Pleasure of Ruins


The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures. How old is this world! I walk between two eternities.

Denis Diderot, 1767

Ruins, as Diderot observed, are the memento mori of civilisations, a reminder that the apparent permanence of architecture is illusory: this too shall pass. Rose Macaulay explored the melancholy pleasure inspired by this contemplation in Pleasure of Ruins (1953), a book I was reminded of on two separate occasions this weekend. Before I get to those I can’t resist showing something of my own copy of Macaulay’s study, a heavyweight volume (286 pp, 346mm x 260mm) published by Thames & Hudson in 1964. This was the third book by Canadian photographer Roloff Beny who made a habit of photographing ancient ruins. Here he visits Angkor, Tintern Abbey, Persepolis, Petra, Baalbek, Leptis Magna, Chichen Itza, Machu Picchu and elsewhere to embellish Macaulay’s text with 160 photogravure pages, 12 tipped-in colour plates, and maps of the locations on fold-out spreads. Beny also designed the book which even in my rather scuffed and damp-afflicted copy is an impressive example of the mass-produced edition as work-of-art.


Metallic silver printing on the endpapers.

Rick Poynor provided the first mention of Macaulay’s book in a piece of polemic justifiably disputing the pejorative term “ruin porn”, an epithet that’s appeared recently among critics of those fascinated by photos of abandoned Detroit, or Battleship Island off the coast of Japan. If photos of ruins are “ruin porn” then Roloff Beny’s books must count as hardcore, while my National Trust Book of Ruins is evidently a government-sponsored sex manual. Poynor notes the criticism being a particularly American one, and wonders whether some Americans fail to appreciate the long cultural and political history of the ruin in Europe. Plenty of European cities have ruins in their midst, whether ancient ones like London Wall and the centre of Rome, or more recent ones like the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin and Coventry Cathedral, both partially destroyed during the Second World War. An appreciation of ruins began in the 18th century and evolved in tandem with the emergence of antiquarianism. Prior to this, ancient ruins were either a nuisance or a resource to be plundered for their stones. (Or, as can be seen in some of Piranesi’s Views of Rome, a convenient support for shops and houses.)


From ruin porn to Ruin lust: our love affair with decaying buildings, an essay by Brian Dillon which covers similar ground to Poynor’s piece, and discusses Rose Macaulay’s interest in ruins, an interest that survived being bombed out of her home during the war. This is a great run through the usual suspects, from the Romantics (with a nod to Fonthill Abbey) to JG Ballard’s obsession with the remnants of the Cold War and the Space Age. Dillon mentions the painting John Soane commissioned from Joseph Gandy showing his Bank of England building as a future ruin. And he also recounts the story (which I heard repeated recently in a Robert Hughes documentary) of Hitler’s demands to Albert Speer during their planning of the future capital of the Third Reich, Germania, that the buildings should make good ruins. It’s impossible to imagine anyone today planning a building as a future ruin even though many will end up that way, if they last at all.


If it wasn’t already apparent that ruins are the thing du jour, a current exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts is of photographic prints by Jane and Louise Wilson showing views of abandoned Pripyat, better known as the town at the heart of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Rick Poynor refers to Pripyat in his piece, and it’s also an inevitable subject of discussion in Geoff Dyer’s latest book, Zona, an exploration of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker where a disused power station adds a more sinister quality to the pleasure of ruins.

More pages from Roloff Beny’s book follow.

Continue reading “Pleasure of Ruins”

The recurrent pose 41


Nude – The Pool (1910) by George Seeley.

Having spotted this Flandrinesque photogravure print by George Seeley (1880–1955) on a couple of sites I was wondering where there might be a decent collection of the photographer’s other work. “Photogravure” proved to be the key word since The Art of the Photogravure has a selection of Seeley prints. Like his contemporary Fred Holland Day, Seeley created very painterly results with his camera; like Day he was also prepared to pose unclothed young men in natural settings for a “Classical” effect.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The recurrent pose archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Fred Holland Day revisited

Villa d’Este


Detail of the Water Organ (1902).

Samples from a set of pictures at LUNA Commons of the wonderful water gardens at the Villa d’Este, Tivoli, Italy. Among the 164 items in the collection are plans, engravings, and photographs old and new. I’m partial to the older photos, most of which seem to be photogravure reproductions whose temporal distance and technical shortcomings only add to the mystique of the place.


Alley of the hundred fountains (1997).

Previously on { feuilleton }
Gertrude Käsebier’s crystal gazer
The Door in the Wall
Paris II: The River Fountain

Jessie M King’s Grey City of the North


“This dark and steep alley took its name from Sir James Stewart of Goodtrees, Lord Advocate of Scotland, 1692–1713, whose mansion stood at the foot of the close. It was a fashionable quarter in the early 18th century, and here resided Andrew Crosby, the famous lawyer, the original of Scott’s ‘Andrew Pleydell,’ Lord Westhall, John Scougall, the painter of George Heriot, and many well-known people of the time.”

Another book scan from the Internet Archive, this time a title which plays to my fetish for Old Edinburgh. The illustration work of Jessie M King (1875–1949) was featured here in September with a delicate piece from A House of Pomegranates by Oscar Wilde. The Grey City of the North (1910) is quite a departure from her usual style, being a collection of monochrome views of buildings, streets and closes of the Old Town. Very nice lettering on all the plates which perhaps shows some influence from her colleague Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Advocates’ Close has particular significance for me since I copied a view of the alley for my adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark in 1986. Providence looks nothing at all like Edinburgh, of course, but I couldn’t find adequate reference at the time so used photographs of Scotland by Edwin Smith instead. You can see Smith’s photograph and my rendering of it below. Among the Internet Archive’s other Jessie King books there’s a follow-up to the Edinburgh volume, The City of the West; 24 drawings in photogravure of Old Glasgow.


Another view of the close from Edinburgh and The Lothians by Francis Watt; illustration by Walter Dexter (1912).


Advocates’ Close by Edwin Smith from Scotland (1955).

This book of photographs was an early Thames & Hudson title using their typically excellent photogravure reproduction. My copy was rescued from a waste bin near Manchester University and I’ve used it so much for reference over the years I’ve often wondered what I would have done without that chance encounter. You can see from my copy below (drawn with a 0.2mm Variant pen) how much detail I skimped and how much I embellished. I skimped rather more than I remember, as it happens. I think if I’d have drawn this a couple of years later I might have been more faithful to the original.


Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Ephemeral architecture
The Essex Street Water Gate

The art of Michael Goro


Voyage de Nuit (etching/engraving; no date).

Michael Goro’s etchings and engravings are rich with the kind of gritty urban verisimilitude I love. His site has several more examples and there’s a good interview with the artist here.

Michael Goro, a prominent intaglio printmaker, has lived and worked in Russia, Europe, Israel, and the U.S. His work has received a number of prestigious international awards including Special Prize at the 1998 International Print Triennial in Kanagawa, Japan and Excellent Prize at the 2006 14th Seoul Space International Print Biennial at the Seoul Museum of Art (Korea). He describes his art as a “continuous creative search for raw authenticity in urban environments and human forms that are constantly changing.” Utilizing the full spectrum of printmaking techniques, ranging from Renaissance engraving to digital photogravure, he shares his unique personal experiences through imaginative imagery.

Thanks to PK for the tip!


Reflections (etching; no date).

Previously on { feuilleton }
The etching and engraving archive