When they arrived I was instantly enamored; from the smell of the paper to the detail in the composition. They were amazing. I was further engaged by the fact that I was familiar with the areas depicted in these prints from over one hundred years ago. However, I was disappointed when I saw text on the back side of the prints and realized that they were actually removed from a book. To cut out artwork at the expense of a book is a graphic indiscretion I cannot endorse. Still, despite my unintentional support of this act, these prints intrigued me and the words on the backside of the prints made me want to read more. From what source were they removed? Before I answered that question, a deeper more profound thought came over me. By reading the text on the back of the print I discovered kind words of concern for lands that ” but a few years ago were known only to the explorer or the local inhabitant”. They expressed concern for how long would these lands remain unspoiled by the hand of man. Over a hundred years ago they implied progress without responsibility could destroy places that were unique to our country. It further accounts that:
Indeed it is as they foretold and I, like many others, have been attracted here for just those reasons. So, now obviously intrigued that this book contained beautiful artwork and well-written imagery, I endeavored to find the book titled Picturesque America. A quick Internet search did not reveal much about the history of or origin of this book. Unfortunately, the local library did not have a copy to reference either. But upon contacting a neighborhood friend and owner of a local rare bookstore here in Asheville, NC, The Captain’s Bookshelf, we were able to search through their vast collection – and much to my delight we found a copy of the series. Yes, series. I discovered that it was a serial released in 48 parts and then bound into two very large volumes with over 900 engravings.
Created by Appleton Press, it combined celebrated writers with the best artists of the time. I won’t delve into the history at this moment, but suffice to say I was amazed at the depth and breath of these books. I also discovered from a wonderful history book about the making of Picturesque America, written by Sue Rainey, that Picturesque America, although now mostly forgotten, played a very specific and important role in the preservation of natural lands and historic places in America. It was a joy to jump into these “travel log” style tales of the early discovery of wonderful places in America. The published dates were 1872 to around 1874. Although most of the places depicted in Picturesque America are relatively famous today, they were still mostly unknown to the general public in the late 1800s. At this time tourism was rare and something only for the rich. Although the railroad was opening up many places for better access, America was still shaken by the Civil War. Few ventured past their county borders and certainly not their state. So this book gave many people the opportunity to explore this land by way of what we would equate to a coffee table book today. So, I endeavored to find a copy to own myself and was lucky to find and acquire a tattered copy at an auction for a reasonable price. My wife and I had the opportunity to travel west to California for a business trip and, of course, looked in the book mentioned any place near my destination. Sure enough, only a few hours away was a location featured in the book – the now famous Yosemite Valley. So we planned to spend several days in Yosemite National Park. Would it be possible to find the location of the artists vantage point when creating these pieces? How amazing would it be to stand in the same spot as these fine artists who were here so long ago? We brought the book along, reading the accounts from 1873 to help us find our way. As you will see in our blog accounts we found some of the scenes quickly for they are typically dramatic and well known geological features. However, finding the exact vantage point of the artist is where the adventure really begins. The exhilaration of when we did find the first spot – the connection to the past, the beauty of the moment and the hope for the future made for an experience I’ll never forget.
We took a celebratory picture and then I pulled out my sketch book. I drew with what I can only imagine to be the same awe as the original artist. In time, I realized this could be much more than simply an adventure of artistic discovery. The original version of the book and an updated version could be brought together as a tool to bring awareness to so many. To help in the understanding that these places that were important to people in the past should be preserved for those in the future. Surprisingly, awareness is still a huge issue in the preservation community. Obviously not to those involved, rather their message. An overall mental shift of the importance of natural wild spaces needs to be in the mindset of the general public. Nature is not something to be conquered and tamed as antiquated concepts of ” bringing civilization to the wilderness”. In order to be good stewards of this land we must have a better perspective of what we have to lose and unfortunately, what has already been lost.
As a result we have formed this organization for the purpose of education and the eventual preservation of these spaces rightfully portrayed as symbols of our country’s great natural and historic treasures. There are so many ways this project will enlighten as it grows.
We invite you to follow the adventure and contribute in any way you can. To both the Preserving a Picturesque America organization and to your local communities’ conservation needs.