ENCHANTING RUIN: TINTERN ABBEY AND ROMANTIC TOURISM IN WALES
“Who has not read, heard, and dreamed of Tintern Abbey, examined prints and copied sketches, talked and listened about its beauties, till they seem to have been haunting the venerable ruin all their lives; I scarcely felt as if a spot could be unknown to memory there, even when thus approaching it for the first time.”
— Catherine Sinclair
Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, Wales has an iconic status within Romantic literature and art. It is also the most popular weekend destination in Britain today. Enchanting Ruin: Tintern Abbey and Romantic Tourism in Wales is about continuity.
My first exposure to Tintern Abbey was through Wordsworth’s well-known poem “Lines, Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July,13, 1798.” But the poem is a famously selective account of a spot the author sets at the heart of his emotional and artistic life. It is surprising to find that a work regarded as the epitome of a place is really more of a meditation tethered to place; the poetic equivalent, perhaps, of the tourist boats that once moored alongside the ruins on the River Wye banks. “Lines, Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” seems less a tribute to the site than a literary tributary winding past the Abbey’s quiet stone walls.
This exhibit recovers the richness and complexity of the Abbey as a place, destination, and symbol in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Wordsworth is present here as one witness among many to a site that exerted — and continues to exert — a tremendous pull on the popular imagination. I’ve come to see that Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” relies heavily upon a shared understanding of what the Abbey means and why it matters so much in his own era. Private speculation depends upon public consensus in this case.
Enchanting Ruin provides the viewer with a number of different lenses for examining the Abbey and its setting in the Romantic period. “Thoughts of More Deep Seclusion” treats the ruin as one component of a succesive tour through the Wye Valley region. “Wreaths of Smoke” examines Tintern as an industrial work-site and “Language of the Sense” as a subject for poetry. “Vagrant Dwellers” looks at the clash of expectation and experience found in travel writing, while the antiquarians and archeologists have their say in “Memory Be as a Dwelling Place.” The ruins of this 12th century Cisterian Abbey were owned in the era by the Dukes of Beaufort, and the nature of their stewardship of the monument is also considered here. Tintern Abbey as a subject for visual art is illustrated throughout the exhibition, but most particularly in a remarkable series of images by contemporary artist Alex McKay, taken through a Claude mirror. “An Eye Made Quiet” explores the history and influence of this optical instrument, while McKay’s The Wye Tour: Claude Mirror Images from Ross-on -Wye to Chepstow, 2001-2007 meditates upon an eighteenth-century way of seeing and its legacy.
Acute readers (that is, hard-core Wordsworthians) will have noticed that these various categories are named with phrases lifted from Wordsworth’s ode. The act of filling in behind and around this seminal poem is quite deliberate. Tintern was becoming a tourist destination by the early 1770s, decades before a visit might be seen as a natural investment for an ambitious writer or artist. Why were people so drawn to this spot? What did they hope or desire to find there? What did they actually see? What were they increasingly primed to see? I was curious too about the logistics of travel in the period and the related growth of a tourist infrastructure in the village.
A most useful source in this respect has been Charles Heath’s Historic and Descriptive Accounts of the Ancient and Present State of Tintern Abbey. A copy of the third edition was acquired by the Special Collections Library for this exhibition and is very active throughout Enchanting Ruin. Heath’s is a forthright, local voice that provides a counterpoint to the more fleeting impressions of visitors. As someone trying to herd Romantic tourists, he is obliged to be both practical and moony by turns. The guide itself, sold at Tintern and carried right in the Abbey, has a direct, material relationship to the site.
I hope that this exhibition recreates a communal sense of what Tintern Abbey signifies. I also hope it helps us recollect the importance of libraries and archives that allow us to travel in this fashion.
C. S. Matheson
University of Windsor