Romantic at Heart

Romantic at heart: a study into the relationship between Ruins and the Sublime in British Art between 1770-1830

The Picturesque, although emerging as part of the Romantic Movement, can be characterised through its sterile approach to Ruins. Appreciation was largely aesthetic and about form; its earliest examples were based on Claudean presets yet soon evolved to exclude the need for knowledge of   Augustan poetry or classical romance as part of their appreciation.

Developing as early as 1740, and possibly inspired by the new approaches to Gothic architecture, was a parallel movement inspired by Horace Walpole’s ‘exercise in domesticized nostalgia’-Strawberry Hill. [1] This example of performed architecture worked in a similar manner to Robert Adam’s capriccios, in that it required an open mind acquainted to the latest sensibilities  to be understood whilst also demonstrating the powers of architecture to create a particular atmosphere which further inspired associations in the observer’s mind. Authors too, would capitalise on this notion and use the Gothic as a style of architecture that was well suited to their gothic novels as seen in Walpole’s ‘Castle of Otranto’ (1764) and Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ (1794) particularly for their ‘mood-setting’ abilities. These ‘mood-setting’ abilities find their roots in the ‘theory of association’ developed by John Locke, and later promulgated by Richard Payne Knight in the Picturesque Movement. [2]

Knight recognises the important role of the senses yet supplements this theory by stating the highest pleasures are to be found in the excitement of the mind:

…ruined buildings… afford pleasure to every learned beholder, imperceptible to the ignorant, and wholly independent of their real beauty, or pleasing impressions, which they make on the organs of sight… The mind is led by the view of them into the most pleasing trains of ideas…This sort of scenery we call romantic [3]

Knight identifies this as romantic precisely because it shares the same creative process and method of association that can be witnessed upon reading good prose or poetry. [4]

The amalgamation of the Picturesque style along with the ‘theory of association’ introduced the possibility for deep expression championing the original Romantic Movement values; many of which aimed to reinstate Nature as the rightful conquerer of Man – a sublime thought in its own right. It is also at this point that the Ruin is given its romantic value back, this time not to be associated with Man’s greatness and Beauty; but as an entity with its own intrinsic sublime value, yet also a flexible one which increasingly became a symbol of Nature’s domination of Man. This essay aims to explore the relationship between the Ruin and the Sublime by exploring various pertinent eighteenth and nineteenth century sources and contextual data corroborated with artworks from this period.

The story of the Sublime is rekindled in Britain by about 1736 by virtue of the reassessment of previous ancient works such as Longinus’ ‘Peri Hypsous’ text. [5]  The contributions of philosophers such as Hume, Baille and Addison brought around a shift from the ancient, rhetorical notions of the sublime to the more substantial analysis of the Sublime genre which in turn split into two camps: the Natural Sublime and later still, the Romantic Sublime. The former was concerned with internalised emotions of terror usually inspired by nature; whilst the Romantic sublime employed more vigour to the subject by charging it with emotion, genius, imagination and ‘all those things that exceed a literature based on rules and convention.’ [6] [7]

One such philosopher who took it upon himself to define the undefinable was Edmund Burke. He sustained that the Sublime was felt to be like ‘…astonishment – that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended….it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force.’ [8] In his treatise Burke states that the sensation of the Sublime is far more powerful than that of Beauty specifically because of it directly threatens Man’s self-preservation – his most basic instinct. He analysed factors which he believed to induce Sublimity either when experienced in their entirety or combined together and narrowed them down to: darkness, vastness, suddenness, magnificence, pain, deprivation, obscurity and loudness. The primary emotional responses these would trigger in Man would be those of pain, fear, overwhelming, shock, confusion, lack of vision, helplessness and uncertainty. The key to this experience however was that it was all kept as a mental and sensory journey without ever truly materialising and becoming life threatening in itself.

Although this might seem somewhat removed from modern day sensibilities, one only need think back to their first 3D, surround sound, thrilling cinematic experience to understand the concept of what artists and observers alike were pleasurably seeking in their own eighteenth century context. [9] This idea-that fear could be a pleasurable emotion-was typical of the late eighteenth century. ‘The public had developed the cultural ability to discern between types of fear, by separating those that arose from the prospect of actual harm from those that involved no bodily danger.’ [10] The appreciation for melancholic states of mind can be traced to as early as 1740 with the emergence of Graveyard Poetry; and the popular gothic novels (mentioned above) became further exploited through the theatre’s commercialization powers in the 1790s which catered for the public’s desire for gothic drama. [11] Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Britain had also witnessed an upsurge in Occult thinking and Masonic interest particularly between 1760 and 1800. [12] [13] This gothic fascination with the inexplicable, unknown and uncanny not only inspired shifts towards the darker recesses of the      psyche, but introduced and taunted the artist and writer with a new sense of liberation, freedom and boundless imagination reflecting what would become the Romantic Sublime. [14] Anna Laetitia     Barbauld’s letter dated 1773 presents such sentiments:

‘A strange and unexpected event awakens the mind, and keeps it on the stretch…our imagination, darting forth, explores with rapture the new world which is laid open to its view, and rejoices in the expansion of its powers. Passion and fancy co-operating elevate the soul to its highest pitch; and the pain of terror is lost in amazement’. [15]

The visual arts proved no different from the literary ones.  Eloquently put in Latin – ‘ut pictura poesis’ and vic-versa applies. How does the artist paint a sensation that one experiences when no vocabulary can truly encapsulate its definition? Exactly the same situation can be exemplified by trying to encapsulate all the greatness and essence of God in an artwork or in language. It is impossible. However, thanks to certain symbolic conventions along with artistic techniques employed by the artist, the theory of association implies that the imagination can do the rest of the deciphering to ultimately lead to better convincing notions of God.

When Burke defined the various causes for Sublimity he indirectly gave artists the tools necessary for which to both paint the subject (Sublime theme) whilst helping them induce it through their artwork’s composition(Sublime feeling). For example, he states that ‘all edifices calculated to produce an idea of the sublime, ought rather to be dark and gloomy’ because darkness in itself is ‘known by experience to have a greater effect on the passions’ than light and that to increase the darkness there must be an element of transition between light and dark. [16] [17] One to counterbalance the other. This contrast can be seen in both CAT.7: Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, Philosopher in a Moonlit Churchyard, 1790, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 68.6 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, USA, B1974.3.4 (Bridgeman Images) and CAT.5: Joseph Wright of Derby, An Idealized View of Vesuvius from Posillipo, with Ruins and a Tower, Seen by Moonlight, ca. 1788, oil on canvas, 36.83 x 52.71 cm, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, USA, 94.2, (image sourced from the public domain). Loutherbourg in his  Philosopher in a Moonlit Churchyard ( 1790) applies this style of lighting to create obscurity, gloom, depth and contrast. This can be seen between the moonlit clouds and the ruined gothic facade in the background, which conveniently at its centre and base, consists of the darkest part of the canvas, creating space for the mind to wonder in the depths.  This in turn is amplified by the brightness shining down on the visitor and the edifice he is facing – similar to the technique of ‘repoussé’[18]. The motifs of the unearthed tomb and skulls in the foreground of the painting can only amplify whatever the darkness holds. In Wright’s An Idealized View of Vesuvius from Posillipo, with Ruins and a Tower, Seen by Moonlight (ca. 1788) however, the moonlight seems to adopt more of a romantic connotation than the dramatic light used by Loutherbourg. Whilst Wright’s full moon also adds for sharp contrast to the generic castle ruin in the middle distance, it seems to be more of an associational device made to go in hand with the nocturnal picturesque idiom.

Joseph Wright of Derby, An Eruption of Vesuvius, seen from Portici

Fig.3.1: Joseph Wright of Derby, An Eruption of Vesuvius, seen from Portici, c.1774-6, oil on canvas, (no dimensions) University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, Wales (Bridgeman Images)

It might inspire curiosity as to the plot taking place especially with the boat in the foreground and castles in the distance. It might also allude to the deep unsettling beauty of nature and was chosen as a preferred source of lighting out of its own sublime energy which could amplify further the other great feature of nature –  the forever brooding Vesuvius in the background. Because the plot is unclear, one’s imagination already begins to attempt to decipher every aspect of the painting without satiating its desire for clarity. By contrast, Fig.3.1: Joseph Wright of Derby, An Eruption of Vesuvius, seen from Portici, c.1774-6, oil on canvas, (no dimensions) University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, Wales (Bridgeman Images) not only illustrates  a more turbulent and immense Vesuvius (therefore increasing the sublimity factor) but also shows that ruins were just one out of several significant vehicles for the Sublime! Other subjects could include (but not be limited to) deep chasms, violent storms, avalanches, rough seas and towering mountain ranges. In CAT.8: Anthony Copley Fielding, A Storm Passing Off on the Coast of Merionethshire, 1818, oil on canvas, 134.6 x 198.8 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, USA, B1973.1.16 (Bridgeman Images) the viewer is given a sense of scale through the use of staffage, which immediately brings awareness to the colossal size of the surrounding mountain range.

Henry Fuseli, The Artist in Despair over the Magnitude of Antique Fragments, 1778/80

Fig.3.2: Henry Fuseli, The Artist in Despair over the Magnitude of Antique Fragments, 1778/80, red chalk and sepia wash on paper, (no dimensions) Kunsthaus, Zurich, Switzerland (Bridgeman Images)

These alone can cause discomfort to the observer especially after noticing the scale difference between them and the generic manmade structure now in ruin to the right of the painting. The combination of sunlight, pouring rain, the calm lake and passing storm all in the same landscape cause an element of confusion and amplify the living power of Nature to a point that makes the viewer feel insignificant -an excellent example of the Natural Sublime genre.

Although the Ruin might seem physically less intimidating than a bad storm or a volcano erupting, it nonetheless managed to match (if not surpass) them as a device for inspiring sublimity thanks to its complex associations invoked by the imagination. Unlike the Natural Sublime, the Romantic sublime did not require natural elements to feature within it and could therefore focus on other aspects of the ruin’s nature along with its own.

As mentioned above, the Romantic Sublime could be defined by a particular vigour given to an artwork, usually a mix of dramatic emotion, freedom from rules/presets and  original content (or manner through which it represented an idea). Similarly, the Ruin in its own nature expressed such sublime aesthetics and characteristics; it aroused strong emotions, often a complex mix of sensual, pathetic and nostalgic effects whilst its sheer scale and age would introduce the sublime aspects of grandeur and vastness often incomprehensive to the observer.

An example of the sublimity these monuments of the past could create can be seen in Fig.3.2: Henry Fuseli, The Artist in Despair over the Magnitude of Antique Fragments, (1778/80). Here, the artist is shown in a dramatic state of despair as the title suggests.  With one hand on the colossal foot and the other against his brow, the artist is playing upon the ruins ‘irrevocable past weighted down by loss’ and the pathos caused by this. [19]

This early example of Romantic Sublime art also shows the flexible and creative approach of this genre; as can be seen by both the ruined fragments and artist who seem to be bathed in a Neoclassical aura. This, combined with dramatic emotional and overwhelming power, creates an artwork that is in its very essence original to the eighteenth century context. It reminds the observer that the style did not develop in a biome of its own and that artists ‘rarely consciously allied themselves with a particular movement’. [20] The application of imagination in the Romantic Sublime style meant that boundaries between styles became vague and that form of representation and content chosen could be interchanged according to the artist desire. [21] Richard Payne Knight defined this imaginative process as: ‘all these extra pleasures…pre-existing trains of ideas are revived, refreshed, and reassociated by new, but correspondent impressions on the organs of sense…’ and continues by saying that it is specifically this that gives ‘supernatural force and energy’ to an image which ‘tends to raise the mind above the contemplation of ordinary nature.’ [22] [23]

A work of such genius is CAT.12; Joseph Michael Gandy, Bird’s-eye view of the Bank of England, 1830, watercolour on paper, 725 x 1290 cm, Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, P267 ( © Courtesy of Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum, Bridgeman Images). Here the artist combines visionary skill, drama and thrilling emotion by portraying the Bank of England in ruin. The state of ruin inspires post-apocalyptic associations, suggested by the presence of a crater in the earth  (left hand side of the work) and the extensively ruined complex which appears to be partially overgrown. The curious bird’s-eye view not only alludes to Gandy’s excellent draughtsman skills in perspectives, but also positions the observer safely out of harm’s way. In essence this painting is not dissimilar to earlier capriccios designed by Neoclassical artist-architects whose objectives did not only serve to visualise, illustrate and render but were dedicated to invention and creativity-‘to craft and paint in four dimensions-space, time, reality and imagination’. [24] The ruin because of its power to ‘traffic more than one timeframe at a go allows it to be free from rules’, therefore having in its power the ability to inspire one’s thoughts of the past, present and of a future that never took place. [25] Here, Gandy applies this notion of timelessness to his artwork by creating an open-ended scenario; one which not only draws in and engages the observer emotionally and aesthetically but adds further tension by causing an added shock factor upon the realisation that this could be a possible scenario at any given moment in the observer life, ensuring the ‘strong(est) impression to cause sublimity.’ [26]

Whether a reminder of vanishing materiality, the failures of man, a symbol for a melancholic state of mind or an opportunity for their observer to wander in wonder in the abbeys of the mind; the Ruin like all other vehicles for the Sublime becomes it and imposes its sensory experience on all its subjects. Later in the nineteenth century the taste for the Ruin as inducers of the sublime remains, yet evolves, from the relatively familiar British of Grand Tour ruin to those more Oriental in nature with the capacity for adding further romance and obscurity to the mind of the observer. Today, the Ruin remains unchanging in its ever complex system of connotations and it is probably rooted in this that war crimes on such structures take place-to cause terror and shatter dreams.

Concluding thoughts:

In the context of British Fine Art between 1770 and 1830 it is possible to find several artistic styles developing in parallel, namely those of the Neoclassical, Picturesque and Sublime; however it is evident that artists, like Fuseli and Wright of Derby, explored the territories in-between these styles eventually amalgamating them as seen with the subgenera such of the Romantic Sublime and the Natural Sublime. The former, emerging out of the Italianate notion of combining Romance and the interpretation of Ruins, whilst the latter from a combination of Picturesque appreciation for the landscape infused with the theory of associations for added depth.

As already established, the Ruin’s value was highest where its visually recondite aesthetic was combined with a didactic, moral and romantic function, all of which were present in the Romantic Neoclassical genre. The Picturesque Movement effectively cleansed all these traits apart from the ruin down to mere aesthetic, in turn crippling the ruin value. However, in the Natural Sublime and Romantic Sublime the ruin value has been reinstated through the reintroduced vital role of the imagination paired with stimulation like never before.

A curious pattern comes to light at this point. Could the rejection of the Romantic Neoclassical by the Picturesque Movement have inspired a reactionary Movement to evolve separately? Could the Romantic Movement be credited for creating both a rebel child (Picturesque) and a protégé (Sublime) – the latter making up for the discrepancy uncovered in the second essay. Recalling the Latin phrase ‘ut pictura poesis’ again, could a further, in-depth analysis of the development in the sister art of poetry corroborate this? Could the British Picturesque poetry that slowly converted the Augustan poetry have been an aid in the development of British Romantic poetry? Wordsworth’s understanding of the sublime comes to mind:

…. sublime; that blessed mood

In which the burthen of the mystery

In which the heavy and the weary weight

Of all this unintelligible world

Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood

In which the affections gently lead us on

Until, the breath of this corporeal frame

And even the motion of our human blood

Almost suspended, we are laid asleep

In body, and become a living soul [27]

This research has come to show that the  daring and curious creative Soul open to the mysteries of life has always been prone to the overwhelming nature of the Sublime and therefore has felt the need to express precisely this through Art. Therefore it is not surprising to come across art that contains traces of the Sublime in previous generations; as seen in Fig.3.3: Pieter Boel, Large Vanitas Still Life (1663). This painting alludes to Burke’s writings, particularly his definition of Magnificence as an inducer of the Sublime: ‘a great profusion of things which are splendid or valuable in themselves’. In Pieter Boel, Large Vanitas Still Life (1663), dazzling treasures rest on and besides a sarcophagus, displaying the vanity of Man; of course this notion would not be appropriate if it was placed in an intact building, hence the grand and magnificent building in ruin.

Pieter Boel, Large Vanitas Still Life, 1663, oil on canvas

Fig.3.3: Pieter Boel, Large Vanitas Still Life, 1663, oil on canvas, 207 x 260cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille, P.78 (image sourced from public domain)

Was the Renaissance appreciation for the notion of Melancholia-often seen through memento mori paintings-the closest Fine Art had ever come to presenting the Sublime before its great exploitation in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century? It would appear that the proliferation of the Sublime in Art increased drastically as a reaction to the development and formalising of its vocabulary in the eighteenth century. Today, the observer of Ruins  is free to experience them in whatever approach they deem appropriate, however, modern Man seems to have found balance between the method of archaeo-inquiry (scientific approach) and the romantic notions of a past that could have been, allowing themselves the pleasure to feel pathos, nostalgia, curiosity, awe-the Sublime. Ultimately, this work has shown Art to be a mirror to Man’s cognitive and creative processes, by showing how seemingly ‘random sparks’ across the field of Art cause reactions, like the movement of a pendulum, to and fro..sometimes causing ‘fires of rebellion’, new approaches thanks to new  understandings.


[1] Iain McCalman, ed. An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture 1776-1832, (Oxford, 1999) p.527 and Emma McEvoy, Gothic Tourism (New York, 2016) p.19

[2] John Locke (1632-1704) English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers, and considered one of the first British empiricists. His theory of mind is often cited as the origin of modern conceptions of identity and the self. Locke was the first to define the self through a continuity of consciousness.

[3] R.P. Knight, An Analytical Inquiry In to the Principles of Taste, 4.ed., (London, 1806) p.194

[4] Ibid.

[5] 1736 is the year of publication for Nicolas Boileau’s translation of Longinus’ 1st century greek text- Iain McCalman, ed. An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture 1776-1832, (Oxford, 1999)

[6] seen to have developed by about 1800 and is defined as ‘a moment of vision which by providing an intuition of the absolute grounds of existence’ p.723 The idea that sublime art could not be achieved by slavishly following rules, but rather was an experience that existed above and beyond rules in the realm of artistic imagination, was first explored by a predecessor of Burke’s, the painter and critic Jonathan Richardson (1665–1745) in his book An Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715).

[7] Iain McCalman, ed. An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture 1776-1832, (Oxford, 1999) p.723

[8] Edmund. Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful p.101

[9] this is not to say that the Sublime was inexistent in art prior to the eighteenth century nor does it diminish the relationship of the sublime with other faculties such as religion, architecture etc. A perfect example would be the combination of both these subjects in order to physically and pysholocigcally overpower their audiences as seen in sacred spaces to remind them of the proportional difference between them, the world and their God.

[10] Paul Monod, Kleber., Solomon’s Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment (New Haven, 2013) p.241

[11] Graveyard Poetry: see glossary

[12] popular republications consisted of 1784 edition of John Aubrey’s Miscellanies on Fatality, Omens, Dreams, Apparitions, Voices, Impulses, Knockings, Invisible Blows, Magic, Transportation in the Air, Visions in a Beril, Etc.; the 1786 edition of John Whalley’s Ptolemy Quadripartite, an astrological treatise first published in 1701 and  Nocturnal Revels, or Universal Interpreter of Dreams and Visions (1789)

[13] Paul Monod, Kleber., Solomon’s Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment (New Haven, 2013) p.228

[14] Occult this can be especially seen when tracing developments between Gothic and Romantic poetry/prose. The Gothic whilst bold in its intellectual daring still remained pious in the manner that it would expect the cautious reader to arrive at moral judgements alone, without much guidance; whilst the Romantic approach seems more aggressive in the manner they adopter their daring approaches but ignored all convention, moral expectations and implied rules -Paul Monod, Kleber., Solomon’s Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment (New Haven, 2013) p.254

[15] as cited in Paul Monod, Kleber., Solomon’s Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment (New Haven, 2013) “On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror; with Sir Bertrand, A Fragment,”  p.42

[16] Edmund. Burke,  A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful  p.122

[17] Ibid.

[18] Repoussé /repoussoir: see glossary

[19]Robert, Ginsberg,The Aesthetics of Ruins (Amsterdam, 2004) p.

[20] Michelle, Facos, An Introduction to Nineteenth Century Art, (London, 2011) p.81

[21] Ibid.

[22] R.P. Knight, Payne R., An Analytical Inquiry In to the Principles of Taste, 4.ed., (London, 1806) p.196

[23] Ibid., p.349

[24] Lucien, Steil, ed. The Architectural Capriccio: Memory, Fantasy and Invention (Surrey, 2014)

preface 1(3)

[25] Brian, Dillon, Ruin Lust (London, 2014) p.48

[26] Edmund, Burke,  A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (London, 1757) p.120

[27] as cited in Viscomi, Joseph. ‘Wordsworth, Gilpin, and the Vacant Mind’, The Wordsworth Circle, vol. 38/no. 1/2, (2007), pp. 40-49 or (37-47) -Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798

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