GOTHIC AT THE GOTT

Posted by Dr David Annwn Jones on May 07, 2015 in Blog tagged with , , , , , , , ,

 

The literary Gothic did not emerge ex nihilo; rather it drew on well-established cultural meanings and    a long-standing interest in the Gothic which were developed largely within the antiquarian traditions.

I’d like to place Rosemary Sweet’s compelling observation at the head of this post about the Gothic and the new Gott Collection at the Hepworth Gallery. It is a statement which is consistently borne out in the study of this fine collection of engravings and watercolours. I’d also like to thank Dale Townshend here for his kind invitation to make this exciting resource the subject for my guest-blog.
The Gothic seems at home in the north. From the outset Gothic novelists revealed a fascination in their writing for the northern counties of Britain. In the Preface to the first edition of The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole’s narrator spuriously claims that ‘The following work was found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England.’ Alexander Pope impugned the designer William Kent’s Yorkshire origins by humorously writing that he was ‘a wild Goth…from a country which has ever been held no part of Christendom.’ The wild moorlands of the West Riding were of course the setting for Emily and Charlotte Brontë’s novels, and Yorkshire was the backdrop for incestuous temptation in Mary Shelley’s transgressive work, Mathilda (1820). Bolton Castle in Wensleydale was the setting for key scenes in Sophia Lee’s The Recess (1783-5). Sections of ‘The Lover’s Tale’ episode concerning Elinor in Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) and Regina Maria Roche’s historical Gothic novel The Monastery of St Columbe (1813) are set in Yorkshire. The famous vampire first steps on English soil at Whitby in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). This trend persists in contemporary neo-Gothic writing; Susan Hill states that the North Yorkshire moors were one of her ‘favourite settings’ for her novel and play, Mist in the Mirror (1999).
It is then fitting that the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, Yorkshire, has become the home of the Gott Collection.hep2 This collection of thousands of 18th and 19th century engravings, hand-coloured prints, watercolours, drawings, antique maps and letterpress pages which provides a wonderful resource for Gothic scholars, researchers, artists and fans has been recently convened at the prize-winning gallery. After all, William Gott (1797-1863) who amassed this collection was essentially a regionalist, writing to print-sellers in London and abroad for the express purpose of purchasing views of Yorkshire. Having worked with the collection for months, I have become fascinated by these depictions of castle ruins, monastic buildings, wild moorland, sublime waterfalls, forests and manors where murderous deeds were enacted. Since August 2014, the collection has been increasingly accessible online at:

http://www.hepworthwakefield.org/collection/the-gott-collection/

On this site, there’s the facility to browse ‘Artists’, ‘Themes’ and ‘Places’ which allows the viewer to focus research and then specialise through further sub-categories such as ‘Graves and Tombs’, ‘Great and Grand Houses’, ‘Castles’, ‘Landscapes’ or ‘Curiosities’. The area for visitors and researchers at the gallery is as light, spacious and airy as one expects from architect David Chipperfield’s designs, with search consoles, framed prints and always one of the original ten vast books bound in red morocco on display.
Architectural and topographical connections to Gothic literature, paintings and films, lantern-slides and music abound throughout the collection. In her novel, Lucy, one of Eliza Parson’s characters says that she dotes ‘on ruins, there is something sublime and awful in the sight of decayed grandeur and large edifices crumbling to pieces.’ The ruins of ecclesiastical buildings and castles, interiors of cathedral aisles and abbeys and the surrounding hillsides and forests of Yorkshire are the particular subjects of this collection.
William Gott, inheriting and developing his father’s business which had introduced steam-driven machinery in the cloth trade at Armley Mills, Leeds, spent his mature years living in considerable affluence and surrounded by servants in Denison Hall, Hanover Square. William, a keen patron of the arts, was fascinated by engravings but not the faddish type depicting famous shipwrecks, political personalities, military victories or huntsmen at the chase. This well-heeled citizen took a keen interest in local churches, castles and great halls and, in assembling this collection of prints, revealed a great admiration for architectural antiquarianism. He turned his aesthetic gaze away from the factory weaving and carding sheds by which he had made his fortune and, aspiring to self-improvement and gentrification, he collected engravings of historical buildings and the countryside in the way that Bishop Percy had collected garlands of vernacular ballads. In this practice, he helped give rise, in Sweet’s sense, to the taste for Gothic in the arts. After William’s death, the collection passed into the keeping of his son John Gott (1830-1906), a High Church clergyman, educated at Brasenose College and, latterly, the Bishop of Truro.
These prints offer us exploded views of mausolea and delve into the fusty crypts of York. They show the rise of Gothic revival mansions and estates and, through floor-plans and maps, reveal how they were created. The collection also celebrates the grand, wild and curious: the bracing prospect of woods, the winding riverscapes, the petrifying well at Knaresborough and downpour of a high force. They record ‘antient’ Yorkshire, the old north-east, and include descriptions of the Celtic tribes of Brigantes, armorial carvings and Saxon vestiges. Yorkshire is realised in these images as a congeries of distinct locales, stubbornly unique, fiercely independent and, paradoxically in thrall to that which Edmund Burke calls: ‘the old feudal and chivalrous spirit of fealty’.
Much as, in her novel The Recess, Sophia Lee’s underground chambers hide a secret dynastic history of England, a world turned inside-out, the north-east of England revealed in the Gott Collection prints is frequently a concealed and subterranean realm, as often defined by cellars, crypts, the collapsed foundations of monasteries and vestiges of Roman altars as by, above ground, the burgeoning mansions and parklands of the arriviste squires. ‘Rude’ crowds and ‘mobocracy’ do not impinge here. Peterloo, the Luddite Frankenstein and the urban poor of Leeds do not trespass on the margins of these engravings. These works supply views of domains governed by local gentry, magistrates and the staunch ecclesiastical polity of High Church clergymen like John Gott. Characters in Gothic novels often experience the lack of justice available to them in such circumstances. David Punter has written of how in, for example, in Caleb Williams (1794), the JPs are ‘in the pockets of the wealthy and influential.’ Given these aesthetic parameters, property, all that accumulated weight of dynastic plaster and masonry, is implicitly forwarded in the Gott prints as a signifier of political power. These pictured buildings embody the same all-encompassing sense of fealty and service as that surrounding Rayland Hall in Charlotte Smith’s The Old Manor House (1794); yet we remember that this was also a vision of the past totally rejected in the radical Gothic writings of William Godwin, in those of Smith herself and in the sympathetic Chartist works of George W. M. Reynolds.
Almost every stage of research and side-glance one takes inside this collection brings up fascinating discoveries and cross-references. In my foreword to Dracula’s Precursors (2010), I wrote that I thought the Saxon crypt at Lastingham was probably the main model for the forbidding parish church vault in Mary Choldmondeley’s terrifying vampire tale ‘Let Loose’ (1890). The Gott provides an engraving by Joseph Halfpenny which, as can be seen here:

http://gottcollection.hepworthwakefield.org/item/291

is a dark and quintessentially Gothic rendition of ‘The Saxon Crypt of Lestingeham’(sic) (1816). If a considerable pedigree in depicting Gothic ruins and sepulchres seems hinted in this work, Halfpenny, it transpires, was the author and engraver of major works of Gothic reconstruction such as Gothic Ornaments in the Cathedral Church of York (1800), Fragmenta Vetusta, or the Remains of Ancient Buildings in York (1807) and he served as an engraver for the antiquarian Richard Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments (1786-96). Halfpenny’s brooding engraving of the intensely cloisters at Fountains Abbey might also remind film fans that this brooding milieu was the setting much later for Lucifer’s struggle and defeat in ‘The Omen 3’.
Sites of hauntings, revenants and ghosts are also well-represented in the engravings, as in the great wealth of representations of York, ‘Europe’s most-haunted’ city, multiple views of Temple Newsam where the ‘Blue Lady’ phantom roams and Guisborough with its impressive original Gothic arch, in which environs the Black Monk of Guisborough Priory roams. Skelton Castle nicknamed ‘Crazy Castle’ also features here, the home of John Hall-Stevenson, an acquaintance of Horace Walpole, and leader of a “club of demoniacks” who made Skelton the site of their depredations including drinking and orgies. Paradoxes are sensed everywhere. Squire and parson might rule in the valley but paganism lingers on the high moors. Amongst the curiosities exhibited for our gaze are the mysterious ‘magic stones’ of Gatherly Moor, a print of winged demons pressing an auctioneer into service, scenes depicting Mother Shipton’s well, Halfpenny’s heads of ‘The Damned’ and fragments of Saxon Britain. Perhaps most daunting is the anonymous engraving entitled ‘Room in which the Murder is supposed to have been committed in Calverley Hall’ which shows a doorway: a simple oblong of black space opening up in a minimalist expanse of wooden panelling. The depiction of the site of a multiple homicide, which also inspired Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean drama, A Yorkshire Tragedy, (1608) and which can be seen here:

http://gottcollection.hepworthwakefield.org/item/547#item-image-popup

is particularly eerie. We are given no directions in the print to indicate whether we, as viewer, actually stand inside looking out or outside the fatal room looking in, an unnerving displacement of visual standpoint.

A key image -perhaps a microcosm itself of the Gott collection – and crucial to its wider significance is J. Button’s etching of the building of the ‘Society of Architects and Antiquaries’, an organization which was formed in protest over the spoliation of the Gothic buildings of Britain. William Gott’s acquisitions of local and picturesque views were shaped by his antiquarianism. In such a context, we remember Sweet’s assertion at the start of this post. One of the great strengths of the Gott is that it reveals, stage-by-stage and layer by layer, so many elements of antiquarian projects like these alongside the development of Gothic revivalism in architecture and the literary Gothic as they emerge, flourish and interact.

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