Tintern in the Romantic Age


Romanticism & Ruins

“a very inchanting piece of ruin. Nature has now made it her own. Time has worn off all traces of the rule: it has blunted the sharp edges of the chisel; and broken the regularity of opposing parts”
— William Gilpin, Observations on the River Wye, 1782.

Tintern Abbey, one of the earliest communities of Cistercian or “white monks” in Wales, was founded by Walter fitz Richard de Clare in 1131. Following its suppression by Henry VIII in 1536, the Abbey passed into the possession of Henry Somerset, second Earl of Worcester. Lead from its roof and other building materials were salvaged (or scavenged) and tenements leased out around and within the monastic buildings.52 Over the course of two centuries the abbey was allowed to fall into ruin.

When “rediscovered” in the late eighteenth century it was prized, paradoxically, for its degree of preservation. Although now roofless, the walls had remained entire. Some of the windows, like the great, seven-light west window, had retained their delicate gothic tracery. Thomas Whateley in Observations on Modern Gardening notes “In the ruins of Tintern Abbey, the original construction of the church is perfectly marked; and is principally from this circumstance that they are celebrated as a subject of curiosity and contemplation.” The pleasurable melancholy brought on by contemplation of the Abbey’s past glory, combined with the effect of its picturesque setting, proved a heady emotional combination for Romantic tourists.

Tintern Abbey was excavated in 1756 at the behest of its owner, Henry Somerset, the fifth Duke of Beaufort, shortly after his succession to the title. Beaufort was lauded in the period for his advanced notions of architectural conservation. Continuing work begun by his father, he ordered the site cleared, a turf floor planted throughout and the relics piled in heaps; the perimeter was fenced and gated and a local steward (Mr. Gethen or Gething, landlord of the nearby Beaufort Arms hotel) appointed to superintend visitors.

Some of the methods employed in the excavation of the Abbey are rather hair-raising by modern standards. Under a team headed by William Knowles, a builder from Chepstow, the floor of the Abbey was taken down to the original level of the pavement. Heath notes that “useful” material was salvaged and “rubble” from this excavation was tipped into the River Wye. He also admits that the occasional artifact was sold to passing tourists. A Mr. Sanders of Chepstow reportedly acquired some lovely sculptures for his garden in this manner. Decades later Samuel Ireland, artist and author of Picturesque Views on the River Wye (1797 bought an ancient coin from the daughter of a stone mason involved in the original clearing work.53

Many travelers in the period note that specimens of the abbey floor tile could be found in village houses. The local doctor, W. H. Thomas, complained in the 1830s that he saw remnants of an Abbey wall recycled into a pigsty.54

The depredations of nature herself were a more serious matter. One much-praised feature of the ruins was the mass of ivy and other vegetation clinging to the abbey walls. William Gilpin describes these “ornaments of time” approvingly and admired how their tints contrasted the tones of the sandstone. A rare voice of dissent comes, fittingly, from an architect named W. A. Brooks. Visiting around 1802 with a party who viewed “the green mantling ivy covering the major part of the whole pile, as constituting Tintern’s chief delight”, W. A. Brooks fretted instead about “its sapping devastations carrying into the very core of each wall”.

Tintern Abbey was purchased by the Crown from the 9th Duke of Beaufort in 1901 and passed to the Office of Works in 1913-14. The ivy was removed during an extensive restoration scheme completed in 1928. Today the site is under the care of Cadw, the Welsh heritage organization.

image of page from Francis Grose: Antiquities of England and Wales S. Hooper, artist; S. Sparrow engraver
“Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire”. Dec. 1, 1784. From Francis Grose: Antiquities of England and Wales. Volume 3 of 8. New edition
London: S. Hooper, [1783]- 1787

Francis Grose, antiquary, lexicographer, and bon vivant, spent twenty years in the army and squandered a fortune before his classical education reasserted itself. Antiquities of England and Wales is an enormous work consisting of 8 volumes with 636 plates; comparable in scale, one likes to think, to the physical and social stature of Grose himself. The work was originally issued in 60 parts between 1772 and 1776, followed by a supplement and the Antiquities of Scotland 1789-91. Many of the illustrations were executed by Grose, although this plate was drawn by S. Hooper and engraved by S. Sparrow. It depicts the west door through which visitors in this period entered the Abbey.

Grose expresses qualified enthusiasm for Tintern Abbey in the Antiquities. While acknowledging the lightness and elegance of the interior, he felt that it wanted “that gloomy solemnity so essential to religious ruins; those yawning vaults and dreary recesses which strike the beholder with a religious awe, and make him almost shudder at entering them, calling into his mind all the tales of the nursery.” Like Gilpin, Grose also decried “the ill-placed neatness of the poor people who shew the building: by whose absurd labour the ground is covered over with a turf as even and trim as that of a bowling green, which gives the building more the air of an artificial ruin in a garden, than that of an ancient decayed abbey.” The debate about the appropriateness of planting a turf floor within a monastical ruin will actually rattle on for the better part of a century!

image of page from Observations on Modern Gardening
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Thomas Whateley
Observations on Modern Gardening, Illustrated by Descriptions. Fifth edition
London: T. Payne, 1793

Author, politician and garden theorist Thomas Whateley first published this influential treatise in 1770. He discusses the aesthetic of the ruin, using Tintern Abbey as an example. “Whatever building we see in decay, we naturally contrast its present to its former state, and delight to ruminate on the comparison,” which calls up agreeable “sensations of regret, of veneration, or compassion.” Tintern Abbey is exemplary because “Nothing is perfect; but memorials of every part still subsist; all certain, but all in decay; and suggesting, at once, every idea which can occur in a seat of devotion, solitude and desolation.” Whateley also offers suggestions for the construction of artificial ruins in private pleasure-grounds. Some of his advice was taken up by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.55

image of page from Thomas Hearne: <i>Antiquities of Great-Britain Thomas Hearne, artist. William Byrne engraver
“The West Window & Entrance of the Church of Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire.” Nov.1, 1804. Dedicated to the Duke of Beaufort
From Thomas Hearne: Antiquities of Great-Britain, Illustrated in Views of Monasteries, Castles, and Churches, Now Existing. Vol.1 of 2
London: Printed by J. Phillips and published by T. Hearne and W. Byrne, 1786-1807

Thomas Hearne, watercolour painter, topographical artist, and member of the Society of Antiquaries, visited the Wye valley in the late 1780s and again in 1794 with his friend and patron Sir George Beaumont.56 His drawing for this lovely plate of the west window and entrance was made in 1794. It communicates a far more dramatic sense of the Abbey’s wildness and isolation than Grose’s relatively prosaic view a decade before.

Hearne wrote approvingly of the situation and interior of the Abbey: “the perspective of it uncommonly beautiful, arches obscured by foliage, or edged by the tendrils of ivy, walls, clustered columns, and divisions of aisles, shaded by tufts and wreaths, every thing impressing the mind with the idea of decay, but offering shattered memorials of former grandeur.”

The Antiquities of Great Britain was a collaborative project between Hearne and the engraver William Byrne. 52 plates were issued between 1778 and 1776 and further 32 after 1796. Aimed at cultured and "high-brow" readers, the work had a significant role in disseminating an appreciation of the gothic style.57

image of page from Pursuits of Architectural Innovation, no. XLVII
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[W.A. Brooks]
“Tintern Abbey.” Pursuits of Architectural Innovation, no. XLVII
The Gentleman’s Magazine, April 1802, pp.300-303

Brooks dramatizes several threats facing the Abbey by characterizing visitors at the site. The stock figure of the Tourist Who Knows His Gilpin feels, predictably, that the interior requires a little more picturesque destruction. He is followed by a pert squire full of classical rules and disdainful of native Gothic architecture, who thinks “a good knock-down blow from a 16 pounder [cannon] should settle the whole business.” Another practical gent proposes that the “rubbish” round the site—ribs, groins, carved bosses, fragments of sculpture &c —should be carted off for building work. Members of Brooks’s own party who love the picturesque effect of the overgrown walls are hardly more enlightened. Brooks however praises Beaufort as a worthy guardian the monument. He also notes that for artists, the Abbey is “the chief model in the land for enriching their scenic knowledge, and ensuring pecuniary rewards from their well-selected imitations of its various parts.”

image of page from Heath's Historical and Descriptive Accounts of ... Tintern Abbey Ichnography of the Church of Tintern
Reproduced from Charles Heath: Historical and Descriptive Accounts of the Ancient and Present State of Tintern Abbey. Third edition
Monmouth: Charles Heath, 1803
image of page from The Beauties of England and Wales E. Dayes and J.C. Smith, artists.John Le Keux, engraver
“Tintern Abbey, Looking West, Monmouthshire”. Engraving
From John Britton and Edward Wedlake Brayley. The Beauties of England and Wales; or, Delineations, Topographical, Historical, and Descriptive, of Each County. Vol. 15 of 18
London: Verner & Hood etc., 1801-1815

The Beauties of England and Wales was an ambitious project that would eventually run to 27 volumes. It was published serially and directed to a general market, rather than the gentry and upper middle class that usually formed the audience for antiquarian works.60 This plate is typical of the superior illustrations throughout the volume. It was drawn by J. C. Smith and Edward Dayes, whose view Tintern Abbey, from Across the Wye is also in this exhibition. “Tintern Abbey, Looking West” mediates between architectural information and the atmospheric effect of the ruins. This mediation is also played out in the staffage of the scene, as a rustic figure with a scythe moves toward the scholarly figure of a seated man holding a drawing.

Britton relates in his Autobiography that he visited Tintern three times himself, although he contended with wretched weather on each occasion. His first trip was a pedestrian tour in 1798, when he literally followed in the footsteps of Richard Warner, author of A Walk through Wales. Lodging as Warner did at the Beaufort Arms in Tintern, he was awaked in his ground-floor chamber by the sound of a cascade that had forced itself through his room and down the stairs.61

image of page from The Antiquarian and Topographical Cabinet James Storer
Titlepage, Volume 1
From The Antiquarian and Topographical Cabinet; Containing a Series of Elegant Views of the Most Interesting Objects of Curiosity in Great Britain. 6 vols
London: J. Murray etc., 1817-1819
image of page from The Antiquarian and Topographical Cabinet James Storer
“Tintern Abbey,” Volume 6
From The Antiquarian and Topographical Cabinet; Containing a Series of Elegant Views of the Most Interesting Objects of Curiosity in Great Britain. 6 vols
London: J. Murray etc., 1817-1819

The engraver James Storer published these volumes serially over a period of several years. The issues consist of a number of small engravings, each accompanied by a few pages of letter-press. Often the text is cribbed from the work of earlier antiquarians such as Francis Grose and Thomas Hearne. The historian Rosemary Sweet regards the Antiquarian and Topographical Cabinet as part of an early nineteenth century trend towards making antiquarian material more accessible and affordable.62

image of page from Ancient Reliques, or Delineations of Monastic, Castellated & Domestic Architecture C. Turner, artist; J. Greig engraver
“Interior of Tintern Abbey Church.” Engraving
From James Storer, et al: Ancient Reliques, or Delineations of Monastic, Castellated & Domestic Architecture. Volume 2 of 5
London: W. Clarke etc., 1812-1813
image of oil painting James Ward
Tintern Abbey
Oil on canvas. [Reproduction]
From original in University of Michigan Museum of Art. Original size: 61.4cm x 92.1cm.

James Ward, R.A., is a painter and engraver known primarily for his depictions of animals, rustic genre scenes and landscapes, although he made some notable excursions into history painting as well. Ward first visited Wales in 1802 through a commission from the Board of Agriculture to paint portraits of livestock. A watercolour view of the Abbey dated 1807 may belong to this preliminary tour.63 Tintern Abbey, exhibited in 1838 at the British Institution with its pair The Wire Mill at Tintern, brings together several characteristic elements of his practice.64

Ward depicts the Abbey’s west entrance and window bathed in the light of sunset. (Compare his treatment to images in Alex McKay’s Wye Tour). The last segment of the day provides an evocative counterpart to the antiquity of the structure. Sunset at Tintern Parva, situated in a mountain valley and on along a northerly latitude of 51 degrees, does not happen with tropical abruptness but rather gradually and lingeringly. Ward muses on different senses of duration here.

The tone of the painting is elegiac, shading into the sublime as the eye travels towards the hidden recesses of the ruin and the sweep of approaching night. Ward balances the solemn grandeur of the Abbey with a more natural tendency to record details of the everyday — the traditional red cloaks worn by Welsh women, the little conversations brought on by evening, a giddy dog racing a fine, stable-bound horse. A viewer raised on representations of Tintern Abbey would find enough melancholy and monumentality here to satisfy their expectations. But what Ward really celebrates are the little eddies of local, humble life that swirl about the base of the brooding structure. Charles Heath would cheer.