Highlights from 'Ruin Lust'

Brian Dillon, curator of Tate Britain’s new show, picks six key works

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In the eighteenth century, creative circles were obsessed by the phenomenon of 'ruin lust', a craze for picturesque decay. Tate Britain's new show curated by writer Brian Dillon looks at how artists from the last four centuries have been captivated by the ruins of history, the city, the landscape and civilisation.

  • 'Destruction of Pompeii', (1822) by John Martin

    'John Martin depicted classical and Biblical catastrophes on a sublime scale, recasting ancient ruination as a warning of future disaster. This painting was first shown at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly in 1822; damaged by flooding in 1928, for much of the last century it was itself a ruin.'

    Image: © Tate

  • ‘The New Zealander’ (1872) by Gustave Doré

    'Writing in the Edinburgh Review in 1840, Thomas Babington Macaulay imagined the future ruin of London, picturing a visitor from New Zealand sketching the wreckage of St Paul’s. This popular motif was later depicted in Doré’s engraving, which shows the ruin of modern commercial buildings as well as historic architecture.'

    Image: Courtesy University Art Museum, University College London

  • ‘Devastation’ (1941) by Graham Sutherland

    'Commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee in the wake of the Blitz, Sutherland turned his attention to the East End of London, where some of the worst of the bombing took place. He was among many artists for whom wartime ruins uneasily recalled the picturesque views of earlier painters.'

    Image: Courtesy Tate

  • ‘Ruins’ (1964) by Patrick Caulfield

    'The classical ruin was already something of a cliché at the height of ruin lust in the eighteenth century. Later artists found novel ways of commenting on that vexed history, as in Caulfield’s screenprint, which strips away the signs of locale or period to leave anonymous, almost cartoonish fragments.'

    Image: Courtesy Tate © DACS 2013

  • ‘Five Sisters Bing’ (1976) by John Latham

    'As a founding member of the Artist Placement Group, John Latham was tasked by the Scottish Development Department with considering the problem of derelict urban and rural sites. In 1976 he proposed that five shale heaps or ‘bings’ in West Lothian be preserved as monuments rather than excavated and removed.'

    Image: © The Estate of John Latham, Courtesy Tate

  • ‘Ferrier Estate’ (2010) by Laura Oldfield Ford

    'Ford’s work is rooted in the recent history of urban ruin and social unrest in Britain. She draws on science fiction and dystopian literature, as well as subcultures like punk and squatting. Her brutalist ruins are marked by strife and melancholy but are also filled with potential for future change.'

    Image: Courtesy Tate © Laura Oldfield Ford

'Destruction of Pompeii', (1822) by John Martin

'John Martin depicted classical and Biblical catastrophes on a sublime scale, recasting ancient ruination as a warning of future disaster. This painting was first shown at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly in 1822; damaged by flooding in 1928, for much of the last century it was itself a ruin.'

Image: © Tate



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