Post Industrial Picturesque
The Brampton Museum, Newcastle Under Lyme, ST5 0QP
Curated by Tim Craven and Phil Smith
28 June – 7 September 2025
‘A ruin is more than a collection of debris. It is a place with its own individuality, charged with its own emotion, atmosphere and drama, of grandeur, of nobility and of charm. These qualities must be preserved as carefully as the broken stones which are their embodiment.
When we contemplate ruins, we contemplate our own future and the inevitability of human progress over time. Ruins can inspire a wide variety of responses that includes a curious magnetism. There is a perverse pleasure perhaps even fear in the contemplation of decay. One attraction is their sense of transience and vulnerability, antipathy to permanence which is an existential necessity for humanity. They offer the prospect of oblivion – a perfect metaphor for the futility of mortal pride. The bare vestiges contrast with the original use and purpose of the structure, for the interest in ruins rarely equates to its reality. Ruins do not speak; we speak for them – they are a sounding board for the emotions.
It has been suggested that the Picturesque is perhaps the greatest contribution to European visual culture and this is through the philosophy of association. The mind works by association of accumulated memories. Ruins offer concealment, surprise, and mystery. We imagine what is missing; a rule of the game is the dialogue between incomplete reality and the imagination of the spectator.
Industrial ruins exhibit elements of the ‘sublime’ regarding the non-human scale of the buildings and their previous housing of technology driven processes that might have involved human engagement with powerful machines, large quantities of heavy materials or dangerous chemicals. The places now quiet and apparently safe still echo their previous activities and might still hold some unknown or hidden threat. Entropy in relation to spaces that were once productive being reclaimed by nature, decaying into their constituent elements.
Ruins succumb to virulent and wild nature which appears almost as an instrument of revenge. The promise of the inevitable victory of nature, free and democratic, over the tyranny of structures and what they embodied, especially some industrial ruins, symbolises the contest between the individual and the universe. The embrace of nature fills us with joy for no ruin can be suggestive to the viewer’s imagination unless in dialogue with the forces of nature – visibly alive and dynamic in opposition to the death of the structure. When ruins are cleaned up and deprived of nature’s magic wand, they can appear lonely, sinister, and dislocated from place and time.
Memories of organised human activity and lives invested in the extraction, movement, manipulation and transformation of materials. In a way, there is also something cleansing or neutralising in the encroachment of nature and the dissolution of human made processes by natural growth, decay and absorption.
Industrial ruins in some cases, emphasise contrast between the urgency, noise and ‘brutality’ of the forces that were managed within these spaces and the silent invasion of natural processes. Society determines whether a ruin is rebuilt, replaced, preserved, or removed; a ruin though can appear more beautiful to the human spirit than when it was intact and in its prime. But in paradox, they can also be seen as consequential to human pride, greed and stupidity. Brutal destruction followed by indifference and ignorance is the necessary prelude to veneration and even enlightenment.
It seems important to save these worlds from vanishing without any record, be it ever so fragmented. Without witness, the extraordinary ordeals and achievements of humanity which have been experienced in the past would seem too remote to be believed – save us then some of our ruins for remembrance? They conjure meditation on time, transience and humanity and are sources of inspiration for the future. But they also signify the notion that the present reality we know and love, one day, will be in ruins but in some cases, as with the fossil fuel industries and the production of materials such as CFCs, this may be for the good of future generations.’