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 Nathanial 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: Monasterii 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, cuius 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: Cӕnobii 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.

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


Plate 1.9: The old stones of Fountains Abbey in Skeldale, three miles from Ripon in the county of Yorkshire, just as they appear today at Lybem. This monastery was once most famous for the thirteen Brothers, who had separated from the monks of the Abbey of St Mary, York in order to cultivate a more austere life. Archbishop Thurstan founded [the Abbey] to receive them in 1132. But, with such meager resources, they could first only lodge themselves under a leafy elm tree. [They were] entirely without resources, struggling with poverty. St Bernard immediately adopted them into the Cistercian order, under whose Rule they gained ample resources, [namely] 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: Western view of Fountains Abbey.

Plate 1.12: Southwestern 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 and its stained glass and lead dispersed, leaving the building 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, but it is notably not represented in any of the engravings (Newman 2015, 47-57).

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 Sudeley Royal (Newman 2015). 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). In the early eighteenth century, Fountains became enveloped into the Studley estate and its gardens (identified on Plate 1.12), within which the abbey became “a pre-fabricated garden folly” (Thompson, 676). The first phase (1716 -1730) involved diverting the river into a canal at the centre of the Skell valley and adding 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 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 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, by Thomas Gent (1733), but the included poem and other aspects of this work draw connections between the two.

Inheriting the Studley Royal estate on his father’s death in 1742, 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). Aislabie’s approach to the abbey was unusual: rather than destroying parts of the building to enhance its aesthetic effect, Aislabie cleared the site of 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 th Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) for 1721-22 record details of the images’ conception. 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. Forming a visual survey of the property from its four cardinal points, the drawings were conceived in the tradition of the brothers Bucks’ 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 to hand proofs of the images (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 Aislabie’s engagement in the South Sea Bubble which netted (and lost) him a considerable fortune, it is difficult to separate his work on the landscape upon which le lavished money, from public perception of the event. John Aislabie (1670-1742) returned to Studeley 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:

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.

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.