Following in Turner’s footsteps at Tintern Abbey

May 9, 2024

I recently went on holiday with my in-laws to the Forest of Dean, an area of outstanding natural beauty set between Wales and England. Top of my sightseeing list was Tintern Abbey, nestled among wooded hills near the river Wye. This impressive site has long been a magnet for visitors: those seeking a secluded religious sanctuary in the Middle Ages; and then, from the 18th century, secular tourists in search of a picturesque adventure, and among these tourists were artists keen to experience the delights of Tintern Abbey for themselves. I’d seen the Abbey in several watercolours in the V&A’s collection and knew it inspired artists including JMW Turner and Samuel Palmer to commit their impressions of it to paper. I was eager to experience its awe-inspiring atmosphere for myself.

Monumental Religious Sanctuary

Tintern Abbey was founded in 1131. It housed monks from the strict Cistercian order. The remote location allowed them the seclusion and tranquillity to concentrate on their spiritual duties, far away from the worldly temptations that they felt had undermined some religious communities. Monks lived here until 1536 when Henry VIII closed all monastic houses.

The Abbey was then left to decay for several centuries, becoming an ivy-clad shell of its former self. Photographs from the late 19th century vividly show it shrouded in vegetation.

The ivy has now been removed to try and protect the crumbling walls (read about this here) but you have to admit that it did add to the imposing sense of decaying grandeur and melancholy. In the 18th century, this was exactly the type of romantic ruin that brought artists and poets to the site to celebrate this gem of stunning scenery and venerable history.

Revival as a Romantic Ruin

The Reverend William Gilpin was the first to promote the area as a delightful place for visitors in search of beautiful and atmospheric surroundings. His book “Observations on the River Wye: and several parts of South Wales, &c. relative chiefly to picturesque beauty, made in the summer of the year 1770.” was one of the first tourist guides. It encouraged visitors to travel away from the refined and cultured towns to discover the remoter parts of the country and to appreciate the grandeur of its landscapes.

Admired by artists

The artist JMW Turner travelled widely in the UK and Europe to find inspirational scenes to paint. He first visited Tintern in the 1790s. He must have been captivated by its imposing structure and melancholy decay as he produced several artworks of the building from different angles. The viewpoint of the V&A’s watercolour, from within the walls and looking upward at the sky through the ruined and overgrown roof, creates a sense of the fleeting and ephemeral nature of human existence while celebrating the architectural wonder of the building and the enduring power of nature.  

Samuel Palmer visited several decades later in the 1830s. He depicts the abbey from a distance, enveloped in the surrounding hills. The scene must have appealed to his belief that harmony and spirituality can be found in idyllic rural areas.

By the time that Palmer was visiting, Tintern Abbey had become so popular subject for artists that in 1824, the Somerset House Gazette decried:

“We had begun to tire of the endless repetitions of Tintern Abbey, from within, and Tintern Abbey from without, and the same by moonlight, and twilight, and every other light…”

Despite this admonition, Tintern Abbey has continued to draw in crowds throughout the centuries, visitors keen to experience the beautiful location, magnificent architectural splendour and fascinating history. These visitors often create their own visual memories, and this is mine – a photograph of me, my inlaws and their dog Millie following in the footsteps of Gilpin, Turner and Palmer.

Me (centre in black) with family, Tintern Abbey, photograph by Ian Kent, 2023.
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