Gorges didn’t exist before the middle of the eighteenth century. That’s to say that what we now call a gorge, a narrow and rocky opening between hills, wasn’t so named. There were passes, ravines and defiles, but the English word previously used to refer to the throat was repurposed to apply to a throat in the land.
That coincided with the rise of awe-inspiring paintings, showing the terrors awaiting those who travelled through wild and mountainous areas. Following Salvator Rosa’s nightmare visions of attacks by brigands in rocky and hostile lands, in his formal aesthetics of 1757, Edmund Burke declared that they were sublime.
This weekend I look at one of the most characteristic features of that Burkean sublime, and many mountainous areas: the gorge.
After Salvator Rosa’s terrors, Ferdinand Kobell’s Path in a Gorge from 1768 seems tame. Two men are chatting peacefully, as a dog jumps up by them, and a mother is struggling to get her child to walk with her into this gorge.
Others were more daunting, though, particularly when you had to cross them on a narrow bridge.
One of Caspar Wolf’s most popular paintings was this view of the Devil’s Bridge in the Saint Gothard Pass, from 1777. This connects northern and southern Switzerland, and has been of great strategic importance. This bridge across the Schöllenen Gorge was first built in wood in around 1220, and was a key section of the route. It probably wasn’t replaced by a stone bridge until the seventeenth century, and by 1775 it had developed into that shown here, which was wide enough to allow passage of the first carriage.
Less than thirty years later, JMW Turner exercised his imagination and exaggerated vertical scale in his famous view from the bridge, which transforms the gorge into a bottomless chasm.
But there were also wild places closer to home, not that far from cities like Leeds and York.
Gordale Scar is a huge limestone gorge in the wild country of North Yorkshire, through which a stream, Gordale Beck, flows. British landscape painter James Ward sketched the Scar, which the critic and collector Sir George Beaumont (a friend of John Constable as well as Ward) had declared was unpaintable. On the strength of those sketches, Lord Ribblesdale commissioned Ward to paint a large canvas to hang in the new dining room which he planned for his grand mansion at Gisburn.
The finished Gordale Scar, or A View of Gordale, in the Manor of East Malham in Craven, Yorkshire, the Property of Lord Ribblesdale in its extended title, (1812–15) is a vast canvas more than 3 x 4 metres in size: Ward’s ultimate expression of the Burkean sublime. This not only approached the impression of awe instilled by the original location, but gave Ward the opportunity to include an extensive collection of animals.
There are around thirty head of cattle, including the white prize bull in the right foreground, two herds of deer including a pair of stags fighting, and the occasional sheep or goat.
Despite Ward’s frequent claims that, unlike Turner, he painted true to nature, his final painting shows a view which doesn’t actually exist, with a collection of animals (the deer, in particular) which couldn’t have been present. It was first shown at the British Institution in 1814, where reactions were mixed, then at the Royal Academy the following year, following which it was rolled up and delivered to its owner. Once stretched out again, it proved too large to display where it had been intended after all.
Gorges also played their part for German Romantic artists like Carl Gustav Carus, a pupil of Caspar David Friedrich.
Carus had grown fond of including the wanderer figure in his paintings. In Pilgrim in a Rocky Valley from about 1820, a man with a hat and walking stick is standing in front of a narrow gorge, which promises to make his passage quite tricky.
Images of the Burkean sublime were also reinforced by paintings brought back by explorers like Godfrey Thomas Vigne. By July of 1833, he had reached Hazar Chum Mazenderan – Persia, in mountains midway between the port of Chalus on the Caspian Sea and Tehran in Iran. Layers of low cloud create a spectacular effect as the distant mountain ridges float in the sky high above this gorge cut deep by the River Chalus.
Thomas Cole’s painting of the cliffs and crags of The Fountain of Vaucluse, made in 1841 during his Grand Tour of Europe, is unashamedly awesome. From the cloud-capped 240 metre high vertical wall in the distance, through the dizzying towers and walls of the ruined castle of the Bishop of Cavaillon perched above the river, to the river rushing past haggard trees in the foreground, it’s sublime in every aspect.