Geology & Neoclassical Aesthetics


A review of Geology and Neoclassical Aesthetics: Visualizing the Structure of the Earth in Late Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century Britain, by Allison Ksiazkiewicz.

Allison Ksiazkiewicz’s dissertation presents a splendid research achievement. In its breadth of topics and materials, its depth of engagement with archival materials specifically, and in the richness and solidity of the historical concepts framed by the dissertation, this work is already a contender in a field adorned by some very learned recent books by Martin Rudwick (Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), Ralph O’Connor (The Earth on Show: Fossils and the Poetics of Popular Science, 1802-1856. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), and Adelene Buckland (Novel Science: Fiction and the Invention of Nineteenth-Century Geology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

The dissertation is especially strong as a media history of early geology that illuminates the constitutive interplay of philosophical prose, empirical observation, maps, sketches, engravings, manuscript, and print, all situated carefully in the context of historical fundamentals that Ksiazkiewicz has mastered: the composition of rocks and landforms as it was then understood; prevalent concepts in aesthetic and especially architectural theory; the rhetorical challenges and social complexities faced by the emerging science in Britain; and the research and career trajectories of central figures such as George Bellas Greenough, Thomas Webster, and especially John MacCulloch.

In addition to its stunning research achievement, this dissertation offers readers four robust individual arguments (in four main chapters) for the importance of specific visual and historical concepts in the practice of early (or early-middle) geology, along with a richly suggestive framework for integrating these arguments. The dissertation breaks new ground above all in its creative and deeply learned selection of new materials from the archives of MacCulloch, Webster, Greenough, and others, materials that lend subtle new inflections to visual and historical concepts explored by previous historians of geology: visual language, historical distance, the picturesque, the sublime, and others.

In her four main chapters, which articulate geological practice with architectural history, artistic theories of outline, color theory and cartography, and antiquarian cultural history, Ksiazkiewicz identifies numerous medial sites — diary entries, sketches, book reviews, treatises, published travel narratives, correspondence — at which early geologists reflected on their task of visualizing earth processes and structural relationships that were only implicit in the visible landscape. As geological knowledge was produced in the course of these visual and verbal stages, visual and chronological frameworks from other disciplines provided essential guidelines for geologists who sought to frame their field observations and therefore “managed and isolated the imagination so it acted in accordance to proper aesthetic principles” (p. 16). The concept of imagination is absolutely central to the dissertation in its present form, receiving extended treatment in each of the chapters and thus more substantial analysis than either neoclassicism, the nominal area of focus, or romanticism, with which the imagination is more commonly associated. In fact, neoclassicism and romanticism increasingly recognized as counterparts and not opposites by scholars in the humanities, both form an integral part of the larger picture presented by Ksiazkiewicz, along with aesthetic theory, antiquarianism, illustration, media change, and incipient scientific specialization. Because of its affiliation with all these domains, “gentlemen of geology” understood the imagination, she argues, as “a tool that aided the geologist’s understanding of the structure of the earth, but it did not describe his reaction or experience of a geological specimen” (p. 5).

Chapter 1, “A Philosophical Pursuit,” engages substantively with primary texts by core theorists not only of neoclassicism, such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Sir Joshua Reynolds, but also of conjectural history (Rousseau and Hume), to lay the foundation for a deeply illuminating correlation between architectural and geological theory. The first section situates Sir James Hall — who contributed to scholarship on Gothic architecture as well as to geology, especially through chemical experiments — between two exclusively architectural theorists, Sir John Soane and Joseph Michael Gandy. The Chapter thus moves from the generalizations in the Introduction — for example, “the artistic and architectural expressions of primitive cultures were believed to reflect a higher order of nature” (p. 20) — to readings of texts that specify such a view and link it with the understanding of temporality in early geology.

The thoroughly neoclassical hinge is imitation: the chemist-theorist Hall demonstrated in the laboratory that experiment, while it could not copy, could nonetheless meaningfully imitate nature and generate insight into geological formations and processes on a much larger scale. Building on Reynolds’s theory of imitation as well as Winckelmann’s and other paradigms for the origin of the arts, Soane and Gandy argued similarly that the earliest architectural forms were imitations (of caves, bowers, and other natural analogues). The second section of the Chapter 1 (pp. 39-53) engages in great detail with a period debate about the “vitrified forts” of the Scottish highlands, a debate involving John MacCulloch and other naturalists and/or antiquaries (John Williams, Alexander Tytler, Samuel Hibbert, and many others). In this instance, MacCulloch (a major figure in all four chapters of the dissertation) is the one who uses laboratory experiment to verify a theoretical claim about the arts of primitive humanity — that the stone in these forts was vitrified deliberately in the process of construction, and not by attacks or by accident. A final section, synthesizing these studies of architecture with the study of the earth, goes on to show what was at stake in both Hall’s and MacCulloch’s premise that “chemical operations… functioned as proxies for forces that shaped strata” (p. 55). Analogies between the process (and progress) of “chemical ordering” in nature and art even inform MacCulloch’s A System of Geology (1831), as Ksiazkiewicz shows in an insightful reading at the end of the chapter.

Experiments like those of Hall and MacCulloch “helped to construe the primitive Celts and Picts as experimentalists” who “naturally possessed genius” (p. 59). As Ksiazkiewicz turns, in Chapter 2, from architecture to a more basic principle of visual representation — outline — she also continues to develop the theme of nationalism that is inescapable for any account of early British geology, and perhaps especially the Geological Society. The Scottish cultural revival becomes central again in Chapter 4, where Ksiazkiewicz also argues that this particular matrix should carry equal weight with the Anglo-French conflict commonly used to situate British nationalism in this period (p. 261). Chapter 2 pairs MacCulloch with another Scottish-born and educated geologist, Thomas Webster, who (unlike MacCulloch) settled and made his career in London. The Chapter argues that Webster and MacCulloch employed similar sets of visualization strategies in their geological work, even though that work was ultimately different in kind: “While MacCulloch projected theory onto his subject and substantiated it with localized observation, Webster developed his discussion on the distortion of the chalk through a detailed examination of this specific stratum” (p. 126). The coincidence of both geologists’ Scottishness might be a worthwhile direction to pursue; the proximity of the English chalk to France and French theory comes into play in her discussion of Webster, and Ksiazkiewicz shows clearly how the paranoid climate of the Napoleonic Wars impinges on the artistic practice of sketching that is the central focus of this Chapter. (Webster was among many landscape artists and naturalists who were suspected by locals of being French spies).

Rather than political activity, geological use of “aesthetic conventions from the philosophy of art” — such as the primacy of line so apparent in landscape sketching — was intended to show “that the geologist’s experience of the landscape was immediate and visceral” (p. 68). The first section of Chapter 2 offers a richly contextualized account (similar to the preceding discussion of architectural theory) of “the linear style.” Individually, the sections are very strong, and the first section on outline injects some useful social history in its engagement with period views of handwriting as well as manuscript evidence of the hands of different geologists. From the theory of outline, this Chapter proceeds to the use of bounding lines and “visual grammar” as legitimating “philosophical” strategies in MacCulloch’s Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (1819). As in Thomas Webster and Sir Henry Englefield’s Description of the Isle of Wight (1816), a visual grammar based on outline was used to distinguish several kinds of visual representation, from pictorial to baldly schematic, and both authors encouraged or even demanded that their readers cross-reference these several kinds, together with passages of text, to arrive at a philosophical view of the history and structure of these landforms (p. 107, p. 112). (One is reminded of C. S. Peirce’s scheme of index, icon, and symbol). The account of Webster’s work, which attends closely to the execution of both the drawings and the engravings, is greatly enriched by Ksiazkiewicz’s use of largely unfamiliar manuscript material.

Chapter 2 also introduces military academies, and the “‘British national style’ of cartography” they taught (p. 86), in its negotiation of the national and political projects and affiliations of geology. Chapter 3 returns to the military surveys of the Scottish Highlands, beginning in the wake of the Jacobite uprising of 1745, which sparked interest not only in the vitrified hill forts (Chapter 1) but also more broadly in problems of geological mapping raised by the Highlands and other difficult terrain. These problems, and the attempt to apply color and color theory to their solution, form the main subject of this Chapter. The Chapter shows that color on geological maps can be “naturalistic” as well as symbolic or idealizing: “a tinted map embodied a singular vision of the British landscape that obscured the ‘accidental’ in favor of a ‘generalized’ view” (p. 130). This Chapter creates an interesting tension between accuracy and ideology. In the first two sections, a survey of cartographic practices and their intersections with geology followed by a close reading of George Bellas Greenough’s famous Geological Map of England and Wales (1819), Ksiazkiewicz follows debates concerning the potential of color to enhance the reliability of cartographic representation. The third section, a survey of color theory beginning with theories available to Greenough, argues that, concerns with accuracy notwithstanding, the use of color in maps ultimately supports their idealizing and, to some degree, ideological function: “not only could color quickly convey meaning to the observer, but it could also represent a moralized view of the landscape — it had a didactic function” (p. 189).

Chapter 3 also juxtaposes Greenough’s Geological Society project against William Smith’s autonomous geological map (1815), implicitly rather than explicitly recuperating Greenough’s project as genuinely different in kind and not contaminated by the politics of social exclusion often associated with the competition between these two projects. Whereas Smith’s delineation of the strata, following Cuvier and Brongniart in France, depended on the “guide fossils” associated with each stratum, for Greenough — Ksiazkiewicz maintains — fossils were “accidental,” and being guided by fossils would have meant making geology subservient to zoology. Her instructive emphasis on the Ordnance Survey and on military mapmaking may be construed as a revisionist reading of a history that has more commonly emphasized mining and economic geology. She offers William Maton’s Mineralogical Map of the Western Counties of England (1797), which deliberately avoided color, as one interesting example in the tradition of physical geography, of maps that “translate[d] physical movement across terrain into a visual language” (p. 139). Greenough’s map, on this account, is remarkable for its scrupulous accuracy to local formations, going so far as to match the mineral color of certain formations with colors on the map, and drawing the contempt of at least one French commentator for refusing to chart formations across national and geographic boundaries (p. 156). Here and elsewhere the insular “anti-theory” position of the early Geological Society, and especially of Greenough, comes into play. Ksiazkiewicz takes great pains to controvert Rachel Laudan’s account of Greenough’s geology as reflexively Baconian, in contrast to the useful theory of “practical men of science” such as Smith (pp. 156-160; cf. Rachel Laudan, “Ideas and Organization in British Geology: A Case Study in Institutional History” in Isis 68, 1977, pp. 527-538). (Martina Kölbl-Ebert’s more recent account of these issues might also be of interest here). Ksiazkiewicz’s conclusion is arresting: “The landscape that Greenough depicted in his map was much closer to the dynamic earth of [James] Hutton rather than the progressive model of [Abraham Gottlob] Werner” (pp. 161-162).

If Greenough felt that the strong insistence on guide fossils in Cuvier and Webster ignored “mineralogical differences” between strata sharing the same fossil content and was generally “too speculative for geology” (p. 154), this was itself, Ksiazkiewicz argues, a theoretical position, one visually embodied by the map: a resistance to overgeneralization. Greenough’s deep scholarly engagement with color theory, evident in his manuscript notes (well mined by Ksiazkiewicz) as well as visits to continental authorities such as Goethe, contributes to this end. The end of the color theory section is enlivened by an especially dazzling turn to manuscript material. Here Ksiazkiewicz contrasts the colored mezzotints of James Sowerby’s British Mineralogy (1802-1817) with the thickly layered watercolor illustrations of specimens in the 1830 manuscript of a “gentleman naturalist,” Richard Cust (Drawings of Minerals Arranged in Families). This turn to media history, even as it moves from mapping to specimen illustration, brings together numerous threads from the body of the chapter in an exciting way: “That transparency described the materiality of natural bodies paralleled a shift in the use of opaque pigments as adequate media for describing Nature” (p. 183). The “physics of paint” — so strikingly illustrated by Cust’s almost photorealistic images — was actively deployed as well by Greenough, Smith, and MacCulloch in their maps, but less for naturalistic effect than for coding structural relationships such as superposition.

The conclusion to Chapter 3 shows characteristic brilliance but raises many problematic issues, including the “political agenda” of the mapping projects (p. 188), the transparency of the artistic or authorial hand, and the picturesque. The picturesque is also central to Chapter 4, which restages a contest familiar from the history of aesthetics — that between the picturesque and the sublime — and rejuvenates it by locating these competing aesthetic modes on the culturally and geologically rich ground of Staffa, the famous basaltic island off Mull in the Hebrides. All the chapters, because of their strong and unifying interest in empirical truth to nature and its relationship to theory (or the “historical” versus the “ideal”), feature specific sites. Quite a few of these, including the hill forts in Chapter 1 and Skye in Chapter 2, are Scottish Highland sites. A concluding chapter focusing entirely on one such site, a very small island dominated by one famous feature — Fingal’s Cave, composed of prismatic columnar basalt — therefore makes good narrative sense. This geographic focus also allows antiquarianism and cultural history, which were central to Chapter 1 on “primitive hut theory,” to come to the fore once again. This theme resurfaces visually as well, as is appropriate for such a copiously and beautifully illustrated dissertation, in the form of a stunning 1838 watercolor by Gandy, Architecture: Its Natural Model. In this painting, an early, rather simian-looking hominid is seated in front of a cave dwelling clearly modeled on Fingal’s Cave. Four additional images show details from this encyclopedic painting that confirm Ksiazkiewicz’s careful reading of the Gothic properties of the cave, with its lofty ceiling and long range of perpendicular columns. The cave, she shows, has replaced the real “primitive hut” of the impoverished herders noticed by earlier visitors to the island and now supports a theistic view of the cave as inspiring the whole of postdiluvian architecture.

Rather than showing directly how the aesthetic categories that were commonly applied to the cave served to convey an understanding of geological processes or structures, Chapter 4 shows how different techniques of visualization foregrounded different aspects of the island’s formations while promoting its association with the ancient human past. The first section of this Chapter outlines historiographical models, such as historical distance and materialism, that were used to authorize geologists’ “histories of the invisible,” the next two sections on Staffa present the geological equally as a gateway to the human past. Geologists confronting Staffa harnessed the sublime tenor of Joseph Banks’s early paradigmatic description to their considerations of the “invisible” forces and processes deep in the island’s history, but in their descriptions of present features, Ksiazkiewicz argues, “the imagination remained restricted as a carefully controlled mental imagination,” so that the sublime lost its “overwhelming” force (pp. 194-195). Situating the engagement with Staffa in a wider geological context, Ksiazkiewicz makes good use of Humphry Davy’s 1805 geology lectures, featuring a model volcano, to illustrate this thesis of directed sublimity. Like the early proponents of historicism who moved away from grand narratives, then, new “histories of the earth began to steer clear of theories too general to be considered historical and were replaced with closer examinations of the materiality of the earth” (p. 199). Ksiazkiewicz also offers a new interpretation of William Conybeare’s famous caricature of William Buckland crawling into a cave full of hyenas in this historiographical context: “Historical distance dissolved into a visceral encounter with the past in which Buckland was depicted as a man of science who was absorbed, literally, into his studies” (p. 204).

Chapter 4’s middle section turns from historiography and the sublime to architectural antiquities and picturesque theory, which clearly influence early accounts of Staffa. The argument here is that picturesque description of present features balanced the sublime infused discourse on underlying forces by “reduc[ing] the object to its most empirical level — the surface” (p. 236). As a middle way between the beautiful and the sublime, the picturesque is more an emotional response to “irregularity” than an objective analysis of surface forms. This section also makes a distinction between the ostensibly connoisseurial practice of the 1770s and the “adequate observational practice” maintained by later figures such as Greenough and MacCulloch (p. 227); Desmarest, Hamilton, and the Italian naturalists Hamilton emulated were among those already engaged in “site-specific” fieldwork in the 1770s. Even if the mapping of “sublime” onto the ideal and “picturesque” onto the historical is not entirely straightforward, the chapter offers a splendid survey of narratives and images of Staffa by both British and French travelers and naturalists, with a strong emphasis the island’s cultural significance: “In Fingal’s Cave, visitors had an opportunity to imagine themselves as characters in Ossianic poems and to reimagine the cave within this historical context” (p. 244).

Allison Ksiazkiewicz’s masterfully researched, compellingly art historical, intellectually capacious narrative of early nineteenth-century geology will surely yield influential published work in the short and the long run. In “explor[ing] how image making and visualization affected geological practice in concrete terms” (p. 259), this study shows how and why geologists such as Greenough, MacCulloch, and Webster came to see that “the raw materials of the earth were an archive of the past” (p. 198). The dissertation revitalizes concepts central the history of aesthetics, including imagination, imitation, and truth to nature, by showing how deeply they informed geological fieldwork, writing, and illustration.

Noah Heringman
Department of English
University of Missouri

Primary Sources

Papers of George Bellas Greenough and John MacCulloch, Geological Society of London.
Papers of George Bellas Greenough, University College London Special Collections.
Papers of Sir James Hall, National Library of Scotland.
Papers of Thomas Webster and Sir Henry Englefield, University of Southampton.

John MacCulloch, A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (1819)
Thomas Webster and Henry Englefield, A Description of the Principal Picturesque Beauties, Antiquities, and Geological Phenomena on the Isle of Wight (1816)
George Bellas Greenough, A Geological Map of England and Wales (1819)
George Bellas Greenough, Memoir of a Geological Map of England (1820)

Dissertation Information

University of Cambridge. 2012. 293+x pp. Primary Advisor: James A. Secord.

Image: John MacCullouch, A Geological Map of Scotland (1837). Lapworth Museum of Geology, University of Birmingham.

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