Review of Christopher Woodward's In Ruins: A Journey Through History, Art, and Literature

In Ruins - Christopher Woodward

This book is a compilation of quotes and history, with the author chiming in here and there about how he responds to and regards ruins. So you get tidbits like the following, about William Stukeley, who was later the first secretary of the Society of Antiquaries:


p. 130 "...his delight in the benefice was upset when he discovered that the vicars in the neighboring churches were busy whitewashing medieval frescos, removing stained glass, and installing new, pinewood pews. Stukeley's protests were in vain, and his only consolation was the news that owing to the dazzle of the new glass the Rev. Popple of St. Matin's was forced to wear dark spectacles when preaching - that, and being able to purchase a few colorful shards from the glazier who was carting away the smashed medieval glass. He installed these pieces in the windows of a mock-ruin built at the end of his garden..."


Said mock-ruin was fragile and didn't last, sadly. And that's only one of the stories of the mock ruins, along with the real ruins (of monasteries and other Catholic architecture that had been destroyed) that were scattered around the UK at the time.


There's more than just the UK covered; the section on the Roman Colosseum is fascinating. However this is an area where I began to be a bit confused with the author's idea of what a ruin is - with the overgrowth and feeling of abandonment/left to the elements gives a great atmosphere - and the concept that I have, which is that if there isn't conservation then you're not really thinking of the enjoyment of any but your own generation.


p. 68, chapter Ephesus without an Umbrella: "....Read that fond, boyish letter before you visit the Baths of Caracalla and I defy you not to be saddened - and then angered - by the bathos of the scene now. ...Passing through a steel perimeter fence tourists walk on tarmac paths between metal barriers, and underneath the arches scaffolding and trenches and desultory labourers in hard hats give the ruins the air of a modern construction site. ...The mosaic is being conserved - hence the grille - but however vigorously it is scrubbed the blue-black tesserae will never shine with such brightness again.


Beside me an American family is listening to a guide's recital of dates, measurements, and social history. They are interested, and dutiful, but do they have an inkling of the excitement possible when this bare brick chamber was tumbling, scented jungle? Frustrated I wander away from the path to sit on a piece of marble and face the sunshine. A guard blows his whistle, and alerts and archeologist who is supervising the removal of an impertinent young fig-tree from the perimeter wall. Judging by their expressions, the stubby grass under my feet is as precious as a painted fresco. With a limp shrug I return to the prescribed path. Really, I want to tell them about Shelley, about Bisham Wood....I want to tell them that a ruin has two values. ..."


(I'll skip over my feelings on how judging how people are reacting to a guide is a bad way to judge their knowledge or scholarly background. I was taught that it's not particularly nice to quiz or argue with guides and that questions are often best kept til end of the tour. Also sometimes there are history students hidden amongst what appear to be "mere" tourists. It's kind of odd to read a book in which multiple folk of old make an informed Grand Tour, and then having modern folk doing the same be assumed to be tourists who don't know their history. But meh, that's my bias. I was an American that once took a Grand Tour. And part of the history I'd learned had a lot to do with archeology.)


My view is that no matter how sterile some ancient sites may seem to be once the archeologists have come in and made sure that everyone doesn't sit and step all over things (that, you know, might be ruined to the point of not being there in the distant future), the point is that with such folk tending the structure it actually might last longer. It's no good mocking those of previous centuries who let sheep graze in ruins and carried off stones to construct other buildings for not seeing the great building that was gradually being destroyed, if you're then going to then huff over archeologists and conservators changing the place so that it's not the same and thus somehow "ruining" the ruin. Picturesque is not the point for archeology.


Ok, that rant over. Note that I love a picturesque ruin myself, especially a folly or a temple, if you have the money to build that kind of thing. The book covers these sorts of folk too, laughing (understandable!) at the idea that the actual ruin isn't picturesque enough, and has to either be changed, or a new one built.


One of the things I really enjoyed most about this book was stopping to look up more information on various architects, authors, etc. There's a wealth of history in this book, but also hints that you might want to peruse more history to learn more about certain people - and I can never resist that sort of thing.For example, describing an architect designing a folly for Lord Lyttelton's Hagley Hall:


p. 127-128 "...[Sanderson] Miller drew an impression of the castle on its wooded knoll, and a series of elevations whose raggedness he sketched with the zest of someone tearing a piece of paper. Certainly he used no compass or set-square. Construction did not begin until 1767, however, by which time Miller had gone mad."


I can't just leave things at that - I must find out more! So off to wikipedia, but under Sanderson Miller there's nothing about his madness. However the Internet Archive does have a book of his correspondence. And in an online copy of a dissertation (Sanderson Miller of Radway 1716 - 1780 Architect, Dissertation by H. W. Hawkes, 1964) is the sentence:


"Unfortunately after 1760, when Miller suffered from an attack of insanity, he achieved little of importance."


His diaries end in 1756 (source), prior to the madness. But that's all I've found so far, but I haven't read the entire dissertation yet. (I'm still poking around online for more info.)


A more satisfying example is this one:


p. 115 "...The leading advocate of the Revival was the architect Augustus Welby Pugin, whose most easily recognized achievement is the neo-Gothic ornamentation he designed for the new Houses of Parliament. A devout Catholic polemicist who wore medieval clothes in his design studio, Pugin died hysterical and frustrated at the age of forty, in 1852."


And on Pugin's wikipedia page:


"...In February 1852, while traveling with his son Edward by train, Pugin suffered a total breakdown and arrived in London unable to recognize anyone or speak coherently. For four months he was confined to a private asylum, Kensington House. In June, he was transferred to the Royal Bethlem Hospital, popularly known as Bedlam. ...Jane [Pugin's wife] and a doctor removed Pugin from Bedlam and took him to a private house in Hammersmith where they attempted therapy, and he recovered sufficiently to recognize his wife. In September, Jane took her husband back to The Grange in Ramsgate, where he died on 14 September 1852."


There's another paragraph with theories as to what caused the illness. And this is the kind of "immediate answer to my question" that I really love.


You can see in these two examples that Woodward is giving you great little glimpses of historical information, which, if you find the person/place/etc. interesting, you can't help but want to research further. There's already quite a lot of information in the text, so I don't begrudge these little teases (you have to edit somewhere), and in fact enjoyed the read all the more for them. If I wasn't reading while near a computer and the internet I'd possibly feel differently about that. (Probably not, I'd just make a To Look Up list.)


The book's Notes section at the end is also full of many resources, and I either added books to my wish list or gleefully found them available online as free ebooks. (This is one of those dangerous books as far as adding to my To Read stacks, even if some stacks aren't taking up physical space.]


Oh and now that I've read the last:


p 251, from the Acknowledgements page: " book is not intended to address the practical issues of how to open archeological sites to the public but, rather, to show what a source of inspiration reuins have been in earlier centuries. Whether or not readers agree with my views is less important than if this book reminds them of their own enjoyment of ruins."


Which makes me sigh and wonder why he didn't end the earlier chapter (Ephesus without an Umbrella) with this.


Even with my annoyances with the author and his feelings towards archeological preservation, I really enjoyed this book. Intensely. It was every other page that had me stopping to look something up or see if I could find out more about an author, a historical site, or a book with further information. And it's definitely a book I plan to revisit and read portions of again.