The appeal of the picturesque

I’ve been wondering: what is it about an old house or barn that appeals so much that we describe the scene as “picturesque.” The question came up as I reread a January 1970 letter to my parents describing the purchase of a house in Cupertino, CA. Our new home was a typical early 1960s tract house with scalloped trim and prominent garage. The place was certainly not picturesque, but it was within our price range. I wrote:

Cupertino tract house

Our Cupertino house when we bought it in 1970

It’s a very nice little house – 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, big sitting room with dining area at one end, small family room opening to a neat little kitchen, 2-car garage with laundry facilities in it. Very attractive inside, though not very prepossessing from the outside. However, this is just a matter of landscaping – other houses in the street are just lovely, but the garden of this one is just bare grass.

 Looking back on that time, what comes most vividly to mind is another house I saw while house-hunting, a charming old farmhouse dating from the time when the Santa Clara Valley was so full of orchards it was called “The Valley of Heart’s Delight.” As I walked through with the realtor, I paused in what must have been a utility porch and mud room. The unfinished walls of the room were black with mold. The realtor shrugged when I pointed it out. The price was right, but I chose not to make an offer.

There’s a significant difference, of course, between the picturesque, which has been defined as that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture and a habitable structure for humans. But what is it in the human psyche that is drawn to the antique? Rummaging around on the web, I found quotes such as:

(esp. of a place) attractive in appearance, especially in an old-fashioned way

 A picturesque place is attractive and interesting, and has no ugly modern buildings.

Jerry's truck picture

Old truck and barn by Jerry Peters, as shown at the Portola Art Gallery.

My friend Sandy Peters says it well. Commenting on a Portola Art Gallery exhibition of her husband Jerry Peters’ paintings of old battered trucks in rural settings, she wrote: They demonstrate how the beauty of nature blends seamlessly with the wisdom of age.

 However, with age comes death. When we first moved to Mendocino seventeen years ago, a cabin stood among the trees along Highway 128, not far north of Yorkville. Its bare board were gray with age, the sway-backed roof shingles covered with moss. Over the years, the roof has slowly caved in, until now the cabin is a jumbled pile of boards. At first it was picturesque. Now when I drive by, I am sad.

3 Responses to “The appeal of the picturesque”

  • Joan Hansen:

    We also bought a new tract home in Fullerton Ca. With the help of the Veterans Administration we were fortunate to move in for little cost. We lived there 18 years and our kids walked to a brand new school. We had a large back yard. I also love old buildings but I realize although they may be picturesque they are filled with problems, mold is very unhealthy and unless one has a ton of money to indulge in complete renovation it is not a smart move for a young couple just starting. I miss the old barn on highway 20 that crunbled and always wished I could paint it. But alas I am not an artist.

  • Alice Richards:

    Yes, I believe emotions play a significant part in our reactions to what we see and where we reside.
    There is often an emotional empathy, or presence we connect to.
    I have felt a calming presence when going into a house I haven’t been into before.
    Sometimes it has been a nervous reaction. Yes, we humans can relate and respond to surroundings.

    An artist friend paints old barns, farm buildings, equipment she finds old and likely to be torn down. She is “saving” these old treasures before they are gone, because she relates emotionally to them.

  • wendy:

    On the past two trips to Santa Rosa, we have observed with heavy hearts the removal of the barn that has been collapsing at the intersection of 128 and Mountain House Road for at least the past three decades. It was already in decline before we purchased Bever House thirty years ago. Now it is gone. I like to think that Ben Frye has salvaged some of the beams and will be creating something new and wonderful for the garden he and Kate have in Hopland, or for one of the wineries for whom the two of them create picturesque landscapes.

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