Imagine this pathway hung with Chinese lanterns and colored lamps, lighting the way for guests invited to a dinner or a dance at a building straight out of a Gothic novel.
When guests arrived, they got out of their carriages and entered a courtyard at the foot of a steep hillside through an impressive gateway with a crenellated wall. A lady waiting in a small house known as Station Cottage welcomed them and escorted them up a path that curved through beautiful landscaped gardens. Yew and laurel trees restricted their view of their destination so that when they reached the top, they’d be breathless with surprise over what they found.
The Claife Viewing Station was one of the hottest spots in the Lake District because of its beautiful view of the landscape that unfolded before visitors’ eyes. Some may consider it “a wreck in the woods,” but this legendary place was at the top of my sightseeing wish list.
During the 1790s, Reverend William Braithwaite, the rector of Hawkshead, commissioned architect John Carr to build a summer pavilion on his land. The finished product was a two-story octagonal tower that mimicked Greek and Roman architecture. After Reverend Braithwaite died, John and Isabella Curwen purchased the land and pavilion in 1801. The Curwens modified and enlarged the building, changing it to a Gothic Revival style that would make it look more romantic in its dramatic setting, more like a painting of a castle or fort within a picturesque landscape.
In earlier times, the Lake District was seen as an inaccessible wilderness, not a tourist destination. But the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars made it difficult for wealthy Britons to make a Grand Tour of continental Europe. They had to explore their homeland on their holidays instead.
At the same time, a Cumbrian artist named William Gilpin started looking at the landscapes he saw on his holiday travels in a new way. The views he thought were as pretty as a picture led him to develop “principles of picturesque beauty” based on the correct elements, viewpoints, texture and composition. A dramatically steep hillside was the perfect contrast to the smooth surface of a lake, especially when light danced across it. A woodland looked even more gloomy when contrasted with an open plateau. A ruined castle added interest and intrigue. Whatever the view, it should be perfectly framed by just the right plantings.
Gilpin included these observations in essays such as Observations on the Lake District and the West of England. People who read them started looking at landscapes like paintings, recognizing the beauty in their natural surroundings, especially in that Lake District wilderness. Before long, Gilpin had created a fad where people were not only admiring natural scenery, but also analyzing it for its picturesque qualities. They carried their sketchbooks to ruined abbeys and beautiful vistas, framing, composing and capturing scenes on paper just as we do today with our cameras.
Some views were so spectacular that they feared they might faint, so they also carried something else as a precaution. A convex oval compact mirror with a dark-tinted surface — known as a Claude glass, named for the 17th-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain — softened the impact of an especially picturesque landscape. People would stand with their back to the scene they wanted to view, pull out their Claude glass, and hold it up so they could view the landscape behind them, reflected much more safely in the mirror.
Others weren’t as convinced about the Picturesque movement. One of them was William Combe, who wrote The Tour of Doctor Syntax: In Search of the Picturesque, a satirical tale about the adventures of a schoolmaster who toured the Lake District in search of Picturesque scenes. “I’ll ride and write, and sketch and print, And thus create a real mint; I’ll prose it here, I’ll verse it there, And picturesque it ev’rywhere,” Doctor Syntax said, but instead, he endured all sorts of calamities, like falling into a lake as he sketched a ruined castle and getting tied to a tree by highwaymen.
Whatever the view of the Picturesque movement, late-18th century authors began writing guidebooks so that tourists could appreciate a landscape’s aesthetic qualities, promoting the best viewpoints from which to see the landscape. The Claife Viewing Station was one of those that Thomas West recommended in his classic Guide to the Lakes.
Visitors entering the building at Claife Station found a dining room and wine cellar on the ground floor. They climbed a spiral staircase to a first-floor drawing room that provided the spectacular views across Lake Windermere that they had come to see.
Prints of fine landscapes hung on the walls of the drawing room. The star attraction was a three-sided bay window bordered with different colors of glass to help visitors imagine what the view would look like in different seasons or types of weather. Yellow represented a warm summer day, while orange cast an autumn tint. Light green was reminiscent of spring, while light blue recalled wintry days. Dark blue suggested moonlight, while lilac conjured up the sense of an impending thunderstorm.
The sound of an Aeolian harp helped visitors get the full effect. Named for Aeolus, the ruler of the winds in Greek mythology, a sound box strung with several strings was placed in an open window. When the wind blew across the strings, it produced an eerie array of harmonic tones that Samuel Taylor Coleridge described as “a soft floating witchery of sound.” The chords rose and fell as the breeze blew or the wind speed varied.
By the end of the 19th century, Claife Viewing Station had fallen out of favor and fell into disrepair. In 1962, it passed to the National Trust, which recently conserved the remains of the building, installed some new colored glass and cleared some of the surrounding woodland so that visitors can once again use it to appreciate the view. It officially opened on October 15, just five days after I was there. Click here to see photos of the finished product and its official launch.
For more on the Picturesque Lake District, see Jenny Uglow’s “A Passion for Painting in the Lake District” and A Picture of Britain, by David Dimbleby. If you’d like to try drawing a scene in the Picturesque fashion, the Derwent Viewfinder has an adjustable aperture that you can use to frame your composition — and it’s from a company based in the Lake District.