Pleasure of Ruins

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window’ 1794
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window 1794

A craze for ruins gripped European culture in the eighteenth century. Classical remains inspired artists such as Piranesi to depict great civilisations falling into decay. British architects and garden designers embraced this ruinous aesthetic, and artificial ruins were a popular addition to many great estates. William Gilpin’s writings on the picturesque encouraged many tourists — as well as artists such as J.M.W. Turner and John Sell Cotman — to travel in search of picturesque views of medieval ruins. Later, photography became essential to the recording and reimagining of ruins.

The ruin lust of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also expressed anxieties about present and future: Joseph Gandy’s bird’s-eye view of John Soane’s newly completed Bank of England evoked its future ruination; Gustave Doré pictured the destruction of London, surveyed by a future visitor from New Zealand. Such visions have not ceased among artists who are as much aware of the long history of ruin appreciation as they are excited by its capacity to speak of the recent past and the perilous present. In the work of artists as diverse as Patrick Caulfield, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Laura Oldfield Ford, the ruin remains a potent image of historical melancholy and present potential.