Nationality and gothic: Roger Stalley reviews the first serious overview of the complex story of the arrival and assimilation of the gothic style in Britain.
English gothic architecture is full of surprises, especially so in the case of Lincoln Cathedral, a building that for sheer creative energy is hard to beat. Founded on the initiative of Bishop Hugh, a Carthusian monk from France, the cathedral reveals little sign of Frenchness and no trace whatsoever of Carthusian austerity. In many ways Lincoln set the tone for gothic architecture in England, a monument that, in architectural terms, is quintessentially English.
Quite how and why English builders developed a form of gothic so different from France has puzzled historians for years; gone are the days when English design was simply regarded as a natural expression of the Anglo-Saxon psyche. The question of national identity is one of several interesting issues raised by Peter Draper, whose spectacular book will undoubtedly become a landmark in English architectural studies. The text covers both the initial or 'transitional' stage of gothic as well as the period immediately after 1220, when a degree of consensus emerged about what a great church should look like, an era branded almost two centuries ago by Rickman as 'Early English'. Draper puts forward the view that the latter can be 'interpreted as a significant manifestation of a wider sense of "national" identity'. This is controversial territory since it is hard to know just how audiences in the 13th century--especially well-travelled clerics--viewed their buildings and the extent to which they regarded them as unique to England. There is no doubt that identity with the (English) past mattered, but in many cases this seems to have taken a local rather than a national form.
Draper's book is the first serious attempt to provide an overview of this dynamic episode in English architecture. The major buildings have of course been analysed and discussed in countless learned articles and papers, but there has been no authoritative synthesis, leaving the novice to struggle in a sea of literature dominated by detailed monographic studies, a situation in which the broader issues have been neglected. Part of the problem is the extraordinary diversity that existed between 1170 and 1250, making it well-nigh impossible to compose a coherent stylistic narrative. It was an exciting era, but not one that can be described in simple terms. French techniques arrived in England in an arbitrary and ad hoc way and nowhere was gothic implanted as a complete or integrated style. Even the presence of a French master mason at Canterbury failed to produce a structure that looks instantly French.
It has been said in the past that the English failed to understand what gothic was all about, although that of course depends on how one defines gothic. There is no doubt that in England the style had more to do with visual excitement than structural finesse. As Draper emphasises, there was a strong element of continuity in English gothic, with imported ideas being grafted on to romanesque modes of building. The historian's difficulties are compounded by the loss of key works, especially monastic churches. Nor is it easy to tackle the subject from the point of view of the architects or master masons, who remain at best shadowy figures; in only a few cases do artistic identities emerge with any clarity.
Having devoted much of his career to the study of English gothic, Draper is well qualified to tackle these problems. His book is structured in a subtle way, eschewing any notion of chronological progression. Only two cathedrals get chapters to themselves, Canterbury and Lincoln, and in each case the discussion is built around a theme rather than the monument for its own sake. Thus the chapter on Lincoln focuses on the continuity and self-referential nature of the workshop over a period of almost half a century. The downside of this approach is that consideration of some major works is fragmented (Wells Cathedral is a case in point), although this is a price worth paying, given the need to focus on issues rather than monuments. There are chapters devoted to the nature of patronage, the parish church, and the relationship between liturgy and architecture, the last one of the most valuable sections in the book.
For those requiring a straightforward analysis of the architecture, a chapter entitled 'Transformation: Evolution or Revolution' provides an instructive summary of the characteristics of English gothic. A chapter on regionalism perhaps raises more questions than it answers, for in the absence of any consistent 'centre' or mainstream, it is hard to know what is 'regional' (it could be argued that all English architecture in the period was to a greater or lesser extent 'regional'). Draper's focus is on England, the 'colonial' dimension of English gothic lying beyond his frame of reference. However, it is worth noting that by 1250 English styles of building had been adopted (or imposed) throughout the British Isles, from the Orkney Islands to the western seaboard of Ireland, a geographical spread that is not without relevance when it comes to questions of 'national' identity.
There is no doubt that Draper has placed the subject on a new footing. He has a superb command of the literature and touches on scores of pertinent issues (although it is noticeable that he steers clear of geometrical and structural matters). The text is cautious and measured in tone as befits an academic study, and there are occasions when more strident or forthright comment might have been appropriate. What one wonders does the author make of the west facade of Lincoln Cathedral? The brief discussion focuses on the (lost) tracery of the main window, but one would have welcomed an assessment of the overall design, which it is hard to regard as anything more than an incoherent mess brought about by the retention of the romanesque massif. Here, as so often happened in England, the romanesque past imposed itself on the gothic future.
Roger Stalley is Professor of the History of Art at Trinity College, Dublin.
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|Title Annotation:||The Formation of English Gothic: Architecture and Identity|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2007|
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