Gilpin was born in Cumbria, the son of Captain John Bernard Gilpin, who was a soldier and an amateur artist. He enjoyed sketching from an early age, but unlike his brother Sawrey (1733-1807), he chose not to pursue it as a full-time career and opted to join the church, having graduated from Queen's College, Oxford in 1748. At Oxford Gilpin developed his ideas on the picturesque, anonymously publishing A Dialogue upon the Gardens... at Stow in Buckinghamshire (1748). In a unique statement of the time, he illustrated an appreciation of wild and rugged mountain scenery, perhaps derived from his childhood in Cumbria. In 1768 Gilpin published his popular Essay on Prints in which he defined the picturesque as 'that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture', and during the following two decades he travelled extensively, committing his thoughts and spontaneous sketches to notebooks.
The present album, dated 1774, provides a detailed account of Gilpin's journey through Hampshire, Sussex and Kent, illustrated with watercolours of the landscapes and architectural landmarks that he encountered. His narrative is both personal and informative, presenting the reader with the historical background of his subject matter as well as his own opinions of the places, often rather dismissively superior in tone. He begins his description of Arundel Castle by stating that 'such an object as Arundel Castle would itself be sufficient to grace any scene....' (p. 16), but then goes on to add that 'As we leave Arundel castle we have a good retrospect of it; the only view in which it makes any appearance at a distance tho' here the castle being part hid, it looses [sic] its dignity; and appears only like an ancient mansion' (p. 20). He seems to be more taken by Canterbury 'which lies in an extended vale, [and] boasts of its antiquities as much as any town in England. It has been celebrated both as a fortress; and a seat of religion.... its religious antiquities are both more numerous and curious' (p. 48).
Gilpin's descriptive account not only details the places that he saw but also gives details of a number of specific items that caught his attention, such as the pictures in the collection of Sir George Young at Foot's Cray Place in Kent, which were later moved to London and became the subject of at least two guides to collections in the city. They had been collected by Bourchier Cleeve (1715-1760), a pewterer and writer on finance, who was Young's father-in-law. Gilpin comments on an oil of Abraham and Hagar by Raphael (1483-1520); he states that it is 'a small but beautiful picture. The light is wonderfully fine. The clearness of the colouring is very pleasing' (p. 56).