One hundred years ago, Rievaulx Abbey was taken into the care of English Heritage’s predecessors, the Ancient Monument branch of the Office of Works. After years of obsolescence, the site looked strikingly different to the well-maintained ruins and neatly trimmed grass of the present day. Surviving photographs from the period of the 1870s to the 1930s reveal the Abbey from the Victorian perspective: ivy entwined ruins, and bushes concealing the seam between land and building. It almost looks as if the Abbey has grown out of the shrubbery, like an enchanted tower in a fairy tale.
The use of early cameras only adds to the romantic, nostalgic feel; the photographs were taken in the late 19th and early 20th century, and were viewed through stereoscopes, which were a popular Victorian invention. Stereoscopes could be considered a precursor to modern day VR headsets: they consisted of two binocular-like lenses, through which two identical photographs appear 3D. For the first time, through these photographs, English Heritage presents more than the rich monastic history of the site, delving into how the passage of time affected the Abbey, and the story of its preservation and salvation from decay.
As a historically important building, Rievaulx Abbey has long dominated the surrounding landscape. It was the first Cistercian abbey to be built in the north of England, and remained powerful until it was suppressed in the 16th century. Following this, it was allowed to slowly deteriorate, even at one stage being used as a pasture for grazing sheep. Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of William Wordsworth, wrote in 1802 that she saw ‘cattle feeding amongst the green grown hillocks about the ruins… scattered over with wild roses and other shrubs, and covered with wild flowers.’ Though romantic, this threatened the future of the Abbey; 300 years of inadvertent negligence had brought Rievaulx Abbey to the brink of collapse.
Realising that the future of the Abbey was in jeopardy, the Office of Works took it into their guardianship, carefully stabilising the ruins and even installing a small railway to remove the debris and surrounding undergrowth that had taken over the site.
This helped establish a protocol for future historic buildings, which would also come to be maintained with neatly cut grass, preserved ruins clear of ivy, and unobtrusive panels offering historical interpretation. It set a strong precedent.
The exhibition, held in the Visitor Centre and the newly opened exhibition space at the Museum, Rievaulx: Reviewed offers visitors the chance to see this story of change through photographs and artefacts from the period. There is also the opportunity to use a stereoscope, courtesy of the London Stereoscope Company, co-owned by Dr Brian May of Queen. Using these, visitors can step back in time to the romantic ruins of the Victorian period, witnessing just how much it has changed over the years, and yet, how public appreciation of this beautiful site timelessly spans the generations.
The exhibition of photographs, documents and other fascinating artefacts opened last month at Rievaulx Abbey Visitor Centre and Museum, North Yorkshire, and runs until Sunday 5 Novem- ber.
Visit www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/rievaulx-abbey for more information.