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Appetite for destruction: from Turner to Tacita Dean, artists have long been drawn to ruins

A new exhibition surveys artistic visions of decay.

Turner’s The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey

Ruins are as much about the future as they are about the past. Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire and the Colosseum in Rome are not simply buildings: they are memento mori. As the encyclopédiste Denis Diderot noted in 1767: “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures.” Diderot was not alone. What he was suffering from – a widespread condition for which there is still no cure – is what the Germans called Ruinenlust.

The melancholy allure of decay has always struck artists particularly hard. With the appearance in the mid-18th century of the theory of the picturesque and the sublime in the writings of Edmund Burke and William Gilpin, artists were encouraged to give in to it. “Ruin Lust” at Tate Britain is a fascinating and provocative examination of this strand in British art over the past 250 years.

In 1794, four years before Wordsworth composed his lines about the place, Turner stood in Tintern Abbey and painted a delicate and detailed watercolour showing a pair of Georgian tourists dwarfed by its crumbling arches and weed-sprouting tracery. He was part of a fad; the cream of watercolourists – Francis Towne, John Sell Cotman and Samuel Prout among them – cluttered toppling monastic ruins around the country, luxuriating in their silhouettes and poetic atmosphere. By the time Constable came to depict the stump of Hadleigh Castle (in 1828-29), he used paint so thick and jagged that it had the texture of aged stone.

So pervasive was the lure of ruins that in 1830 John Soane had the extraordinary idea of commissioning Joseph Gandy to paint his newly completed Bank of England as Roman remains. The picture, a metaphor of financial and physical collapse, shows Soane’s building as future archaeologists might find it – roofless, tumble-walled, a maze of decrepit rooms in which the purse strings of the British empire were once held.

Forty years later a Frenchman, Gustave Doré, expanded Gandy’s image of post-imperial decline: The New Zealander shows a visitor from the far side of the world sitting on the banks of a clogged and drying Thames, surveying the broken wharves of the city that cast a broken outline against the sky and the dome of St Paul’s decapitated and cracked like a boiled egg. Shelley’s Ozymandias has been brought to England from the desert.

Armstrong’s Coggeshall Church

James Boswell gave the idea a sinister twist in 1933 in a series of lithographs called The Fall of London, a product of the morbid interwar age. In these pictures, which eerily prefigure the Blitz, not only have London’s buildings been destroyed but they are overrun by a feral underclass of rapists, looters and marauders. Tiny figures scuttle in the rubble and a dead woman’s bare legs give a ghoulish flash of white in the dark. As the solidity of structures has given way, so, too, has the armature of society.

When the war did come, the destruction was too great for the picturesque mindset to survive. The likes of Graham Sutherland and John Piper documented the results of bombs and fire and responded to Rose Macaulay’s suggestion that Ruinenlust had come “full circle: we have had our fill”. It is perhaps no coincidence that John Armstrong’s small painting of the bombed tower of Coggeshall Church in Essex (1940), with the wooden structure of the bell tower ripped open to the skies, resembles a medical illustration of the human body with the skin peeled back to reveal the organs beneath.

The imminence of destruction learned in the 1940s has continued to affect numerous contemporary artists. For example, the exhibition includes Tacita Dean’s film Kodak. Having discovered in 2006 that the company was about to stop producing standard 16mm film, she bought some of the last stock and shot the production process at the company factory in Chalon-sur-Saône. Her film of the plant’s echoing linoleum corridors, pulsating machinery and antiquated circuit boards doubles as a requiem for a fast-disappearing industrial world.

Jane and Louise Wilson’s Azeville

Rachel Whiteread’s similarly elegiac sequence of photographs of the demolition of the tower blocks on Clapton Park Estate in east London is both an acknowledgement of the speed of urban decline (the buildings being blown up are relatively new, part of the postwar reconstruction of London) and a knowing reference to the melodramatic apocalyptic paintings of John Martin from the early 19th century. If Martin’s livid red panorama The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum of 1822, which opens the exhibition, is a lament for the end of a grand civilisation, Whiteread comments instead on the contemporary culture of obsolescence. The poignancy of her unlovely flats reduced to dust is muted; the past, she suggests, did better ruins than we can manage.

Webster in The Duchess of Malfi said of ruins: “We never tread upon them but we set/Our foot upon some reverend history.” This exhibition, drawn largely from the
Tate’s holdings (part of a contemporary trend to use existing resources in an imaginative way) vividly demonstrates that art has its own parallel history of building new work from the rubble of the old.

“Ruin Lust” runs until 18 May

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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