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William Gilpin, 18th-century didact

17 May 2024

Terence Handley MacMath celebrates a clerical predecessor


A portrait of William Gilpin by Henry Walton (oil on panel, 1781)

A portrait of William Gilpin by Henry Walton (oil on panel, 1781)

IN 1903, an unnamed Church Times correspondent who had made a tour of the churches in the New Forest was amused by the “quaint and selected expression” at the end of the inscription on the table tomb of the Revd William Gilpin, who was born on 4 June 1724, 300 years ago next month, and died in 1804.

The inscription for the tomb, shared with his wife, Margaret, was composed by Gilpin, and ends with the view that “it will be a new joy to meet several of their good neighbours who now lie scattered in these sacred precincts around them” — italics supplied by the contributor.

Gilpin was, perhaps, in a minority of his fellow clerics at that time, in that he knew his neighbours at all. In an age of plurality, he held just one living, St John’s, Boldre, and lived in the parish from the start of his incumbency there in 1777 until his death 27 years later. And his chief concern was for those neighbours, whom he found on his arrival to be “little better than a horde of banditti, without the opportunity of the humblest education, the means of religious instruction, or the benefit of a decent example . . . hardly paralleled in a civilized country”.

During his time, he improved the church and built a new poor-house, arranged along lines to restore well-being and dignity to its inmates; but his chief energy went into the education of the village children. He began immediately with a Sunday school in the vicarage, but, as he wrote later, “I thought I could not be of more service to [the parish] than by founding a little parish School in which the chief stress would be laid on inculcating religious principles.

“With this view I built a school, and a school-house, and hired a master and mistress, to teach twenty boys and twenty girls . . . chosen from the labouring part of the inhabitants, who have not the means of a better education.”

The entrance requirement was to be able to read from the New Testament, which Gilpin thought would encourage more reading in the parish generally. The master and mistress accompanied the children to church on Sundays, and supervised picnic lunches and a catechism class.

The children had to learn Gilpin’s version of the catechism, The Faith and Practice of a Christian, by heart, and the policy was to furnish the children’s bodies as well as their minds and spirits. Boys were issued with a coat, hat, shirt, waistcoat, breeches, and stockings each year; the girls received a camlet gown, shift, petticoat, two checked aprons, and a handkerchief, with a new cloak every other year.

The school building still exists, although now a private house, but, more importantly, his legacy persists just across the village street, where the William Gilpin C of E Primary School attempts to inculcate its pupils with the same values as its distant founder.


GILPIN was able to achieve so much because he came to Boldre with another talent that had proved to be lucrative. He was an artist, and is credited with promoting the concept of the picturesque in English art. Furthermore, he was a prolific author, and published — with a handsome profit — collections of his drawings and expositions of his theories about art and landscape.

He was born in Scaleby Castle, near Carlisle, to a wealthy family in Westmorland of Norman lineage. Richard de Gylpyn had been given a manor at Kentmere on the Borders in 1206, after killing a wild boar that had been terrorising the area. One of Gilpin’s ancestors was another cleric, the Revd Bernard Gilpin (1517-83), known as the Apostle of the North, who broke his leg on the way to London to be tried for heresy, and thus escaped trial thanks to the timely death of Queen Mary.

AlamyView of St John’s, Boldre, undated, attributed to William Gilpin’s nephew, William Sawrey Gilpin

The family’s fortunes ebbed and flowed through the 17th and 18th centuries, and William and his brother grew up with the leisure to spend time sketching trees, lakes, mountains, and castles. Their family’s lineage notwithstanding, William left The Queen’s College, Oxford, £80 in debt, and perhaps to meet his obligations, he published A Dialogue on the Gardens at Stow (Stowe), in which he used the term “picturesque” — “a term expressive of that particular kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture”.

In a later work he expounded his theory: “We do not scruple to assert, that roughness forms the most essential point of difference between the beautiful, and the picturesque. . . I use the general term roughness; but properly speaking roughness relates only to the surface of bodies: when we speak of their delineation, we use the word ruggedness. . .

“A piece of Palladian architecture may be elegant to the last degree. . . But if we introduce it in a picture, it immediately becomes a formal object, and ceases to please. Should we wish to give it picturesque beauty, we must use the mallet, instead of the chisel; we must beat down one half of it, deface the other, and throw the mutilated members around in heaps. . . No painter, who had the choice of the two objects, would hesitate to chuse” (from Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty, on Picturesque Travel, and on Sketching Landscape, 1794).

Gilpin’s theories, along with collections of his works, proved remarkably popular, and contributed to the development of the Romantic movement. According to Henry Austen, his novelist sister, Jane, “was a warm and judicious admirer of landscape, both in nature and on canvas. At a very early age she was enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque; and she seldom changed her opinions either on books or men.”

A Penny Cyclopaedia of 1838 listed Gilpin’s books — including Observations on the River Wye and Picturesque Remarks on the Western parts of England — and remarked: “These form a body of works which were well received by the public at the times of their appearance, and which are now gathered into the libraries of the tasteful and the curious, so that copies rarely present themselves for public sale.”

Popularity and admiration can arrive hand in hand with satire, and Gilpin is clearly the model for “Dr Syntax” in The Tour of Doctor Syntax in search of the Picturesque by William Combe, a poem serialised shortly after Gilpin’s death, illustrated by Thomas Rowlandson: “I’ll praise it here, I’ll verse it there and picturesque it everywhere, I’ll make this flat a shaggy ridge and o’er the water throw a bridge.”


GILPIN’s interest in pedagogy was developed at Cheam School (founded in 1645, England’s oldest preparatory school, where, much later, the present King was educated). Gilpin began as an Assistant Master, but bought the failing school in 1752, when it had just 15 boys on the roll. He turned it round and introduced a far more humane approach. His new wife (his first cousin, Margaret Gilpin) took care of the boys’ domestic affairs at the school far better than the wealthy wife of his predecessor, who had let this aspect of the school slide into chaos.

Gilpin introduced a new curriculum, which emphasised reasoning rather than rote learning, and practical science as well as the study of the classics. He provided “innocent, and entertaining books, some of the higher class”. Corporal punishment for academic failure was banned. (It was retained for blasphemy, lying, and stealing.)

AlamyAn example of the picturesque: A View of Ullswater by William Gilpin

He wanted to give the boys who were enrolled more than “the only kind of improvement they come in quest of, which is classical accuracy”. Rote learning of the classics, in his view, ensured that boys were leaving school “rude and unfurnished with either ideas or principles, and if they have not the good fortune to fall into good company, their minds are ready to catch the first incidental impressions of vice and folly. It is my wish to improve their sense, and if possible, to add judgement.”

Time for prayer and religious studies was given priority every day. “The formation of manners being the grand point I have in view, the formation of the mind I consider subordinate to it.”

More unusually still, Gilpin submitted himself to the same disciplinary system as he set for the boys. He allowed any boy to question any punishment given, or the headmaster’s own transgressing of the code. Difficult decisions were settled by a jury of 12 boys, and the usual punishment was detention or fines. The fines raised money for things such as games equipment, books, or bread for poor families, which was distributed by the boys themselves.


AFTER 27 years at Cheam, where 80 boys were now on the roll, and more were on a waiting list, one of Gilpin’s former pupils, William Mitford of Exbury, offered him the living of Boldre.

Here, Gilpin adopted the principles and practices that he had established at Cheam, with two exceptions. One was the inclusion of girls. The other was the inability of the children to fund their own education.

He funded his philanthropic work — which included his restoration of Boldre Church (“I turned a very ugly thing into a very decent parish church”) — through the sale of his watercolours and books, which he called his “amusements”. He wrote of a sale of his watercolours at Christie’s in 1802: “I expected they might have raised seven or eight hundred pounds: but I had no conception, that the amount would have been a thousand pounds more.”

Gilpin was a prolific author. He wandered through the New Forest with a sketch book and paints, but he also he took with him a “memorandum book”. He described it thus: “It was long the author’s practice when he walked about his parish, and afterwards when he was able only to walk into his garden and fields, to take with him in a memorandum book, a text or two of scripture, which he had before chosen on account of some observations, which he thought arose from it; or some objection, which he thought might be answered. . .

“From these hints the author commonly took his sermons; and tho many of the subjects are too critical — too refined — or too deep for a common audience; yet he always found them a subject for his purpose.”

Creative Commons/British Library/Mechanical CuratorDr Syntax Loses His Way: a caricature of William Gilpin by Thomas Rowlandson, illustrating The Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque, a satirical poem by William Combe, serialised from 1809 to 1811

In his four-volume collection Sermons Preached to a Country Congregation, Gilpin appends transcriptions of these “Hints for Sermons; intended chiefly for the use of younger clergy”; for, he writes, “If the young student spend two hours in a day in walking exercise, he will by this practice, save to his studies at least seven hundred hours a year.”

Not that he wishes to be prescriptive: he writes, “If the day be fine, and the country agreeable”, the simple walk would give the student’s mind “an elasticity and vigour, which he could not feel in his study”.

One of Gilpin’s curates, Richard Wharton (another with Philip Johnson, who became the first cleric to work in Australia, then regarded as a penal colony), wrote: “Never did a clergyman more earnestly yearn for the spiritual welfare, or more sedulously strive to secure the moral improvement, and promote the temporal comfort, of those committed to his pastoral care.”

Gilpin’s other great work was his rewriting of the New Testament, an 18th-century paraphrase, with copious footnotes, “intended as an Introduction to the Study of the Scriptures by Pointing out the Leading Sense and Connection of the Sacred Writers”. It was “an attempt to clothe the New Testament in an English dress, of plain and simple elegance, which, without altering its sense, might clear its meaning, and increase its beauty”.

For someone attuned to the ruggedness of nature, Gilpin’s exposition is paradoxically elegant, tidy, and, by today’s standards, often orotund. But the fact that Gilpin undertook such a work was an indication of his independence of thought and his desire, always, to encourage the improvement of others.

This was perhaps most clearly demonstrated in a short book, Three Dialogues on the Amusements of Clergymen (1796), in which he argues against the involvement of clergy in aristocratic country pursuits and gaming: “We will begin with such amusements as are riotous, and cruel: and among these I should be inclined to assign the first rank to hunting. It is an unfeeling exercise, derived from our savage ancestors, who hunted at first for food, and consigned the barbarous practice to their posterity for pastime. . . Its consuming the forage of a country in breeding destructive, or useless animals in the room of such as are really useful — the riotous uproar of the chase [is] so opposite to the mild serenity, which should characterize the clergyman.”

The Church Times correspondent might have summed up Gilpin’s character better had he quoted the first part of the inscription on his tomb. “In a quiet mansion beneath this stone, secured from the afflictions and yet more dangerous enjoyments of this life, lie the remains of William Gilpin.”


The Revd Terence Handley MacMath is the Vicar of Boldre. Celebrations to mark the 300th anniversary of William Gilpin’s birth take place over the weekend of 31 May to 2 June, including a 10.30-a.m. matins at St John’s on the Sunday, with one of Gilpin’s sermons and West Gallery music, and followed by a short service at 10 a.m. on 4 June, the day of his birth. Details at: bsbb.org.uk

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