Studies in the Gothic Revival.
Studies in the Gothic Revival, edited by Michael McCarthy and Karina O'Neill, is a collection of various essays on the topic of architectural and design history during the Neo-Gothic revival. The book assembles together the papers delivered at a conference held in the Irish Architectural Archive in January 2005 to mark the retirement of Professor McCarthy from University College Dublin. Michael McCarthy is best known as the author of Origins of the Gothic Revival (1987), a standard textbook for students of architectural history. He is a former professor of the University of Toronto, and is currently Professor Emeritus of University College Dublin.
The ten illustrated papers contained in this book, although focusing largely on Irish Neo-Gothic architecture, cover a wide variety of topics on the Gothic Revival from Irish public architecture to fan-vaulting to the importance of pattern-books in the transmission of styles.
For students of architectural history, the book has much to recommend it. The varied essays offer insights into the careers of Gothic Revival architects practising in Ireland such as Christopher Myers, Thomas Rickman, Richard Pierce and the oddly-named Batty Langley. Other papers give a detailed background and history of particular buildings such as the Sligo assizes courthouse and St Peter's church in Phibsboro, Dublin. Although the book has a clear focus on the Irish context of the Gothic Revival, there is also an international dimension given in two essays; one by Barbara Arciszewska on English influences on Polish Neo-Gothic and another by Teresa Watts on Trinity Church, Potsdam, New York.
So why would this book of interest to scholars working in the field of Gothic Studies? At first glance, this book may seem of purely architectural interest, but there are several papers that touch on generic Gothic themes of translation, imitation and literature.
For architecture and literature are bound closely together in the story of the Gothic Revival, not only in Ireland, but in the wider sphere of the British Isles. The genesis of Gothic Revival literature, the works of Walpole and Beckford, not only contain lavish architectural descriptive passages, but the authors were also the wealthy commissioners of two of the landmark buildings of early Gothic revival architecture--Strawberry Hill and Fonthill Abbey. In both buildings we find an amalgamation of Gothic literary tropes; spectacular spaces, historical quotations and fantastic adornments. While Strawberry Hill is the Castle of Otranto made flesh (minus gigantic helmet), the ruined Fonthill Abbey is a truly Gothic confection; a nightmarish amalgamation of literary terror and architectural reality. Similarly, in the canon of Irish Gothic, the architectural component is no less compelling as backdrop, setting and metaphor for the Irish Gothic tradition. This is especially apparent in some of the papers in Studies in the Gothic Revival. In Andrew Tierney's essay on Leap Castle 'From Gothic to Gothic Revival: an archeology of Leap Castle', he describes a remarkable building formerly inhabited by novelist Mildred Derby. Tierney describes his attempts to construct an architectural chronology for Leap Castle, which he describes as a place 'where narratives of Gothic horror might be played out' (47). The Gothic nature of the castle (with rooms fancifully titled the Bloody Chapel and the Priest's House) permeates the architectural reconstructions, which are based on, among other sources the tale of Kilman Castle; the House of Horror (1908) published by Mildred Darby under the nom de plume of Andrew Merry.
The notion of Gothic space in actual terms is also explored. Joseph O'Connell, an expert on Irish stucco-work, takes the exquisite fan-vaulted Henry VII chapel in Westminster as a starting point and traces its many bizarre reinterpretations in the Irish Gothic tradition where it reappears variously as ceilings in Irish mock-Gothic castles, and most astonishingly, in a lady's boudoir in Castleward House, Co. Down. Stucco is seen as the perfect Neo Gothic material, imitative, derivative, shallow, striving to appear something it is not--the Gothic trope of appearance and reality set in plaster.
The theme of transmitted and translated ideas is also explored in this collection of essays. Barbara Arciszewska examines the role of the pattern book, that stylistic template of craftsmen and artists, in order to explore how the Gothic style reaches Poland from Ireland and Britain. This not only offers an interesting parallel with the transmission of the English notion of the literary Gothic throughout Europe, but posits the interesting theory that these strangely ninteenth-century Gothic residences in Poland strove not only to look back at the medieval past, but also towards the future in terms of both an architectural and social context. 'Thus', Arciszewska concludes 'the English pattern books offered models not just for those interested in the conservative agenda, but also for those who believed in the progressive social ideals' (139).
Therefore, this, the fourth volume in the series of 'UCD Studies in the History of Art' is a recommended text. It may prove a rather detailed book for scholars predominantly interested in literature, but offers interesting sidelights from an architectural perspective on the Gothic tradition, and is well worth dipping in to. For students of architectural history this is an excellent source-book on vagaries of Irish Gothic architecture. Nicely illustrated and conscientiously footnoted, this is a varied and colourful read.
Institute of Technology Carlow