The Gothic Revival in Art and Architecture – 7 January

The Gothic Revival usually evokes pictures of 19th century architecture, but the movement actually originated and flourished in the 18th century. For Dr Amy Frost a key building was Woodstock Manor, in what later became the park of Blenheim Palace, whose architect, Sir John Vanbrugh, pleaded with the Duchess of Marlborough to preserve it as a picturesque ornament in the landscape. In this he was well ahead of his classical age. The picture of Woodstock brought to mind the eras of past history with knights in armour indulging in courtly love. Vanbrugh failed to save Woodstock, but built ‘King Arthur’s Castle’ at Cirencester Park (1721-32) and his own house in castle style at Greenwich (1717- c1726). Memories of King Arthur and King Alfred were called up in other monuments such as King Alfred’s Tower at Stourhead, where a nouveau riche banker could pretend to an ancient origin.

Medieval Gothic architecture evolved through the structural development of stone vaulting. The Gothic revival was about aesthetics; it was the appearance that mattered, as seen in Horace Walpole’s papier-mâché fan vaulting in his house at Strawberry Hill (1752-mid 1770s). There, the interior demonstrated the dramatic effect of sudden changes from dark to light. Walpole wrote the first Gothic novel, ‘The Castle of Otranto’, followed by many other authors. A delightful cartoon by Rowlandson, ‘Tale of Wonder’ pokes fun at a group of fashionable ladies being fascinated and frightened by the latest novels. Edmund Burke’s ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful’ (1757) defined Darkness… Obscurity, … Vastness … Loudness… Suddenness … as characteristics of this new aesthetic, as opposed to the calm and comfort of the classical era.

Painters like Philip de Loutherbourg and Caspar David Friedrich with his ‘Monk by the Sea’ (1810) and ‘Wanderer above a Sea of Fog’ (1818) expressed man dwarfed by the immensity of Nature, seen again with Joseph Wright’s ‘Eruption of Vesuvius’ (c1766-80) and Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ (pre 1844), though here it is the image of the new mechanical era that overpowers one. The painting of the great tower of Fonthill Abby (begun 1796) overawes one with its size. The building, by James Wyatt, was not to be a mere house; its enormous hall was a monument to the middle ages and the name, ‘Abbey’, suggested an origin in one of those granted to the nobility by Henry VIII.

This second period of the Gothic Revival, from Strawberry Hill to Fonthill, was followed by one in which there was a deeper understanding of Gothic architecture. In 1817 Thomas Rickman published ‘An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of Architecture in England’, based on his studies of the dates and designs of a large range of medieval buildings. It was he who named the periods of Gothic as Early English 1189-1272, Decorated 1272-1377, and Perpendicular 1377-1547. The destruction of the Houses of Parliament by fire in 1834 led to the competition for the design of its replacement, with a stipulation that it must be in either Elizabethan or Gothic style. The winning design, by Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin, conforms to this, although, looking at the long facade facing the river, one can see the regularity of a classical order. Pugin was a convert to Catholicism and believed that Gothic was the only true style of architecture. In 1836 he published ‘Contrasts: or a Parallel between the Noble Edifices of the Middle Ages and Corresonding Buildings of the Present Day’, in which he compared drawings of an imaginary medieval town, with churches, halls, convents and almshouses with a town of his own time with its mean chapels, factory chimneys, prisons and workhouses.. For him classical architecture was foreign and pagan; Gothic architecture was British and Christian. [His own house, St Marie’ Grange, is at Alderbury in Wiltshire (1835).] The battle between the styles continued through the next seventy years of the Victorian age, leaving behind the original ideas of the Gothic Revival described by Dr Frost.

Gareth Slater

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