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The Gothic Revival revisited.

Astonishingly little is said or written about probably the most powerful artistic movement of the nineteenth century, and far less than it deserves. Centred in the British Isles, it spread its influence throughout the English-speaking world and Continental Europe. But why should we bother with it now? Consider: in Britain itself, it left a more emphatic mark in the fifty years of its heyday (roughly, 1830 to 1880) than other styles did in several centuries; and then, quite abruptly, it stopped, to be followed by three generations'-worth of scornful abuse and indifference. Yet, while it throve, it had an impact on every town, and nearly every village, in Britain; and its impact was not simply in architecture, but extended into domestic furnishing and decoration - and beyond that, into life-styles and moral values.

The uniqueness of the Gothic Revival is indeed that, virtually alone among architectural styles, it was founded on and proclaimed moral values. It was as though the stem religious revival which marked the years following the Regency was looking for a means of physical expression, and found the Gothic style to hand, exactly fitting its ideals. It is unfair but irresistible to quote Newman: 'It would be a gain to the country if it were vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion than at present it shows itself to be.' That is the view of a leading clergyman, still in the Church of England, in 1839. It is not compatible with the light, smart styles of Adam or the Regency and light and smart was exactly what the Gothic revival was not. What is one to make of an architectural style where, for example, the workmen building the Albert Memorial were congratulated on their freedom from swearing and drunkenness, and where carpenters in particular were repeatedly told to remember that they followed the same trade as Jesus, and must therefore be very moral?

Although the Gothic Revival is a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, the beginning is rather confused. Medieval Gothic - 'the real McCoy', as it were - never completely died out. As we look nowadays at the final triumphs of Perpendicular High Gothic, such as King's College Chapel, we can see that, beautiful and triumphant as they are, they must be the end of a story. There is a hint of neurosis about them; this is a style that can go nowhere from here. But for the next two centuries, here and there, the tradition lingered on. Oxford, of course, as befits 'the Home of Lost Causes', kept it going; the staircase in Christchurch is as good as any medieval work. So, too, at Cambridge, where Peterhouse Chapel and the Old Library at St John's show that there were still craftsmen who could manage a pointed arch or a bit of tracery. My personal favourite in this 'Gothic Survival' is a ruined church in Plymouth. Built in the Restoration - when clever young Mr Wren was filling the City of London with his light, intelligent preaching boxes - it is dedicated to 'Charles, King and Martyr'. It is a fully Gothic church - or it was, until the Luftwaffe burnt it out in 1941 and the City Engineer surrounded the ruins with a roundabout ten years later. From 1550 to 1800, there was probably not a year when a pointed arch was not being built or restored somewhere.

Another thread runs from the past towards the Revival. This was antiquarianism. During the eighteenth century, while other architects with a better eye to the main, i.e., the classical, chance were publicising Greek and Roman ruins like the palace of Diocletian at Split, worthy souls were publishing books with titles like Monasticon Anglicanum, describing English medieval remains. But the third thread was the discovery of medieval style as decoration, slapped happily on to buildings, often of perfectly Palladian plan and proportion. The most famous of these exercises in papier-mache fan vaulting was Horace Walpole's villa at Strawberry Hill, but the use of medieval detailing to pretty up an otherwise ordinary building went on for nearly a century. There is a famous building in Cambridge, New Court at St John's College, which faces down the Backs for a great distance. Look at it closely, and it is a straightforward symmetrical building which could have been built in any style; but it is decorated with crockets, buttresses and finials until it nearly dies of it. It was built in the 1820s, at the end of the pointed-arch-as-decoration period, and just as the full seriousness of the Revival burst upon the world.

The opening salvo was fired in 1818, with the Church Building Act and the Church Building Society. Rather late in the day, Government became anxious about the lack of moral teaching for the huddled masses of the industrial towns. Rather late - because the French Revolution had happened nearly thirty years before, and showed what happened when Deism, or worse, was allowed to take hold; but better late than never. Some of the Churches built as a result were classical, and are called 'Waterloo Churches'. But many were Gothic, and of these probably the best is St Luke's, Chelsea (J. Savage, 1819). This is, if anything, Perpendicular, and it points to the oddity that the Gothic Revival ran, as it were, backwards, beginning with the last of the true Gothic styles and climaxing with Early English a generation later.

Not all these early Gothic buildings were churches. One, much to be regretted, was a country house designed as a fantastical abbey, Fonthill in Wiltshire. William Beckford, who had inherited a huge fortune from his father, Alderman Beckford, spent it on a creation we now only know from contemporary prints. But it had a tower 276 feet tall. The man who had been clerk of works on the job, on his death-bed, sent for Beckford and confessed that though the plans had shown good foundations for the tower, and Beckford had paid for those foundations, they had not been put in. Beckford rushed to the man who had just bought the house from him to tell the tale. They decided to wait; and, sure enough, the tower collapsed, carrying the 'abbey' with it.

At about this time emerges one of the two great theorists of the Revival, Augustus Welby Pugin. It is part of the interest of the Revival that it includes half-a-dozen very great figures, either as theorists or practitioners, or, as in Pugin's case, both; and, since we are dealing with the nineteenth century, they are all highly literate and well-documented people. We know hardly anything about medieval architects like Henry of Yeveley, but we know almost everything about the professional lives of Scott, Street, Butterfield, Ruskin and Pugin.

Pugin was a particularly interesting and difficult man. Born in 1812, the son of a French emigre architect who worked for Nash, he died at forty in 1852, almost certainly of overwork, just having time to put his Gothic impress on the Great Exhibition of 1851. He was a Roman Catholic convert, and a pugnacious one: when the Martyr's Memorial (a very good Gothic structure!) was built in Oxford, he described the tragic Protestant figures it commemorates as 'vile, blasphemous impostors', and the subscribers to the Memorial as 'foul revilers, tyrants, usurpers, extortioners and liars'. When this attack was published, not surprisingly, it lost him a job rebuilding the front of Balliol. His main literary work, published when he was 21, is Contrasts, in which pairs of engravings compare medieval and modern scenes, always to the disadvantage of the latter. The medieval town is a mass of almshouses for the kindly treatment of the aged poor, chantries for praying for the souls of the departed, monasteries for the leading of holy lives, chapels and spires; the modern town leaves pointing to heaven to the chimney of the local laundry, and the almshouses are replaced by a workhouse.

Pugin did everything; when not writing (or sailing, his recreation) he designed stage scenery, built - mainly - churches and designed interiors and furniture. His great work was the decoration of the Houses of Parliament; a controversy raged for years about the exact apportionment of credit between Sir Charles Barry, the main architect, and Pugin, his coadjutor. It can be summed up simply by saying that Barry was responsible for the plan and basic form (which are symmetrical, and could easily have been Classical) and Pugin for everything else, including the furnishings. It is typical of the scorn in which the Gothic Revival came to be held that some of the finest pieces, including the main bed from the Speaker's House, have in our own time been seen in - and recovered from - antique dealers' shops, having been got rid of as junk.

Enter the Camden Society; Pugin and this Society were made for each other. It was founded in Cambridge in 1839, by a group of earnest young men who thought that Art, Religion, and most other things had been at their best round about 1300, and propagated their ideas vigorously (everything to do with the Gothic Revival was done vigorously - that is part of its charm). It was not long before commentators began to notice, and point out, that the Middle Ages included other things besides good architecture, and that the Oxford Movement and the Gothic Revival hung together and pointed in one direction only - towards Rome. In 1844, an evangelical clergyman called Dr. Francis Close published a sermon entitled: The Restoration of Churches is the Restoration of Popery. The Camden Society prudently changed its name to the Ecclesiological Society, and ploughed on; it squashed Dr Close by reporting that in a lecture he had spoken in praise of some fourth-century heretics and thereby incurred the anathema pronounced by the Third Ecumenical Council. Deviationism was hunted down as vigorously as it was to be in the Soviet Kremlin: Gilbert Scott got into trouble for imprudently winning a competition for a church in Hamburg at the same time. This would have been a Lutheran place of worship; how shocking! Scott attempted a theological defence of the Lutherans as not being too bad, really; it did not save him from censure.

One other major theorist - the greatest name of all - must be set after Pugin. This was John Ruskin, the great artistic Ayatollah of the nineteenth century. Best remembered perhaps as the supporter of Turner, his architectural writings had enormous influence. Not, at first, a friend to the Revival, he was inspired to become one by Venice, and then by the great churches of Northern France. He condensed his medievalism into what was - for him - a short book, the Seven Lamps of Architecture, and the names of the 'lamps' will indicate his philosophy. They were the Lamps of Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory and Obedience, and they illuminated a doctrine of hard and honest work, and of design according to the principles of Early English and Decorated Gothic (never Perpendicular, and, of course never, ever 'the enervated sensuality of the Renaissance' - about the kindest term he uses to describe the classical style).

Ruskin was a deeply religious writer, and Seven Lamps is studded with the argument derived from the Bible and literally hundreds of direct quotations from it. Indeed, there are times when, reading him, one has the sense of reading one of those medieval philosophers who derive a theory of the State directly from the Book of Judges. He was also a sound Protestant, which helped a good deal in Victorian England, and which rescued the Gothic Revival from the taint of Popery. There was a streak of melancholy in him, and a sense of inner failure, which is sympathetic (his own sad personal life chimes with this). When he revised Seven Lamps in 1880 - when the end of the Gothic Revival was in sight - he described the book as 'the most useless I ever wrote'. No building ever satisfied him; his beloved Rouen Cathedral let him down when he discovered, climbing about the roof, that the decoration of the towers was omitted on the sides which faced the roof and would never be seen - the Lamp of Truth having gone out there. The Oxford Museum was to be built according to his principles, and bits of it with his money; but the University cut off funds half-way through. He believed that thinking and writing about architecture, being a practising architect and being an honest workman formed a continuum, and built a brick pillar in the Museum with his own hands; when he was safely out of the way, they knocked it down and had it re-built by a professional brickie.

To do Ruskin justice, he was not simply a melancholy reactionary, and would have had little influence if he had been. He accepted the science and technology of the nineteenth century, and was troubled by them. In Seven Lamps he asks a question which still awaits an answer. When, during the evolutionary process, it was decided (by God, of course) that vertebrate creatures were called for, why did He decide that calcium was the appropriate element for bones, instead of the omnipresent carbon? If carbon had been chosen, bones could have had the strength of steel, and living creatures could have been infinitely bigger, more agile, etc. Ruskin comments that there are no doubt other worlds where this has happened - a relevant thought for our own age.

Before one leaves the thinkers and turns to the practitioners, it is interesting to note that the attitude of mind I have called antiquarianism ran on, not merely in the copying of thirteenth-century style, but in a deeper and quite odd attitude to history. When, at the end of the Revival, Pearson designed Truro Cathedral, he invented a history for it in which it had taken many years - perhaps a century - to build. He subtly altered the design of various parts so that it might seem that an earlier part had been built in an earlier style; and when an American university put up some buildings in a Gothic style in the 1920s, the doorsteps were hollowed out so that it might seem that centuries of scholars' feet had worn them down. This does not strike me as intellectually healthy.

Theorists built, and practitioners theorised, so the line between them is blurred. But there can be no doubt that the leading practical architect of the Revival was Sir Gilbert Scott. No great scholar, he was an indefatigable man of business - and died before his seventieth year, worn out, like Pugin, Dickens, Street and Brunel; the great Victorians did not spare themselves. When he died in 1878, The Builder published an incomplete list of the buildings where he had worked, either as designer or extensive restorer. There were 730 of them; 39 cathedrals and 476 churches head the list. No other architect can have left such an impact on Britain. The stories of his busy-ness are endless - and he left a fortune of [pounds]180,000. His staff in London would receive a telegram: 'Am in Market Harborough. Where should I be?' (In another version, 'Why am I here?'). He admired a church under construction, and asked after the architect, to be given his own name. He entered the site of another church, began to give orders, and was told 'This is Mr Street's church: yours is just down the road'. In 1856, he entered the competition for a vast new block of Government offices, to run between Whitehall and St James's Park and front Downing Street. His Gothic design was successful; but he had reckoned without the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston. 'Pam' was an old survivor of the Regency, who had no use for Gothic. The story is complicated, but in Scott's Recollections, he was summoned to Downing Street and kept waiting for three hours listening to 'Pam' eat a very good lunch through an open door. When Scott was suitably famished, the Prime Minister had him in and told him that he could keep the commission, but only if he designed in an 'Italian' style. Scott was a thorough professional; he believed that Gothic was best, but what the client wanted, the client should have. He designed the majestic building which now houses, inter alia, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Scott had, however, a rather elegant revenge. The next large commission in London was for a railway station - the front of St Pancras. All the material prepared for the Government's competition was still to hand, and so, extensively adapted, the Foreign Office became a station hotel. It still stands to astonish newcomers to London and to delight those who have known it for years. Next door to it now stands the new British Library; the roof-line of its eastern block has been deliberately lowered to allow views of the spires and pinnacles of St Pancras. The architect of the Library was told when he began work that, if St Pancras was in the way, St Pancras could well be expendable; such is fashion.

Houses, especially large mansions for rich people, were a useful part of Scott's practice. Probably the biggest was at Kelham, just outside Newark in Nottinghamshire. This is a huge hulk of brickwork, technically quite advanced: iron and concrete, central heating, gas lighting and a lift were included, all innovative for 1858. Girouard's standard work on The Victorian Country House describes the design as a piece of Gothic rhetoric which might as well have been a town hall. It was also a hopeless piece of over-building, for an estate which yielded an income of 'only' [pounds]11,500 a year to its owners, and its passage into institutional use was not surprising; appropriately enough, it finished as the office of the local council. Scott showed his virtuosity by designing as many different types of window as he could at Kelham - all roughly Gothic, of course. As he himself wrote, 'the number of changes that may be rung on this one feature. . .are as inexhaustible as they are charming', and the score runs: nine different designs on the east front, nine on the south and fourteen on the west. Girouard counted them, which must have been fun - more fun, perhaps, than having Sir Gilbert Scott as your architect.

I have said that the Gothic Revival died quite suddenly, towards the end of the nineteenth century. That is true, but there are exceptions, some of them very fine. The great tower of Bristol University, finely sited, was a-building at the time of the First World War. The gift of the Wills (tobacco) family, it and the attached building cost [pounds]511,000. It is modelled, broadly, on the Tour de Beurre of Rouen (again!), and the top third of it is useless, being an openwork lantern. Oh, splendid uselessness! In 1903, work began on Liverpool Cathedral, in a kind of simplified or streamlined Gothic. The architect, who won the competition in his early twenties, was Scott's grandson, Sir George Scott, and whereas Gilbert Scott, a Protestant, had designed many Catholic churches, his grandson, a Catholic, was to design the greatest Protestant cathedral ever to be built.

In a kind of apostolic succession, Scott trained Street, as Street was to train Philip Webb. Street was a better, or at least a more scholarly, architect then Scott, but he lacked Scott's flair for winning competitions and gaining commissions by flattery and often by intrigue (there never were perspective drawings like Scott's, in which the sun always shines and the proposed buildings seem to glitter). Street is remembered now for the Law Courts in the Strand; this is, with the Houses of Parliament, the best-known Gothic building in the land, and for the same reason - television interviews take place outside it, and it has become instantly recognisable.

Alfred Waterhouse deserves to be picked out from the long list of secondary Gothic architects for two tremendous buildings: the Natural History Museum in South Kensington (what a good day for the title industry that was!) and Manchester Town Hall, the 'Palace of King Cotton'. Manchester, exuberant and progressive, the home of Liberal politics, the Manchester School of Economics, the Manchester Guardian and Mr. Charles Halle's Band, thinking today what London would think tomorrow, decided to crown a century of progress with the Town Hall to beat all other Northern Town Halls. They did, although its practicality as a seat of public administration may be doubted by anyone who has tried to conduct business there.

As the Gothic Revival fell from favour, many of its buildings survived only because they were too big to knock down, and would be too expensive to replace; and many of them were not yet paid for (a town hall would be paid for by money borrowed over forty years). But the fall from favour was steep, and was summed up in the comment of P. G. Wodehouse, that, admirable as the Victorians were, 'none of them was to be trusted near a trowel and a pile of bricks'. Ruskin's reputation went down with the rest, once religious fervour ebbed, and it was recognised that his sonorous prose contained a good deal of pretentiousness concealed behind mock humility. To this was added the curious habit of blaming him personally for any Victorian building one happened particularly to dislike. He was credited, for example, with having designed Keble College, Oxford, and Kenneth Clark, writing in 1930, says that no undergraduate's or young don's afternoon walk was complete without pausing for a healthy sneer at Keble.

Keble was, in fact, by Butterfield. He was the most thorough-going High Church designer, and his importance even in the present day is that he designed the text-book church of that movement, All Saints, Margaret Street, London. This is a setting for ritual and sacraments, rather than preaching and argument. It is massively decorated - something the Low Church or Evangelical party disapproved of; what attracts the eye will soon distract the mind, whatever Ruskin says. But All Saints is still used as a 'text' in university courses in the history and thought of the nineteenth century. Kenneth Clark wrote of Butterfield's 'sadistic hatred of beauty', and Butterfield was indeed an utterly convinced theorist. If, by following his theory - which he got wholesale from Siena Cathedral - he shocked the eye, so much the worse for the eye. Moreover, he was unmoved by earlier work when extending or adapting something. In the Close at Salisbury stands a theological college whose original building is a William-and-Mary house, once the Deanery, of the greatest elegance in its own style. When Butterfield was invited to extend it, he did so quite ruthlessly in flint, stone and Gothic. Nowadays the whole combination has charm, but it is understandable that for the first fifty years or so Butterfield's extension was regarded as a brutal affront to a (possible Wren) house.

Butterfield did hardly anything but ecclesiastical work, on principle, and the only major house by him is Milton Ernest Hall in Bedfordshire, designed as a favour for a relation (now an hotel, and therefore accessible). This also is fierce, uncompromising and polychromatic. Like so many buildings of the Revival, it leaves a curious after-taste in the mind - 'did I really see that, or was I dreaming?' It is only fair to him to say, however, that when faced with a limited budget and a strong local tradition in materials, he could do a simple, correct and most attractive church-plus-parsonage, as at Coalpit Heath in Gloucestershire.

To mention just a few architects and a few buildings is to mention only the minutest fraction of the Revival. But it was not only, or even mainly, an affair of huge buildings designed by flamboyant extrovert personalities, each one of whom deserved the epitaph Pope wrote for Vanbrugh the architect of Blenheim Palace: 'Lie heavy on him, earth, for he/Laid many heavy loads on thee.' Its essence lies in its local impact in so many small towns and villages. It is here one may see the churches, schools and almshouses, usually grouped round a Gothic vicarage.

Every one has its own story and I end with a reference to the church at Highnam, again in Gloucestershire, which lies a couple of miles out of Gloucester on the road leading into Wales.

Highnam church was built by Thomas Gambier Parry, whose father and grandfather were both directors of the old East India Company. When young, Gambier Parry inherited both their large fortunes, and decided to devote his wealth to doing good. This is such an unusual thought in the late twentieth century that it deserves to be repeated with emphasis: He Devoted His Wealth to Doing Good. Not a Wilberforce or a Shaftesbury, he decided that his best course was to become an English country gentleman and purchase an estate. He turned down one offered to him for the sole reason that the district in which it lay did not offer enough scope for his benevolence. Eventually he found Highnam, a village which lacked everything - especially a church - and was near the growing industrial city of Gloucester, with a satisfying supply of the labouring poor. He was also a cultivated Victorian gentleman, a friend of Ruskin, Leighton and Millais, who formed an art collection which he left to the public.

He designed the church largely himself, in co-operation with Woodyer, a pupil of Butterfield. It was much larger than the village justified, and stands imposingly on a knoll at the entrance to the village. It is in the correct thirteenth-century style, as recommended by the Camden Society - of which Gambier Parry was a member - in the 1840s. The symbolism is thoroughgoing; for example, the carved capitals before one reaches the font are carved with thistles, to symbolise original sin, but, after the font, when sin has been washed away, they become vine-leaves, roses of Sharon and so on. (Not one person in a thousand would notice this.) It obviously cost a lot; we do not know how much, and nor did Gambier Parry, who instructed his bank manager not to tell him (this is not to be recommended). The going rate for an Early English church suitable for a village or small town was about [pounds]1,450, but Highnam obviously cost ten times that. To some eyes, the style is a little bit Frenchified and a little muscular, not to say scrawny; but these are minor features. Every church has its own glory, and Highnam's are its wonderful frescoes of New Testament characters, again by Gambler Parry, a better than competent artist. It is very important, and not at all easy, to get inside Highnam and not be content with the outside; but, as in so many churches, that depends on getting the key (instructions in the porch). Go in the summer; in winter, the church can seem cold and dark.

Gambier Parry's wife and many children died young: TB was no respecter of wealth, or of good intentions. (One son grew up to be Hubert Parry, the composer, best-known for Jerusalem.) The dedication of his fine church is to 'The Holy Innocents' - and who shall blame him? At the dedication, he entertained, it is said, 700 people, but after dinner he slipped away to place a bust of his wife in the church, and no doubt to pray. He remains a model of the high seriousness which drove the Gothic Revival, as so much else in Victorian life.

On a visit to Highnam some five years ago, I met the grave-digger at work. She was a girl of about twenty, competently handling a powerful excavator. I have been trying ever since to extract the moral from this contrast.
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Author:Wedd, George M.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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