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Introduction to the Gothic Revival

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The Gothic style of architecture was devised during the Middle Ages and used for the great cathedrals of Northern Europe

The Gothic style of architecture was devised during the Middle Ages and used for the great cathedrals of Northern Europe – e.g. Notre Dame in Paris (1163-1345).

The style was characterised by:

? pointed arches based on the form of a leaf

? sinuous tracery

? sculpted foliage

? grotesque ornament – gargoyles, mythical beasts etc.

Georgian Gothick

Enthusiasm for the Gothic style began to reappear in the 18th century, during the Georgian era. This ‘Gothic Revival’ was influenced by literature. Writers published horror novels and poems which celebrated the gloomy atmosphere of medieval ruins and churchyards – e.g. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764); Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). These novels inspired a romantic enthusiasm for Gothic architecture, which was associated with melancholy and the grotesque.

Aristocrats began to take an interest in medievalism and started to build Gothic structures in their gardens. See, for example:

? the Gothic banqueting house at Gibside in County Durham

? the Temple of Liberty at Stowe, designed by James Gibbs (1741)

Horace Walpole owned a house called Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, which he began to remodel in the Gothic style from 1749. Walpole admired the visual properties of Gothic and the associations it aroused. However, he had little understanding of genuine medieval architecture, and the house therefore resembles a fairytale castle. This early, naïve phase of the Gothic Revival is known as ‘Georgian Gothick’.

Pugin

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. This was changed by the Victorian architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-52). Pugin had studied Gothic from an early age. He had a nostalgic admiration for the Middle Ages, which he called the 'Age of Faith', and was convinced that Gothic was the only style fit for a Christian country.

Pugin published a series of manifestos – e.g. Contrasts, or a parallel between the noble edifices of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and similar buildings of the present day; shewing the present decay of taste (1836). Each page shows a scene from the Middle Ages and one from the present. The implication is that architecture has deteriorated and so has society.

Pugin was appalled by the effects of the Industrial Revolution and wished to retreat into the Middle Ages. Under his influence, the Gothic Revival spread around the country in the form of new parish churches. Virtually every city, town and village in Britain now has a Gothic Revival church.

A turning point for the Gothic Revival came in 1834 when the old Houses of Parliament were destroyed by fire. Charles Barry won the competition to design the new building, but he hired Pugin to produce Gothic detailing. Pugin designed everything from the furniture and floor tiles up to the façade.

High Victorian Gothic

In 1850 the Gothic Revival entered a new phase, which we call High Victorian Gothic. The famous art critic John Ruskin fell in love with the architecture of Venice, and published a book entitled The Stones of Venice. Ruskin inspired British architects to tour the Continent and they began to use French and Italian motifs in their work. Ruskin supervised the building of the Natural History Museum at Oxford (1855-60).

The most prolific architect of this period was Sir George Gilbert Scott, who designed the Midland Grand Hotel in London. This is a full-blooded example of High Victorian Gothic, with Venetian arches and Flemish gables. Scott also designed the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park, which features a statue of Queen Victoria’s late husband seated beneath a magnificent Gothic canopy.

A leading High Victorian architect was William Butterfield, who designed Keble College, Oxford (1870s). This has a relentlessly patterned exterior achieved through the use of ‘structural polychromy’ – colour is embedded in the materials.

American Gothic

The Gothic Revival spread to the USA. American architects began by building conventional Gothic churches – e.g. St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York by James Renwick (1878). However, American architects soon began adapting Gothic to new building types. The Woolworth Building (1910) is an early skyscraper designed by Cass Gilbert in the Gothic style. This is nicknamed the ‘cathedral of commerce.’

The leading exponent of Gothic in America was Frank Furness, who designed the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (1876). This follows in the tradition of High Victorian Gothic.

The iconography of Gothic entered popular culture. The Gothic Revival had emerged from horror novels in the 18th century. In the 1930s, the style was a key influence on early horror films, especially those made by Universal Studios. Universal’s version of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi (1931) helped to define the iconography of the horror film. The production design evoked the Gothic gloom of medieval ruins. The film historian David J. Skal coined the term ‘Hollywood Gothic’ to define these films.

Reading:

Atterbury, P. and Wainwright, C. (1994) Pugin: a gothic passion. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Brooks, C. (1999) The Gothic Revival. London: Phaidon.

Curl, J. S. (1990) Victorian Architecture. Newton Abbott: David & Charles.

Dixon, R. and Muthesius, S. (1978) Victorian Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson.

Pugin, A.W.N. (1969) Contrasts. Leicester: Leicester University Press (reprint).

Pugin, A.W.N. (1969) The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture. London: St. Martin’s Press (reprint).

Stanton, P. (1971) Pugin. London: Thames and Hudson.

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