Sunday, 4 August 2013

Abbeville and Ruskin

Abbeville is the saddest sight in the world. You come to visit the church of St Wulfram, so admired by Ruskin, and what you notice first of all is that everything else in the centre of town around the church has been rebuilt, in a rather drab 1950s non-imposing, nondescript style. It makes the contrast with the church all the more stark. The church remains, but the rest of the town was flattened by bombs. Amazingly, St Wulfram's survived.

Not that it had ever been finished. The church itself has a very strange shape. There are a few bays of the nave, and a magnificent facade, but the choir seems to be almost an apology, and the church is truncated with a vengeance. Inside, you read that bombing in 1940 took the roof off and much else. So it's amazing that there is anything standing from the church at all.

Is anything left of the church that Ruskin admired? What exactly did Ruskin admire about Abbeville? As often happens, it isn't so easy to work out just what it is that Ruskin got excited by. It is clear that Ruskin loved Abbeville. In Praeterita, for example, he talks about his visit there in 1835, with his parents:

In this journey of 1835 I first saw Rouen and Venice [...] nor could I understand the full power of any of  those great scenes till much later. But for Abbeville, which is the preface and interpretation of Rouen, I was ready on that 5th of June, and felt that here was entrance for me into immediately healthy labour and joy.

181. For here I saw that art (of its local kind), religion, and present human life, were yet in perfect harmony. [...] Outside, the faithful old town gathered itself, and nestled under their buttresses like a brood beneath the mother’s wings; the quiet, uninjurious aristocracy of the newer town opened into silent streets, between self-possessed and hidden dignities of dwelling,
[...] I never, to my knowledge, wasted an hour in Abbeville or Rouen, and the Seven Lamps and Stones of Venice, which were the direct outcome of my work in them, are
securely right and useful.”

The commercial square, with the main street of traverse, consisted of uncompetitive shops, such as were needful, of the native wares: cloth and hosiery spun, woven, and knitted within the walls;

My most intense happinesses have of course been among mountains. But for cheerful, unalloyed, unwearying pleasure, the getting in sight of Abbeville on a fine summer afternoon, jumping out in the courtyard of the Hotel de I’Europe, and rushing down the street to see St. Wulfran again before the sun was off the towers, are things to cherish the past for,—to the end.
Here it seems that Ruskin enjoyed the sincere simplicity (as he saw it) of a a provincial town - nothing to do with art history. Exactly what it is that Ruskin admired in the church of St Wulfram is barely mentioned, although a letter is quoted by Cook and Wedderburn in the Library edition. In the letter Ruskin compares the dullness of the carving at Salisbury with the flamboyance of St Wulfram:

“It is most fortunate that I have come here,” he writes home from Abbeville (Aug. 8, 1848), “straight from Salisbury—not even blunting at Winchester the severe memory of that Gothic; for much as I admired Abbeville porch before, it comes upon me now in such luscious richness,—so full, so fantastic,—so exquisitely picturesque that I seem never to have seen it before.”

What can be seen at Abbeville today is mainly the exquisite wooden carved main door, in glorious Renaissance perspective, as well as two Renaissance sculptures inserted with a different stone onto the Gothic facade. What is clear is that neither of these things is at all Gothic:

Nor is either of these works of art mentioned by Ruskin. He's probably too busy looking at the "uncompetitive shops, such as were needful", indulging in his irrelevant and misguided views of peasant life, and at the same time concentrating on the Gothic he wanted to see and ignoring the Renaissance.