pea installation Playing the Picturesque (2018) by Photographer: Tristan FewingsRoyal Institute of British Architects

Today we spend much of our time living in virtual realms, endlessly producing, sharing and looking at pictures of an idealised and filtered world on the screen of personal devices. In the 18th century too, architects and artists became interested in picturing the ‘ideal’. Landscapes, townscapes, and buildings were arranged in an artistically pleasing manner, producing the stylistic movement ‘the Picturesque’.

Playing the Picturesque, animation (2019) by Designers: You+PeaRoyal Institute of British Architects

In 2019, RIBA commissioned practice You+Pea to explore the connection between the way video technology creates visual delight through framed views and dramatic reveals in the virtual world and how designers 200 years ago used built forms to achieve same effect. 

The Leasowes, Halesowen, near Dudley (1788) by Artist: UnknownRoyal Institute of British Architects

But what is the Picturesque?

The Picturesque is often defined as a visual sensation that straddles the breathtaking artistry of the sublime and the serene depiction of a beautiful landscape. 

The Picturesque was not just a style. It was an aesthetic category applied across painting, architecture, landscaping, music, and literature, propagated in England.

This image of the garden at Leasowes is well known for representing the beginning of the English picturesque landscape movement with wooded valleys, open grassland, lakes, streams and - a typical feature of the picturesque – the ruined priory folly. The garden in the West Midlands was designed by poet William Shenstone from farmland between 1743 and 1763.

Downton Castle (1959) by Photographer: Edwin SmithRoyal Institute of British Architects

Leading the principles of the Picturesque were the artist and author William Gilpin, landscape designer Sir Uvedale Price and later archaeologist Richard Payne Knight. Downton Castle in Herefordshire, England was built by Richard Payne Knight. It is one of the earliest examples of contrived castellated castles, a popular picturesque motif.

Hampton Court Palace (1819) by Artist: William WestallRoyal Institute of British Architects

It is probably easier to define the Picturesque by looking at what the movement rebelled against: neoclassical design principles. 

Here exemplified by Hampton Court on the outskirts of London. Christopher Wren’s use of regular clarity, order and symmetry for the royal palace perfectly demonstrate the controlled aesthetic of Neoclassism. 

Hampton Court Palace (1770) by Architects: William Talman (1650-1719), Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723)Royal Institute of British Architects

These design principles are repeated in the formal garden. 

Proportion, geometrical shapes and axial symmetry rule the manicured design, punctuated with classical sculptures, ornamental ponds, and fountains. 

Bishop's Cottage, Banwell, Somerset (1840) by Artist: C C JonesRoyal Institute of British Architects

For followers of the Picturesque, the ideal landscape was the opposite.  

Its beauty was defined by irregularity, asymmetry and with a preference for architectural typologies unique to the English vernacular. The relation between buildings and their natural or landscaped setting was essential to teasing out quintessential picturesque qualities.

This drawing shows how architectural structures, the grotto and the arch, are arranged to orient the viewer by acting as markers in the landscape.

Satirical cartoon of John Nash (1824) by Artist: George CruikshankRoyal Institute of British Architects

John Nash

Leading the way within the field of Picturesque architecture was Regency architect John Nash. As the satirical drawing insinuates –with Nash precariously perched on top of his All Souls Church spire – perhaps not everyone agreed with his taste for the Picturesque.

All Souls Church, Central London

Nash was both an architect and a planner, most famous for concocting the ‘Nash Route’ – a scenic urban landscape that runs from Buckingham Palace to Regent's Park in London. RIBA’s own Art Deco Headquarters is situated along the route, not far from All Souls Church.

Humphry Repton tradecard (1788) by Architect: Humphry Repton (1752-1818)Royal Institute of British Architects

Humphry Repton

Nash collaborated closely with another master of the Picturesque, the highly regarded landscape designer Humphry Repton.

This is Repton's trade card from 1788, picturing the man himself as he nonchalantly supervises his architectural assistant and landscape workers.

View of the grounds of Langley Park, Beckenham, London (1790) by Architect: Humphry Repton (1752-1818)Royal Institute of British Architects

Repton's Red Books

Commercially astute, Repton is known for producing a series of red books. These bound volumes of essays and watercolours served as persuasive marketing tools for his work and included 'before' and 'after' views of the development sites utilising overlaid paper flaps. 

Here is the original, or 'before' view of the grounds of Langley Park, Beckenham, in London 1790.

View of the grounds of Langley Park, Beckenham, London (1790) by Architect: Humphry Repton (1752-1818)Royal Institute of British Architects

Here is the proposed alterations of the landscape including classical picturesque ideals: an artificial lake and garden temple.

Repton would create one red book for each commercial client. He produced more than 100 of these throughout his career. 

Blaise Neolithic (2019) by Designers: You+PeaRoyal Institute of British Architects


The first Picturesque motif is linked to the design of follies: a favourite preoccupation of 18th-century architects. In paintings and real buildings, follies mixed real and fictional scenarios, often portrayed as ruins. They served as the perfect Picturesque motif and marker. 

Sketchbook drawing of folly from Blaise Castle House, Henbury (1800) by Artist: George Stanley ReptonRoyal Institute of British Architects

This sketch was made by George Stanley Repton, younger son of Humphry Repton, and produced while the former was working for Nash. It followed the picturesque belief in adding architectural ornamentation to enhance a naturalistic landscape, often reminiscent of another time or place.

Painshill Park, Cobham, Surrey (1937) by Photographer: Leo Herbert FeltonRoyal Institute of British Architects

At Painshill Park in the south east of England, the grounds are filled with follies of different architectural styles. The ivy-clad Neo-Gothic ruin produces a moment of fictional delight framed by the tree on the opposite side of the lake while successfully blurring the edges where the built fabric meets the natural environment.

King Alfred Hall in Cirencester Park, Cirencester (1763) by Artist: Thomas the Elder RobinsRoyal Institute of British Architects

The 'ruins' of King Alfred's Hall were built as a folly by the 1st Earl of Bathurst and his friend, the poet Alexander Pope within the landscape gardens of Cirencester Park. 

Completed in 1732, it is considered one of the earliest 18th-century mock gothic castles with a part mock ruin.

Blaise Castle version 2 (2019) by Designers: You+PeaRoyal Institute of British Architects


The pleasure of the Picturesque can be found in the discovery of visual forms in space and time, rather than a static surface. More than any other architectural motifs, the castle repeatedly provides such visual delight.

Blaise Castle (1938) by Photographer: Baynard Photo StudioRoyal Institute of British Architects

Blaise Castle near Bristol – not really a castle, but a mock-Gothic folly completed in 1766 – involved another close collaboration between John Nash and Humphry Repton. 

They further developed their experiments between architecture and landscape, giving importance to the journey as well as the destination, with the castle intended to surprise the viewer on their altered – and much longer – scenic route to arrive at the main house.

View of Kingsgate in the Isle of Thanet, Kent (1799) by Artist: George WalkerRoyal Institute of British Architects

The castle motif is one of the most favoured faux designs of the Picturesque era, often in the disguise of a tower like this seaside folly in Kent, south east England, in the foreground.

Blaise Hamlet (2019) by Designers: You+PeaRoyal Institute of British Architects

Hamlet and Village

The hamlet or village became an image of the rural idyll. With references to the English vernacular, a new architectural style of the Picturesque emerged to replace and contrast previous preferences for classical architecture.

Oak Cottage and Dutch Cottage, Blaise Hamlet, Henbury (1973) by Photographer: Ivy De WolfeRoyal Institute of British Architects

Blaise Hamlet was laid out in 1812 to designs by Nash, a commission to build nine cottages for former estate employees. Though built at the same time, the cottages are irregularly aligned around a bucolic ‘village green’, each with a bench for residents to enjoy the green.

Nine Cottages, Blaise Hamlet, Henbury (1811) by Artist: J HernerRoyal Institute of British Architects

It is a complete work of architectural scenography. Each building is different, but with common design features like tall chimneys, dormer windows, and overhanging eaves.

Nash’s scheme went as far as to include planting proposals to clothe the walls and porches of the cottages, further exaggerating the image of the ideal village. 

Park Crescent, Regent's Park, London (2019) by Designers: You+PeaRoyal Institute of British Architects


The final motif in this series is the crescent. Here, the Picturesque is reclaimed by the city from its more usual pastoral settings.

Park Crescent, Regent's Park, London (1829) by Artist: Thomas Hosmer ShepherdRoyal Institute of British Architects

Park Crescent is part of Nash’s theatrical, set-piece scheme, providing a scenic link from St. James’ Park and the fashionable theatres of central London to Regent’s Park. 

Plan of Regent's Park, London (1813) by Artist: William FadenRoyal Institute of British Architects

It was originally conceived as a circus (circle) to be named Regent’s Circus, but only the bottom half was ever built. 

Park Crescent, Regent's Park, London (1955) by Photographer: Edwin SmithRoyal Institute of British Architects

The crescent’s semi-circular profile offers a dramatic, deep curve, which would not have been possible in the designs for an elliptical crescent. The continuous ground-storey colonnade is punctuated with coupled Ionic columns, which gives the crescent its elegant grandeur. 

Royal Crescent, Bath (1956) by Photographer: Edwin SmithRoyal Institute of British Architects

A fitting end to a story of the Picturesque, the city of Bath. The Royal Crescent is perhaps one of the most memorable curved views, recognised and immortalised as a site for film locations and narratives that depict the era and sensibilities of the Picturesque.

Credits: Story

Explore more from RIBA Collections here. 
All images are from the RIBA Collections unless listed.    

Installation shots of You+Pea commission Playing the Picturesque, at the Architecture Gallery, 66 Portland Place, 2018 all taken by photographer Tristan Fewings
Image: Downton Castle. Rights: Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections
Image: Gothic ruin, Painshill Park. Rights: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections
Image: Blaise Castle. Rights: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections
Image: Park Crescent, Regents Park, London. Rights: Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections
Image: Royal Crescent, Bath. Rights: Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Curation and Interpretation by RIBA Public Programmes

Animation and graphics by You+Pea - architectural design + research practice by Sandra Youkhana and Luke Casper Pearson. Playing the Picturesque was shown at the RIBA Architecture Gallery from 4 June to 7 September 2019.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Royal Institute of British Architects
Discover the collections, creativity and ingenuity of the Royal Institute of British Architects
View theme
Google apps