Its winding Foliage through the cloister'd Space,
O'er the green Window's mould'ring Height ascends,
And seems to clasp it with a fond Embrace
- George Keate, The Ruins of Netley Abbey (1764)
Sometimes I wonder if there is some curious kink in human psychology that makes the sight of a crumbling, ivy-clad ruin more appealing to our eyes than a similar structure in pristine condition. Poets, antiquarians and artists have found ruins an almost endless source of material for their studies and meditations, offering a frisson of Gothic terror by moonlight or a moral exemplar for the vanity of man and the transience of earthly glories. After some time looking at old prints and poems about ruined abbeys and churchyards, one starts to recognise the recurring themes - sprouting foliage, owls in moonlight, skeletal cloisters, lonely figures hemmed in by overhanging walls and shadows. Even as 18th century travellers give way to Victorian tourists, and engravings yield to Kodak prints and tuppenny postcards, the same picturesque conventions persist.
Today's blog presents a brief survey of images of Pluscarden Abbey, which was abandoned after the Reformation and remained in a ruinous state for some 350 years. Being somewhat off the beaten path it was never subjected to the intense scrutiny of monastic ruins such as Fountains or Rievaulx, but the 25 pictures below (all scanned from prints and postcards in my collection, apart from the Girtin watercolour) will hopefully offer some insight into the way in which a single structure has been depicted by artists and photographers over a period of 150 years.
This puzzled me, as I didn't think Bennett had ever travelled to Scotland. Thankfully, Alan J Hanson, the Historic Site Co-ordinator of the Bennett Studio in Wisconsin (which has preserved Bennett's studio and photographs) was able to help. It appears that Bennett's mentor -
Milwaukee industrialist William Metcalf - came over to Scotland and either took the photo himself or commissioned a local photographer to do so, and then sent the negative back to Wisconsin for Bennett to print. These would then be sold alongside Bennett's images of the scenery around Wisconsin Dells, which were very popular with tourists. The image is very similar to that taken by Henry Gordon (below.)
Lord Colum visited Caldey in 1921 and made the offer to Abbot Aelred, who felt unable to accept. When Lord Colum repeated his offer in 1935, the community again declined. It was a case of third time lucky, as by 1943 Lord Colum had decided that if no monastic community was willing to take it on, he would have to hand Pluscarden over to the state. The above sketch was drawn in 1943, the year that Abbot Wilfrid finally agreed.