Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plates 1.9-1.12: The Ruins of Fountains Abbey

Plates: Engraved by George Vertue (1684-1756) in 1723 after four drawings prepared by either Samuel Buck (1697-1779) or Nathaniel Buck  (d. 1759) in 1722, as recorded in the Society of Antiquaries minutes (SAL Minutes I.83 ). Unlike most of the others, these plates are neither signed nor dated in the copper. The Buck brothers were at this time embarking on their own publication series, A Collection of Engravings of Castles, and Abbeys in England (1726-1739). It seems likely that their growing reputation as antiquarian illustrators in York caught the attention of Roger Gale (1672-1744), who commissioned the drawings and proposed the project to the Society.

Object: Ruins of the former twelfth-century abbey church of Fountains, Yorkshire, with extant monastic structures. Built in the twelfth century and partially dismantled under Henry VIII in the sixteenth century, Fountains Abbey is one of the great Cistercian Houses of the British Isles. Dissolved under Henry VIII, the Abbey has been subject to campaigns of despoliation, and is now largely ruinous. The images are thus significant visual evidence of the site as it stood in 1722, recording subsequently lost fabric, including the late twelfth-century cloister arcades, the tracery of the main windows of the abbey, the presbytery arcades and high altar enclosure.


Plate 1.9: Monasterij FONTANENSIS in Skeldale ad tertium a Rippona in Agro Eboracensi Lapidem, rudera, prout hodie ad Lybem conspiciuntur. Cӕnobium hoc, celeberrimum olim, ad Fratres XIII, qui a Monachis B. Mariӕ Ebor, vitӕ severioris exercendӕ gratia secesserant, recipiendos fundavit Thurstinus Archiepiscopus A.D. MCXXXII. at tenuibus adeô facultatibus, ut primum non nisi sub Ulmo frondosâ Hospitium habuerint, magnâ cum rerum omnium, inopiâ luctantes. Eos statim D. Bernardus in Ordinem Cistercianum adscivit, cujus sub Normâ opes amplissimas demum consequuti, fundos CDLXXIII. Libris annuatim ӕstimatos HENRICO VIII,° Eversori suo dediderunt. / Sumptibus Societatis Antiquariӕ.

Plate 1.10: Ecclesiӕ FONTANENSIS Facies Orientalis. / Sumptibus Societatis Antiquariӕ

Plate 1.11: Cӕnobij FONTANENSIS ab Occidente Prospectus. / Sumptibus Societatis Antiquariӕ.

Plate 1.11, On the Image
10 Wind: [windows]
Young Ash Trees.
21 Windows over the Seller.

Plate 1.12: Cӕnobii FONTANENSIS a Monte vulgo Wakeman Tower, ad Austrum Prospectus. / Sumptibus Societatis Antiquariӕ.

Plate 1.12, On the Image
Aldfield Chap: [chapel]


Plate 1.9: The remains of Fountains Abbey in Skeldale, three miles from Ripon in the county of Yorkshire, just as they are seen today in a southward view. In 1132 Archbishop Thurstan founded this once most famous monastery in order to receive 13 brothers who had retired from the monks of the Abbey of St. Mary, York to practice a more austere lifestyle. But because their resources were so meager that, at first, they had no lodging except under a leafy elm and they were struggling with a great lack of all things, St. Bernard straightaway adopted them into the Cistercian Order, under whose rule they eventually obtained ample wealth, 473 farms. They had given that estimate[d figure] in rents annually to Henry VIII, the Suppressor [of the Monasteries] himself.

Plate 1.10: East side of Fountains Abbey Church.

Plate 1.11: View of Fountains Abbey from the West.

Plate 1.12: Southward view of Fountains Abbey from the hill commonly known as Wakeman Tower.

Commentary by Matthew Reeve: In modern historiography, Fountains Abbey is the most intensively studied Cistercian house in Europe. It was the second Cistercian outpost founded in the North of England, and came to be the largest and richest Cistercian house in the country. According to Serlo of Kirkstall (fl. 1205), Fountains was founded by Benedictine monks from St Mary’s Abbey, York, who sought a simpler and less worldly life. In December 1132, Archbishop Thurstan of York brought a group of 13 monks from York to the valley of the River Skell (4 miles west of Ripon) to the wood of Herleshowe, where he gave them lands to found a monastery. As recorded in the caption for Plate 1.9, Fountains was admitted into the Cistercian order by St Bernard of Clairvaux in 1132/3 as part of his colonizing of the North of England and Scotland. The first wooden church on site was replaced by a stone church before 1147 when a fire is recorded. The subsequent campaign between c. 1150-1250 saw the erection of much of the present structure, including most of its outbuildings.

The end of Fountains as a working monastery came with the general suppression of English monasteries in November 1539. Unlike some other monastic sites, the abbey buildings at Fountains were not immediately dismantled at the Dissolution, because Henry VIII intended to create a new bishopric with jurisdiction over Richmondshire and parts of Lancashire. This temporarily saved the buildings from ruin and accounts in part for why so much remained to be recorded in 1722. By October 1540, however, the sale of the abbey was completed and the buildings began to be dismantled. The stained glass and lead were dispersed, leaving the abbey church without roofing or complete walls. Because its new owner—Sir Richard Gresham—did not rebuild Fountains or transform it into a residence, it was saved from further ruin through domestication. To the north side of the abbey precinct, a new residence—Fountains Hall—was begun in the early seventeenth century based upon the designs of Robert Smythson, using some stone from the abbey ruins. Notably, Fountains Hall is not represented in any of the engravings (Newman 2015, 47-57).

By 1682, the ruins of Fountains received a Miltonic tribute from Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725), who visited in that year and described the site as “formerly a stately abbey, as appears by the very ruins” (Thoresby 1830, 1.137). Samuel Buck, on whose drawings these plates are based, was introduced by Thoresby to the Yorkshire antiquary John Warburton in 1719, and Warburton, in turn, was likely responsible for introducing Buck to Roger Gale and the SAL.

Although the plates claim in their visual logic and in their notation to focus on Fountains Abbey, their execution owed at least as much to their context in an expansive garden landscape at Studley Royal (Newman 2015). In the course of the eighteenth century, Fountains became enveloped into the Studley estate and gardens belonging to John Aislabie (1670-1742), within which the abbey became “a pre-fabricated garden folly” (Thompson 2011, 676). (The name of the estate appears on the horizon in Plate 1.12.) During the first phase of this landscaping project (1716 -1730), Aislabie's gardeners diverted the river into a canal at the center of the Skell valley and added geometric fishponds. Garden buildings were built after 1732 and the entire garden was complete by 1742. The abbey ruins remained at the west end of the garden as a vista, a relationship shown in an engraving by François Vivares of 1746, after Thomas Smith of Derby, and a painting by Balthazar Nebot of 1768 (now in the National Trust). The garden is not included in a woodcut of the abbey ruins published somewhat earlier in Thomas Gent's The Antient and Modern History of the Loyal Town of Rippon: Introduc’d by a Poem...with a description of the venerable ruins of Fountains-Abbey (1733). However, the introductory poem--written by gardener Peter Aram and dedicated to “Mr. William Fisher, Gardener in Chief to the Right Honourable John Aislabie, Esq; at Studley” (Gent 1733, xvii)--explicitly mentions the prints in Vetusta Monumenta. “I have in my Hands Four excellent Prospects, worthy to adorn a Parlour,” observes Aram, who intriguingly describes these prints and the Latin caption from Plate 1.9 (which he translates into English) as “proceeding from the once famous Society of Antiquarians” (25n1).

Inheriting the Studley Royal estate upon the death of his father, John Aislabie, William Aislabie (1700-1781) continued the landscaping of the lower Skell valley and bought the Fountains estate in 1768 for the immense sum of £16,000. He sought to redesign the gardens in keeping with contemporary picturesque taste of Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716-1783). The younger Aislabie’s approach to the abbey was unusual: rather than destroying parts of the building to enhance its aesthetic effect, he cleared away ex-situ fabric and overgrown greenery to expose the structure of the building for speculation. Fountains was no longer conceived as a ruin at the end of a vista but was brought into the garden itself, as part of an informal arrangement of lawns framed by trees. Aislabie’s approach to the gardens, to Fountains Abbey, and to the integration of the two, received considerable critical attention in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a key monument in the shaping of the picturesque aesthetic (Thompson 2011). A full account of the gardens and garden buildings has recently been provided by Mark Newman (2015).

The minutes of the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) for 1721-22 record the origins of the four prints included here. On 7 June 1721, Roger Gale displayed drawings of Fountains by Dr. Johnston of York at a meeting of the SAL (SAL Minutes I.45). It may be that these images were not approved by the Society, because on 7 Feb 1723 “Mr Roger Gale brought four drawings of Fountains Abby Yorkshire drawn by Mr [Samuel and/or Nathaniel] Buck which were ordered to be Engraven and Mr Vertue was desir’d to take care thereof” (I.83). These drawings became the Vetusta Monumenta plates, as well as the Bucks' own engraving, The South View of the Ruins of Fountains Abbey, which was published after 1726 and diverged slightly from the image presented on Plate 1.9 (Buck 1726-39, 1.8). Forming a visual survey of the property from its four cardinal points, the drawings were conceived in the tradition of the brothers Buck's contemporary views, which frequently took advantage of surrounding promontories to offer both bird’s eye views and perpendicular elevations. Also typical of the Bucks’ contemporary work, the emphasis is on the location of the buildings within their natural surroundings and atmospheric conditions. The format of the Bucks’ four-image survey of Fountains was not repeated in Vetusta Monumenta, thus underscoring the experimental nature of the first volume. By 22 May 1723 George Vertue had in hand proofs of these plates (SAL Minutes I.88). Conceived in 1722, the four views thus record the abbey in the midst of the first landscaping campaign as evidenced by some of the youthful foliage described as "Young Ash Trees" (Plate 1.11).

As elsewhere in Vetusta Monumenta, the attention of the SAL was drawn to ancient monuments by contemporary works of restoration or destruction, and we may surmise that the contemporary gardening works were an impetus to record the buildings as they stood, and an impetus to omit later structures like Fountains Hall. Conceived during John Aislabie’s engagement in the South Sea Bubble which netted (and lost) him a considerable fortune, the landscaping work on which he lavished money is difficult to separate from the public perception of this event. Aislabie returned to Studley from incarceration and scandal in 1721, a period which marked a halt in progress between 1720-23. In Mark Newman’s words, “Studley’s gardens seem to have become inextricably linked to public perceptions of Aislabie as early as September 1718” (2015, 92). Understood in these terms, we may detect an early ethical commentary on modern “restorations,” which increasingly became a subject of critique and debate by antiquaries in the later eighteenth century.

Works Cited:

Buck, Samuel and Nathaniel Buck. 1726-39. A Collection of Engravings of Castles, and Abbeys in England. 2 vols. London.

Coppack, Glyn. 2004. Fountains Abbey: The Cistercians in Northern England. Stroud: Tempus.

Fergusson, Peter. 1984. Architecture of Solitude: Cistercian Abbeys in Twelfth-Century England. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Gent, Thomas. 1733. The Antient and Modern History of the Loyal Town of Rippon: Introduc'd by a Poem ... With a Description of the Venerable Ruins of Fountains-Abbey. York: The Printing-Office. ESTC # T02648. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University of Missouri - Columbia. Accessed 9 Sept 2020.

Newman, Mark. 2015. The Wonder of the North: Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer.

Thompson, Sarah. 2011. “Recycling Ruins: The Critical Reception of John Aislabie’s Work at Fountains Abbey and the Changing Function of the Gothic.” Third Text 25, no. 6: 675-686.

Thoresby, Ralph. 1830. The Diary of Ralph Toresby. Edited by Joseph Hunter. 2 vols. Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley.

Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.