Visions of Ruin
An exhibition at Sir John Soane's Museum (2 July to 28 August 1999)
Sponsored by Haddonstone Ltd.
The Bank of England, Sir John Soane's architectural masterpiece, imagined as a ruin of the future. Soane commissioned this bird's eye view from the perspective artist Joseph Gandy in 1830
This exhibition is the first to explore 'the cult of the ruin', a phenomenon of 18th and early 19th century Europe. Mock ruins were built as 'follies' in landscape gardens, while artists imagined how London would appear as a ruined city after the collapse of the British Empire. In Rome, interiors were painted as trompe l'oeil ruins, and in Paris the great chef Antoine Carême served blancmanges in the shape of Roman ruins.
John Soane represents the climax of this fascination. In the garden of his Museum at No.13 Lincoln's Inn Fields is the 'Monk's Yard', a mock-ruin assembled from medieval fragments of the Palace of Westminster. At his country house, Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing, he pretended that a mock-classical ruin was a Roman temple he had discovered at the bottom of the garden. He commemorated the completion of his masterpiece, the Bank of England, by exhibiting a series of astonishing views of the structure as if a ruin. He even wrote a narrative, Crude Hints Towards the History of My House, in which he imagined an archaeologist of future centuries inspecting the fragments of his home: were these the remains of a monastery, a Roman temple, a magician's lair, or the house of a persecuted artist?
Architects and artists exhibited include Robert Adam, William Chambers, Hubert Robert, Piranesi, Clerrisseau, Richard Wilson, J. M. W. Turner, Gustave Doré and John Martin.
Description of the Exhibition
False Ruins: 'Follies'
There are two ways of seeing a ruined building. The first is to see the fragments as pieces of a jigsaw, as clues to a reconstruction - the view of an archaeologist, or of an architect in the Renaissance. The second way is to see a ruin as Picturesque. Ignoring the intentions of the original builder, the artist enjoys the romantic effects of the damage done by Time: crumbling stone, ivy, mysterious dark spaces, and dramatic contrasts of light and shade. This view began in Rome in the mid-18th century when artists such as Piranesi, Clerrisseau and Hubert Robert depicted the 'poetry of decay' and captivated young English architects in Rome, such as Robert Adam and William Chambers. Returning to Britain, Adam and Chambers designed mock-Roman ruins as ornaments in landscape gardens. The exhibition includes several of their designs, for example, the ruined arch built by William Chambers in Kew Gardens as depicted in Richard Wilson's famous painting (Brinsley Ford Collection).
The exhibition concludes with several examples of modern 'folly' ruins, suggesting a revival of interest in a Post-Modernist and Pre-Millenial age. Haddonstone Ltd. are creating a 'Millenium Ruin' at this year's Chelsea Flower Show, and have erected several brand-new ruins in private gardens in recent years. The last folly in the exhibition is the new Museum of Natural Phenomena in Orlando, Florida. It is designed by the architect Terry Nicholson to resemble a historic Court House picked up by a hurricane and dropped on top of a brick warehouse - upside-down.
Ruins of the Future
Every schoolboy of Soane's generation was told that London was 'the new Rome', the magnificent capital of a new Empire. If so, would London share Rome's fate? One writer imagined a future in which curious Americans visited the city's ruins, in the same way as Englishmen visited Rome on their Grand Tour. In the 1830s Lord Macauley chose to imagine a New Zealand tourist exploring the remains of St Paul's Cathedral, a vision of the future later illustrated by Gustave Doré. Soane's views of the Bank of England in ruins (1833) reflect the same doubts, the cracks opening in the self-confidence of 19th century Britain.
In the closing scene of the Planet of the Apes Charlton Heston realises that Planet Earth has been devastated when he sees the half-buried Statue of Liberty in a desert that was once New York.
The exhibition is accompanied by a 68pp catalogue. There is an introductory essay on 'Soane and the Ruin' by Dr David Watkin, Reader in the History of Art at the University of Cambridge and author of Sir John Soane: Enlightenment Thought and the Royal Academy Lectures (CUP, 1996). The catalogue entries are by Christopher Woodward, Assistant Curator at Sir John Soane's Museum, who is curating the exhibition. His book, In Ruins, is published by Chatto & Windus in 2000. The catalogue also includes a transcript of Soane's 'Crude Hints Towards a History of My House' with a commentary by Helen Dorey, Deputy Curator.
The exhibition has been sponsored by Haddonstone Ltd., leading manufacturers of fine landscape ornaments and architectural stonework. Haddonstone are creating a'Millenium Inspirations' exhibit at this year's Chelsea Flower Show (25 - 28 May). Inspired by the Temples of Ancient and Modern Virtue designed by William Kent at Stowe in the 1730s, the exhibit will include a ruinous Gothic Grotto representing 'Modern Virtue'. The design for this ruin will be included in the exhibition (transparencies available).
For further information please contact Simon Scott, Marketing Manager, Haddonstone Ltd, The Forge House, East Haddon, Northampton, NN6 8DB. Tel. 01604 770711. Fax: 01604 770027.