At Tate Britain

Rosemary Hill

Ruins are unstable things, sometimes physically, culturally almost always. Their appeal as occasions for art is only partly aesthetic; they are the remains of something else, of which they must necessarily be a shadow, an echo or a critique. Tate Britain’s exhibition (until 18 May), drawn mostly from its own collection and gathered under the capacious heading of Ruin Lust, takes too little account of this. Beginning with Piranesi’s views of Rome it offers many fine things to look at, but the parts add up to an uneasy whole that attempts to span three hundred years, lurching, with no convincing argument, from the Italy of the Grand Tour to the picturesque landscape of the Wye Valley, and on to modern Iraq.

Within it there are tantalising themes. The one which the Tate’s collection is best suited to develop is England’s relationship with its own ruins, of which, after the Reformation, it had a plentiful supply. The Romantic passion for them coincided with the heyday of English watercolour, a medium ideally suited to the moods and mental weather of picturesque sentiment. The most popular sites recur with changes rung on them according to the artists’ tastes and abilities. Francis Towne’s Netley Abbey has the crisp immediacy of a stage set while in the hands of Samuel Prout it is cosily brown and crumbly, accoutred with cows. Cotman’s Crowland hangs in watery mist. Like Turner in his detail of a massive Norman column from Holy Island suspended in a tiny sketch, Cotman could conjure up the poignant synecdoche of mighty fragments imbued as much with power as with loss.

‘Crowland Abbey’ by John Sell Cotman (1804).
‘Crowland Abbey’ by John Sell Cotman (1804).

The exhibition largely ignores the fact that the bare ruined choirs which caught the Romantic imagination were the remains of religious buildings, yet that was important to their appeal. While Piranesi’s ruined Coliseum spoke to the confidence of the Palladian revival, so in the later 18th century, as the secular certainties of the Enlightenment wavered, the relics of the Catholic Middle Ages assumed a new resonance. They offered an image of faith which could never be recovered, but out of which a new spirituality might be born. Wordsworth’s ‘something far more deeply interfused’ was conceived in the shadow of Tintern Abbey.

Tintern was the locus classicus of the Picturesque. Turner, whose delicate veils of watercolour create effects that remain miraculous however closely you look, makes sunlight dapple the stone with tiny shadows of ivy. Peter Van Lerberghe, a lesser artist, catches a lesser, but no doubt more common, scene of Tintern by moonlight aswarm with tourists climbing over it with torches to make the right dramatic shadows before ticking a now hackneyed experience off the to-see list. Historic cause and effect had been reversed. As the young Jane Austen wrote in her History of England, Henry VIII’s greatest virtue for the Georgians was that ‘his abolishing Religious Houses & leaving them to the ruinous depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general, which probably was a principal motive for his doing it.’

‘Tintern Abbey’ by Turner (1794).
‘Tintern Abbey’ by Turner (1794).

Yet if the picturesque became a cliché the curators are wrong to suggest that it was difficult for artists to revisit it ‘without irony’. As the exhibition demonstrates, it was impossible to invoke it without self-consciousness, but that is not the same thing. The cult of the cult of ruins continued to serve British artists well, especially the neo-Romantics of the 1930s and 1940s. Paul Nash’s abstracted megaliths, geometric forms set in the Wiltshire landscape, are consciously picturesque, inviting comparison with Romantic meditations on nature and artifice. John Piper, John Armstrong and others painted bombed churches at the height of the Blitz, lit by fire and moonlight, or tranquil but shattered in the Essex countryside, in a way that invoked a particular English sensibility. They are potent, elegiac appeals for the defence of ‘our island’. After the war the preservation of ruins within new buildings, at Coventry Cathedral and the House of Commons, was indicative of an enduring belief in the power of the material remains of history to inform the present.

The political implications of ruins go back to the Reformation itself when ruination was state policy. By the 18th century it was possible to create new, apparently ruined structures that would be understood as acts of protest or comment. One of the most famous, the Gothic Temple at Stowe, was built as a critique of Robert Walpole’s regime. While the exhibition makes reference to these buildings, it writes them off as ‘fakes’. In fact their polemical potential was long-lived and in the last century the greatest exponent of the rhetorical ruin was Ian Hamilton Finlay. Finlay is represented here by four lithographs but the chance to make interesting and much needed connections with the 18th century in his use of neoclassicism and reworking of Piranesi is not taken up. Finlay’s own temple of protest in his garden at Little Sparta is dedicated to Apollo and bears the legend: HIS MUSIC HIS MISSILES HIS MUSES. This was not irony. By the time Little Sparta was completed Finlay’s reworking of the iconography of the sublime had led to accusations of fascism, an international row with France and a campaign of direct action by his supporters, the St Just Vigilantes.

‘St Mary le Port, Bristol’ by John Piper (1940).
‘St Mary le Port, Bristol’ by John Piper (1940).

Tintern lost its freshness and was succeeded by the apocalyptic visions of John Martin and the deathly gloom of Constable’s Hadleigh Castle, both included here and imbued with the turbulence of the last Georgian years. Disraeli spoke with the confidence of the High Victorians who scraped away the ivy and invented ‘archaeology’. In the 20th century Rose Macaulay wondered whether, after the horror of total war, any artist could ever again get pleasure from the sight of destruction. The evidence of Ruin Lust suggests that artists have lost some confidence, if not interest, in the subject. Keith Arnatt’s 1980s revisiting of key sites of the 18th-century Picturesque in the photographic sequence Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, most of which are now spoiled and not one of which is named, hardly rises beyond the sarcasm implied in the title.

In this century the ruins most vivid in collective memory are the skeletal remnants of the Twin Towers, sticking up from the mountains of rubble. They survive only as photographs; no fragments of the World Trade Center were built into the black pools that now mark Ground Zero. Among the most recent works at Tate Britain there is also little direct engagement with ruins and the determination to force one does not serve the artists well. Room Five, ‘Bunker Archaeology’, is the most discomforting. It is an implausible context for Henry Gibbs’s Aeneas and His Family Fleeing Burning Troy of 1654, which looks even odder beside Jane and Louise Wilson’s large photographs of decaying Nazi fortifications. None is a great work: together they bring out the worst in each other. Still more troubling, in the same room, are Adam Broomberg’s Red House pictures, photographs of graffiti left on the wall of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party headquarters by prisoners, many of whom were being tortured, in some cases to death. There is a moral question about showing such work as art, and no doubt Broomberg intends to raise it, but it is lost in this muddled exhibition.