Writing Britain’s Ruins: Word and Image

Posted by Peter Lindfield on May 09, 2016 in Blog, Peter Lindfield tagged with , , , , , ,

Ruins were important in the Georgian period — one would, for example, encounter them whilst traversing the British countryside, as is still the case today. Ruins were also a central facet of that great Georgian cultural experience — the Grand Tour of the Continent. As we can see from John Richard’s The Colosseum from 1779, the architectural ruins from antiquity were both of academic and picturesque interest to the spectators in the fore- and middle-ground. This image celebrates the still monumental, though mouldering, colosseum and triumphal arch.

 

John Inigo Richards RA, The Colosseum, 1779. B1981.25.527. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

John Inigo Richards RA, The Colosseum, 1779. B1981.25.527. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

 

Aristocrats, such as The Honourable Colonel William Gordon, also took the opportunity to have their portraits taken by fashionable painters whilst on tour, in this case by one of the most prestigious — Pompeo Batoni — and placed in front of architectural and sculptural fragments related to the tour. In the case of the Honourable Colonel Gordon, who is dressed in his regimental outfit of the 105s, though the tartan is wrapped around him — rather appropriately — as a toga, he is clearly embracing the Roman atmosphere (the fictive sculpture of Roma is to his left).

 

Pompeo Batoni, The Honourable Colonel William Gordon, 1765–6, Fyvie Castle.

Pompeo Batoni, The Honourable Colonel William Gordon, 1765–6, Fyvie Castle.

 

Ruins also served to instruct Georgian architects — notably, amongst others, Robert Adam, William Kent and James Wyatt — in the manner of Classical architecture. Adam went so far as to design capricci — imaginary — ruins based upon fabrics and genuine ruins that he surveyed whilst on tour.

 

Robert Adam, Capricci. Courtesy of the Sir John Soane Museum, London.

Robert Adam, Capricci. Courtesy of the Sir John Soane Museum, London.

 

This exploration of ancient Classical ruins influenced directly their architectural practice once back in Britain. Adam summarised the tangible influence of the Grand Tour upon British architectural practice in the Preface to his and his brother’s publication, The Works in Architecture (1778–1822):

 

“We intended to have prefixed to our designs a dissertation concerning the rise and progress of architecture in Great Britain; and to have pointed out the various stages of its improvements from the time, that our ancestors, relinquishing the gothick style, began to aim at an imitation of the Grecian manner, until it attained that degree of perfection at which it has now arrived”.

 

This improvement and imitation of the Grecian manner was orchestrated by the study of intact and ruined fabrics. Unlike these continental structures, which were Classical, Britain’s architectural ruins were, for the most part, Gothic courtesy of the dissolution of the monasteries and the destruction of castellated fortifications.

 

Whilst continental Classical ruins influenced accepted and fashionable Georgian taste, Britain’s medieval — Gothic — ruins still had an important and noticeable impact upon Georgian aesthetics and they garnered sustained interest from antiquarian quarters. The following excerpt from The World illustrates the importance and relevance of medieval structures to the Georgian Gothic Revival. A correspondent in 1753 edition wrote that

 

“FROM a thousand instances of our imitative inclinations I shall select one or two, which have been, and still are notorious and general. A few years ago everything was Gothic; our houses, our beds, our book-cases, and our couches, were all copied from some parts or other of our old cathedrals. The Grecian architecture […] which was taught by nature and polished by the graces, was totally neglected”.

 

These ruins — and their patently historical qualities — undoubtedly inspired the creation of numerous ruined Gothic follies in the British landscape during the eighteenth century, including, for example, that at Wimpole in Cambridgeshire.

 

Gothic Folly, Wimpole, Cambridgeshire.

Gothic Folly, Wimpole, Cambridgeshire.

 

These ruins were written about in numerous, and, perhaps, surprising ways: in part inspired by their historical qualities and omnipresence throughout Britain. They were written ‘visually’, especially by artists and antiquaries. Horace Walpole, for example, emphasised the importance of prints to the recording and preserving of medieval fabrics, which helped document them and reverse their ‘moldering into dust’. In the preface to The Description of the Villa of Mr Horace Walpole (1784) he writes that ‘the general disuse of Gothic architecture, and the decay and alterations so frequently made in churches, give prints a chance of being the sole preservatives of that style’. In the Proposal by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck from 1737 for Publishing by Subscription Twenty Four Perspective Views of the Present State of the Most Noted Abbies, Religious Foundations, Castles, and other Remains of Antiquity in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex the historical imperative is emphasised. They write that:

 

“The Antiquity of such edifices, together with the pious Intentions of the Founders, having made the Memory of them justly venerable; and as most of those valuable Structures are now mould’ring in Ruins, they being already no more than the defac’d Remains of what they originally were: The best Perspective views they are at this Day capable of, we find by Experience do not fail of being acceptable to this curious age; as they greatly contribute to illustrate the History of the former State of this Island, and to transmit those Things to Posterity, which must otherwise be irretrievably lost: The Undertakers have for these Reasons made it their principal Business, at no small Expence, to visit them, and take Perspective Views of whatever remains remarkable”.

 

A sample of their work, such as The South-West View of Battle-Abby in the County of Sussex from 1737 demonstrates how vaguely they engaged with the fine details of the buildings’ architectural ornament. The exact nature and forms of the window tracery is not recorded, and the choice to render these structures in perspective contrasts directly with the far more precise orthographic technique employed for recording Classical structures.

 

Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, The South-West View of Battel-Abbey, 1737. B1986.29.331. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, The South-West View of Battel-Abbey, 1737. B1986.29.331. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

 

Thomas Milton, South front of Sir Gregory Page's House on Blackheath, 1767. 1881,0611.174. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Thomas Milton, South front of Sir Gregory Page’s House on Blackheath, 1767. 1881,0611.174. © Trustees of the British Museum.

 

But as this plate shows, the Bucks did not simply record the ruins for the sake of their current architectural state, but because these fabrics offered a portal by which a historical description of the sites could be offered. Of Battle Abbey, for example, the Bucks’ plate records that

 

“This Abby standing on ye very Spot of Ground on which King Harold fell was founded by the Conqueror in Memorial to his Victory & that Prayers might be made for ye Souls of ye Slain. He dedicated it to St Martin & placing therein Monks of ye Benedictine order bestow’d upon it his Royal Manor of Wye, which according to ye Chronicles this Abby contain’d twenty two Hundreds, and granted it many ample Privileges, among ye rest Exception from Episcopal Jurisdiction, which with all ye others not taken away by Act of Parliament it still maintains. It was a large & Noble Structure as many be judged from ye Gateway (still entire) and ye other Remains. At ye Dissolution it was much defaced. Soon after that Sr Anth. Browne & his Son Anthony Lord Vicst Montacute built ye stately pile on ye south side now become ruinous. It continued in that Noble Family till latterly purchas’d by St Thos Webster Bart. It had the Honour of ye Mitre & was valued at £987”.

 

This is representative of their series of plates, and also those incorporated into the first, 1753, volume of the Society of Antiquaries of London’s Vetusta Monumenta, as illustrated by George Vertue’s delineation of Sandal Castle in Yorkshire from the same year.

 

George Vertue, Sandal Castle in Yorkshire, 1753. 1850,0223.674. © Trustees of the British Museum.

George Vertue, Sandal Castle in Yorkshire, 1753. 1850,0223.674. © Trustees of the British Museum.

 

Ruin-recording, consequently, was being pursued by eighteenth-century antiquaries, artists and, essentially, businessmen, to preserve Britain’s architectural ruins from further destruction, obliteration or obfuscation by modern, Georgian, improvements.

 

Gothic is often considered to be a picturesque style of architecture. But what is the picturesque, and how does it relate to architecture? Picturesque in its simplest form means something that looks like a picture. In William Gilpin’s Essay upon Prints he defines the Picturesque as ‘that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture’. It was, however, a type of beauty harnesses the sublime’s variation in forms, colour and texture. Gilpin’s first appliedthe term picturesque to simulated ruins in the gardens at Stowe, Buckinghamshire. Picturesque variety also extended to Gothic architecture. In his Three Essays, Gilpin writes that:

 

“among all the objects of art, the picturesque eye is perhaps most inquisitive after the elegant relics of ancient architecture; the ruined tower, the Gothic arch, the remains of castles, and abbeys. These are the richest legacies of art. They are consecrated by time; and almost deserve the veneration we pay to the works of nature itself”.

 

This is manifest particularly in the 1778 publication by Paul Sandby: The Virtuosi’s Museum; Containing Select Views in England, Scotland and Ireland.

 

Paul Sandby, The Virtuosi's Museum, London, 1778. Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art.

Paul Sandby, The Virtuosi’s Museum, London, 1778. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

 

Over half of the plates contain Gothic structures, be they castles, churches or ruined abbeys, however quite unlike the earlier antiquarian plates discussed by the Bucks and Vertue, Sandby’s delineations place greater importance upon the engravings’ scenic, bucolic, qualities. The architecture is fundamental to the picturesque vistas, but they are not the centerpiece unlike the earlier plates. This shift is noticeable if we consider Sandby’s Bothwell Castle from the South c.1777, where the ruinous fabric is perched high-up on a rolling hill in the middle ground and is less relevant to the scene’s narration of English life than the activities taken place in the foreground bank and on the river.

 

Paul Sandby, Bothwell Castle from the South, c.1777. B1977.14.6265. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Paul Sandby, Bothwell Castle from the South, c.1777. B1977.14.6265. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

 

Comparing this watercolour with Vertue’s rendering of Sandal Castle — which also incorporates figures — illustrates this shift.

 

George Vertue, Sandal Castle in Yorkshire, 1753. 1850,0223.674. © Trustees of the British Museum.

George Vertue, Sandal Castle in Yorkshire, 1753. 1850,0223.674. © Trustees of the British Museum.

 

Richard Wilson RA, Caernarfon Castle, 1745. B1976.7.174. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Richard Wilson RA, Caernarfon Castle, 1745. B1976.7.174. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

 

Richard Wilson’s Caernarfon Castle equally represents the overly picturesque framing of medieval ruins. But whereas the plates in Sandby’s Virtuosi’s Museum contained historical details, the Georgian picturesque landscape tradition represented admirably by Wilson’s Caernarfon Castle and Thomas Girtin’s Kirkstall Abbey from the North West were self-contained works of art recording the British landscape.

 

Thomas Girtin, Kirkstall Abbey from the North West, c.1792. B1975.3.1141. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Thomas Girtin, Kirkstall Abbey from the North West, c.1792. B1975.3.1141. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

 

This atmospheric embrace of the British ruin set within a picturesque landscape continued well into the nineteenth century. John Constable, that great recorder of the English countryside in Suffolk, especially Dedham Vale, also recorded and celebrated medieval ruins. His 1828–9 oil sketch of Hadleigh Castle combines his interest in clouds with the picturesque rending of the castle’s fortifications.

 

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, 1828–9. B2001.2.141. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, 1828–9. B2001.2.141. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

 

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament c.1834–5. D36235. © Tate, London.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament c.1834–5. D36235. © Tate, London.

 

And his notable contemporary, JMW Turner recorded the horrific scenes of the burning of the Palace of Westminster, London, with spectators, including Henry VII’s Chapel — the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey — and the historic heart of the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Hall — all watching on whilst the inferno blazes. Turner, consequently, was recording ruins in the making.

 

Britain’s historical ruins were thus woven deeply into Georgian art and antiquarian practice, as well as current aesthetic theory. Recording the remains for posterity, or simply framing majestic ruins within their landscape contexts, celebrated Britain’s historical past and cultivated the Gothic ruin’s status as a venerable relic. Antiquaries write about these structures visually and textually to realise their preservative, restorative and academic agenda. But the ruin was also a self-contained facet of the British picturesque landscape tradition. And as Turner’s stupendous watercolour of The Burning of the Houses of Parliament demonstrates, it records modern ruin-making. Ruins were, however, also written about in other ways — especially in historical tracts and fiction.

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