Georgian Gothick: the Curious Origins of the Gothic Revival
Keywords: 18th century, Gothic Revival, gothic style, middle ages, georgian architecture, georgian gothick, gibside, stowe, temple of liberty, james gibbs, strawberry hill, horace walpole, fonthill abbey, william beckford.
The Gothic Revival was one of the most significant movements in the history of western architecture. The Gothic style was devised in the Middle Ages; it was the style of the great cathedrals of Northern Europe. Enthusiasm for the style began to reappear in the 18th century. Fundamentally, the Gothic Revival was the resurrection of the Gothic style of the Middle Ages.
Wealthy landowners created elaborate landscape gardens for themselves and filled them with miniature garden buildings in a range of different styles. Aristocrats began to take an interest in medievalism and started to build Gothic structures in their gardens. For example, this is a Gothic banqueting house at Gibside in County Durham. It shows no understanding of the grammar of Gothic architecture; it was just a whimsical building for entertaining guests. It is like a stage set that summons up an atmosphere of medieval mysticism.
A more famous example is the Temple of Liberty at Stowe, a country house in Buckinghamshire. This was designed by James Gibbs in 1741. Again, it has nothing in common with a real medieval building except that Gothic details have been assembled on the surface. So this is how the Gothic Revival began, as plaything of wealthy landowners. This early, naïve phase of the Gothic Revival is known as ‘Georgian Gothick’.
The movement gathered momentum and soon eccentric aristocrats began to build themselves grandiose Gothic mansions. Horace Walpole was the son of Britain’s first prime minister. He was in love with the Gothic and he wrote a Gothic horror novel entitled The Castle of Otranto (1764). He owned a house called Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, which he began to remodel in the Gothic style from 1749.
Walpole had no real understanding of medieval architecture, but he admired its visual properties and the associations it aroused. He added these battlements to make it look like a fairytale castle. Gothic windows were introduced. For the interior he produced decoration like these vaults. In genuine Gothic architecture vaults like these are functional, they’re designed to support the roof. Here they’re purely decorative. They’re actually made of papier maché.
The most notorious example of a gothic mansion was Fonthill Abbey (1795-1815). It wasn’t an abbey, it was a country house built by William Beckford, an eccentric millionaire who owned sugar plantations in the West Indies. He was said to be the richest man in England. He built a huge, grandiose country house that had a giant octagonal tower with four wings radiating out from it. It was designed by James Wyatt. The tower was as high as a cathedral, but Beckford would sit under the tower and use it as a dining room.
He was tremendously impatient so he paid for the house to be built during the night. The workmen had to use flaming torches, which would have been a very bizarre pseudo-medieval spectacle. However, it seems the foundations hadn’t been laid properly because the house collapsed spectacularly one night in 1825, although Beckford had sold it before that. He only said he wished he’d been there to see it happen.
In conclusion, the Gothic Revival began as a whimsical style that celebrated a romantic notion of the Middle Ages but there was no real understanding of genuine medieval buildings.
Please see my articles on other aspects of Gothic architecture: