Exhibition | In Pursuit of the Picturesque

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on February 4, 2020

Samuel Daniell, Scene in Sitsikamma, Elephants with Herons at a Pool, color lithograph from African Scenery and Animals, 1804
(Princeton University Library, Promised Gift from the Collection of Leonard L. Milberg)

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Press release for the exhibition now on view at Princeton’s Firestone Library:

In Pursuit of the Picturesque
Firestone Library, Princeton University, 22 January — 1 March 2020

Curated by Stephen Ferguson, Jennifer Meyer, and Emma Sarconi

In Pursuit of the Picturesque, an exhibition featuring British color plate books published between 1776 and 1868, is on view at the Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery, located in the Firestone Library lobby, from January 22 until 1 March 2020. Showcasing selected items from the collection of Leonard L. Milberg (Princeton University Class of 1953), the exhibition includes nearly 40 large books with colorful, detailed imagery from the British Empire at the turn of the 19th century. This selection from Milberg’s collection of 115 color plate books portrays an expanding global empire at the advent of lithographic printing, which captured color and imagery with more beauty and ease than ever before.

Milberg has collected color plate books since the 1980s, though his love of art began in the 1950s. During his Army days in Alaska, he devoted his time to reading American art books. Milberg started collecting American prints, then discovered American printmakers who were English emigres, which led to his interest in British color plates. “They tell a wonderful story through pictures,” said Milberg. “If you take a book in your hands, you can hold Edward Lear’s parrots and hear the crackling of the old paper. It’s much different from a painting, which is only a visual experience.”

Princeton University Library’s Emma Sarconi, reference professional for Special Collections, who co-curated the exhibition with Stephen Ferguson, associate university librarian for external engagement, and Jennifer Meyer, curatorial assistant for Special Collections, said topics range from history to horticulture, from martial achievements to topographical scenery. “These color plates were not just beautiful objects,” explained Sarconi. “They also created a vision of empire that could be exotic, romantic, and picturesque.” To Milberg, “it satisfies traveling because the color plates cover all over the world, from the Mexican Yucatán, to the South Seas, from Sicily to South Africa.”

Beyond their beauty, the color plate illustrations were scientific, political, and historical knowledge during a period of British expansion. “Very often, the books reflect expeditions like Captain Cook’s voyages,” said Milberg, “with the naturalist historian, Sir Joseph Banks, reporting back to England’s Royal Society.” From the comfort of their homes, the British public could be transported to faraway lands through these lavish, vibrant prints, kindling national pride and patriotism. Meyer commented, “Love of the monarchy and British homeland, as well as pride of a powerful military and expanding global empire, are on full display in these volumes.” Moreover, the illustrations began to normalize far off places and the people who lived there, envoking a sense of enchantment and exocitism.

According to Sarconi, “At the same time that these images inspired the viewer, they did so by silencing the horrific aspects of colonial expansion, composed without signs of the struggle, strife, and subjugation that made the empire possible.”

In a gesture of great generosity, Milberg has promised to give his collection of color plate books to Princeton University Library. The promised gift will add greatly to the Library’s holdings of British art of this period and will be a new resource for students and scholars in art, cultural, and other fields of history.

Milberg declared in his 30th reunion book entry, “I have belatedly, but passionately discovered books, prints, and the Princeton University Rare Book Library.”

During the past 37 years, he has shared the fruits of this passion with our community, said Ferguson. Milberg’s gifts (13,000 items plus) range from 19th-century American prints and drawings to several book collections: American poetry, Irish poetry, prose, and theatre as well as two Judaica collections.

Research Lunch | Rebecca Tropp on the Picturesque and Country Houses

Posted in lectures (to attend) by Editor on February 4, 2020

This spring at the Mellon Centre:

Rebecca Tropp, Accommodating the Picturesque: The Country Houses of James Wyatt, John Nash, and Sir John Soane, 1793–1815
Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, London, 20 March 2020

James Wyatt, Ashridge House, commissioned by the 7th Earl of Bridgewater.

Whilst much has been written about the development of Picturesque theory at the end of the eighteenth century, regarding both the landscape itself and prescriptions for the siting of buildings within it, these discussions have generally been limited to two-dimensional snapshots, such as those represented in Humphry Repton’s Red Books. This paper, based upon ongoing research for my doctoral dissertation, seeks to push beyond the visual to investigate some of the physical implications and repercussions of the Picturesque ideal—the intersection between the visual two-dimensional picture-plane and the practical three-dimensional architectural response—on the design and construction of country houses at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Focusing on the work of James Wyatt (1746–1813), John Nash (1752–1835), and Sir John Soane (1753–1837), and limiting my investigation to those country houses designed during the pivotal period from 1793 to 1815, I investigate two specific implications related to the lowering of the principal floor from piano nobile to ground level, as part of a general repositioning of the house within the landscape. First is the use of level changes within the ground floor—the inclusion of a few steps up or down in entrance halls or between rooms, as distinct from staircases between floors—considering some possible reasons for their incorporation and the purposes they served. Second, and sometimes connected to these level changes, is an increase in permeability between interior and exterior, through the use of full-length windows, loggias and attached conservatories—social/botanical spaces that were first incorporated into the design of the house during this period. Taken together, these developments furthered the evolving relationship between house and landscape and, as a result, the experience of moving through and between those spaces.

Research Lunches are a series of free lunchtime research talks. All are welcome, but please book a ticket in advance. 1:00–2:00pm, Seminar Room, Paul Mellon Centre.

Rebecca Tropp is a fourth-year PhD student in History of Art at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, working under the supervision of Dr Frank Salmon. She completed her MPhil in History of Art and Architecture at Cambridge in 2015, investigating recurring spatial arrangements and patterns of movement in the country houses of John Nash. Prior to commencing postgraduate studies in the UK, she received her bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in New York, where she majored in the History and Theory of Architecture.

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