From the neo-gothic follies of 18th-century aristocrats to the blasted cityscapes of contemporary Detroit, ruins have long obsessed artistsby Evelyn Toynton / March 27, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
Jane and Louise Wilson’s photograph of a ruined German gun emplacement in Normandy, 2006
©Jane and Louise Wilson
Once upon a time, gazing at ruins was considered one of life’s most exquisite pleasures. The parks designed by Capability Brown and William Kent for 18th-century aristocrats often featured a neo-gothic folly or crumbling mock-classical temple specially created to set off the surrounding landscape. Cultured travellers, meanwhile, went in search of real ruins in Britain and abroad, a trend that continued well into the 19th century. Ruined castles were a favourite destination, as were ruined abbeys set in beautiful landscapes: to satisfy the exacting requirements of the romantic sightseer, a ruin had to possess what John Constable called “melancholy grandeur.” Henry James, a connoisseur of decay in all its guises, mocked his own zealous ruin tourism as a “heartless pastime” entailing “a note of perversity.” Such perversity is nicely hinted at in the title Tate Britain has given its current exhibition of ruins in art: Ruin Lust (from the German Ruinenlust, although in German “lust” merely denotes joy or pleasure).