The Romance of Ruins

Travelling up to the Midlands, I visit the ruins of Witley Court in Worcestershire. It’s rare to come across the ruin of a home rather than of a castle or church, but this building is precisely that; a country house that burned down in the nineteen thirties leaving it as a shattered shell. Photos taken in the nineteen sixties show it as a rather romantic ruin, with trees growing up inside the walls in the absence of the ceiling. The ruins present a rather more prosaic aspect under the custodianship of English Heritage, with concrete supports having been brought in to support the towers. I visit on a rather cold, damp and overcast day that seems to contrast rather oddly with the mouldings above the windows on the Italianate facade or with the Carton Pierre decorations that still survives on the interior. Once one has passed up the stairs to that gaping hole previously occupied by the entrance door and underneath the ionic columns of the north portico, what remains of the ‘interior’ presents a rather different character. The house dated back to the Jacobean period and had subsequently undergone extensive modification over the years, with Nash making extensive changes only for it to be changed again in the Victorian period and made to look more like Osborne house. As one passes through the skeleton of the ruins, the view changes from the stained yellow facade to the dark red bricks of the earliest buildings. Victoriana gives way to Regency, which gives way in turn to the original Jacobean structure. Walking through it feels like an autopsy. From the garden, much of the house looks surprisingly intact, excepting the empty windows, as with a conservatory that survived the fire only to be stripped of its iron and steel later, leaving only stone arches behind. Much of the structure has been tidied and stabilised but one can still look through some gaping holes and see nothing but rubble overgrown with weeds. A few days earlier, I’d visited the ruins of Godstow Nunnery. Dissolved in the reformation, it seems to have become a part of the landscape, its walls overgrown with weeds. Witley Court still seems artificial.

One thing that did survive the fire was a parish church built by James Gibbs. It’s a rather unexpected building, with the interior decorated with painted glass, gilded stucco mouldings, Rysbrack monuments and ceilings frescos; the result is vastly more ornate than the majority of English Baroque (something assisted by some Victorian high church modifications; Salviati mosaics and angel sculptures) but the predominant contrast of white and gold is still rather more austere than German or Italian rococo.

The following day I visit Walsall’s new art gallery. A rather unimaginative cube designed in the ‘Ikea nuclear bunker’ style, it was intended to herald a regeneration the rather grim surroundings still seem to be waiting for. Formed as a result of the German-Ryan bequest (the circle around Jacob Epstein), the gallery does have the stamp of individual taste. Like Modigliani, Epstein was interested in ethnographic art and much of the collection is given up to Inuit eagle totems made of whalebone, a mask of Nefertiti, Cameroonian wood carvings of leopard, Roman and Peruvian busts, Maori greenstone, a Soanish wood carving of christ. This is completed by a taste in modern art that follows along similar lines; Modigliani caryatid drawings or Gauguin woodcuts. Finally, much of the collection is taken up with works by Epstein, Theo German, Lucien Freud and Sally Ryan. Esptein dominates with his early vorticist Study for Rock Drill, a fusion of man and machine that revolted him in the aftermath of the second world war. His later work becomes more akin to folk-art, as with his proto-Assyrian Study for the tomb of Oscar Wilde and the various bronze busts. It’s a odd combination; naturalistic in a way that Hepworth or Moore were not, unfinished enough to be quite distinct from the classical tradition. I find myself more taken with his painting, especially an autumnal landscape; it becomes easy to understand the presence of landscapes by Monet, Constable and Corot in the collection. Some of the works from his circle are quite striking; Freud’s portrait of Kitty Garmam is counterposed with a recent photograph of her in the same intense pose.

The collection is organised thematically rather by chronology or nation, a choice that gives it a rather wunderkammeresque air. Blake’s engraving of Jacob’s Letter is placed near to a work on the same theme by Burne-Jones. Blake’s Death of the Virgin appears near to a work on the same theme by Rembrandt. The section on figure studies counterpoints Modigliani, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Roman statuary of grotestque drawings by Goya and Odilon Redon. The landscape section contrasts Monet, Renoir, Bonnard and Corot with Contstable, country scenes with townscapes from Meryon, Turner and Sickert. Portraits counterpoints Reynolds with Freud and Degas. Religion juxtaposes Blake, Epstein and Durer. Interspersed amongst these are various modern works; black and white woodland paintings by George Shaw, a Cloud Study by Matt and Ross after the nearby Constable painting. The gallery is holding a small exhbition of Blake paintings at the time of my visit, showing his responses to Young’s Night Thoughts and Dante. Young appears to have relatively close to a fellow-spirit, with Blake echoing his criticism of an age more curious than devout (the painting shows two girls with compass and telescope, but in a depiction of Christ in his father’s workshop, the young christ is also shown with compass in a fusion of reason and imagination; that particular work made an interesting contrast with Holman Hunt). Dante appears rather less so, with a sinister cast given to his depiction of the recording angel, which appears in the same character as Death in one of the other works. The central theme is angels, shown in some contexts as conventionally celestial, in some as sinister agents of a tyrant god and in some as creatures of energy and rage (as in The Good and Evil Angels).

Returning back down south, I visit another small exhibition at Reading Museum, this time of Richard Dadd paintings. Many of the works are simply genre pieces. Some show his experiences with the army in the Middle East. Other illustrate historical scenes of medieval battles or incidents from Shakespeare’s history plays. But I’m quite struck by two of them; one an allegory of deceit showing an old woman wearing the mask of younger woman. She holds a skull and the base of her seat shows the temptation of Eve. It could be a Watts painting. The other shows a tomb in a wooded scene, a statue of a blind woman at the centre, with a robed skeleton above, as an allegory of grief. Looking around, I pay particular attention to the capitals from Reading Abbey, one showing the green man, to various Victorian sculptures (by Tweed and Rodin) and one of Richard Gibbings which clearly shows the influence of Gill.

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