Translating the Middle Ages in the Georgian World

Posted by Peter Lindfield on March 03, 2016 in Blog, Peter Lindfield tagged with , , ,


Riders Pausing by the Ruins of Rievaulx Abbey,   Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Riders Pausing by the Ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Transport within Britain during the mid-eighteenth century became easier. Consequently amateurs and professionals interested in British architecture could make their way to such buildings with increasing ease. At the same time interest in Gothic architecture, design, and its association with a noble court society governed by chivalric principles was growing. The Gothic style was not examined in a vacuum, but initially was structurally, aesthetically, and intellectually compared with and grafted onto the gold standard of Classical architecture. This posting examines Batty Langley’s and Horace Walpole’s influence upon the reception of Gothic architecture as an intellectual concept in Britain during the eighteenth century.

Gothic architecture in the eighteenth century was commonly regarded as a debased alternative to the Roman style,_ and popular opinion held that the systematisation and prescribed proportions of its antecedents were discarded. This liberated Gothic architecture from established proportioned formulae and consequently it was “difficult for the noblest Grecian temple to convey half so many impressions to the mind, as a cathedral does of the best Gothic”._

On the other hand, Batty Langley brought his knowledge of the mathematical ideology behind Classical architecture_ to the analysis of the Gothic style. The opening dedication to Ancient Architecture: Restored and Improved (1741–2) states that his aim was to “restore the rules of the ancient Saxon architecture […] which have been lost to the public for upwards of seven hundred years”._ He continued by arguing that there was an intricate and ancient armature of mathematical proportions underlying Gothic architecture. Even more controversial was his argument for the superiority of Gothic over Classical architecture; the parts of Westminster Abbey built under Henry III are “determined and described with those beautiful Proportions, and Geometrical Rules, which are not excelled (if Equalled) in any Parts of the Grecian or Roman Orders”._

Langley’s research illustrated how Gothic architecture was not only based on rules, but these rules were more successful at concealing strength and mass than the perfected system of Classical architecture. Consequently, Langley eroded the romanticised experience of Gothic architecture by proposing a whole new approach to understanding its mechanics. This in turn affected its intellectual status in the history of architecture. Instead of passions being required to understand Gothic, Langley applied a geometric and intellectual framework to the style “by which its principal parts are proportioned and adorned, whose result commands the admiration and attention of all beholders”._

A prolonged examination of ecclesiastical and secular edifices in England underwrote the authority of Langley’s argument. However, this revealed his belief that Gothic architecture was English._ Referring to Westminster Abbey as an “august pile, being the most magnificent in this Kingdom (and the almost inimitable structure in the world) of the Saxon mode, (tho’ vulgarly called Gothic)”_ his Anglocentric approach is apparent._ Similarly, he responded to Ralph’s Critical Review of the Publick Buildings, Statues and Ornaments in and about London and Westminster (1733) by attacking the Classical works of Burlington, Kent and Inigo Jones, and instead praised Gothic architecture. Primarily Langley was “defending the past merits and future welfare of English Craftsmen against the unjust monopoly of interest, the import of foreign artists, and the blind worship of foreign styles — all the iniquities imposed by Burlington’s Rule of Taste.’_

After Langley grafted Gothic architecture onto Vitruvian principles of proportion, he attempted to remove its commonly held association with barbarians, or Goths, from which its name was derived._ He recorded that “upon the strictest Enquiry into the Histories of this Kingdom, and into the Chronicles of past Ages, it doth not appear that any Edifices were built by the Goths, in this Kingdom,”_ but they “were called Saxons […so] all the Edifices raised by them were in general called Saxon (and not Gothic) Buildings”._ Once again, this underscored his belief that Gothic was English, however, “to continue the Saxon Modes of Building, under the Gothic Appellation, may be more agreeable and sooner understood by many, than they would be, was I to call them Saxon as they actually are; therefore, all the following Designs are called Gothick”._ Consequently, Langley used the label Gothick to differentiate his intellectual, proportioned and regulated architecture from the otherwise unproportioned Gothic commonly understood and recognised.

Overall, the sixty-two plates in Ancient Architecture: Restored present moderately stylised Gothic architectural features. Plate 17, First Gothic Frontispiece, is a rather plain Gothic portal and plates 35 and 37 are Gothic Windows that do not differ too much from medieval examples. Some chimneypiece designs, such as plates 44 and 46, are also not too far distant from recognisable medieval architecture. However, a number of plates illustrate Langley’s fertile imagination first essayed in his 1723 horticultural books. A Gothic Colonade, plate 30, does not represent the medieval method of arcade construction in England as illustrated in the nave of York Minster, for example. Instead of engaged shafts supporting a vault rib, or an arcade moulding, they terminate in the support of one horizontal member whose only concessions to the Gothic style are cusped lancets and ogee arches in the frieze. Similar flights of fancy are found in plates 49–62, Umbrellos and Temples. Although these designs indicate Langley’s command of the Gothic vocabulary, the designs are bound together with a classical syntax.

The process that liberated Gothic from medieval edifices under Langley was given momentum by Horace Walpole, who attempted to revive a more authentic understanding of the architecture. Although Howard Colvin has convincingly argued the balance between Gothic survival and Gothic(k) revival,_ in 1774 Walpole did not regard Gothic survival with much enthusiasm. He was not convinced by the merits of the eighteenth-century Berkeley steeple, which was rebuilt, “but at some distance from the body […and it lacked] the true rust of the barons’ wars”._ It was Walpole’s search for true ‘rust’ that distinguished him from Langley.

Walpole’s respect for the style was partly derived from his view that it was a structural advancement upon Romanesque architecture, and that it had aesthetic merit:

the pointed arch, that peculiar of Gothic architecture, was certainly intended as an improvement on the circular, and the men who had not the happiness to lighting on the simplicity and proportion of the Greek orders, were however so lucky as to strike out a thousand graces and effects, which rendered their buildings magnificent, yet genteel, vast yet light, venerable and picturesque._

He was also interested in Gothic architecture because it conjured up images of chivalry and English identity. He noted that “the term Gothic Architecture, inflicted as a reproach on our ancient buildings in general by our ancestors who revived the Grecian taste, is now considered but as a species of modern elegance”._ In contrast with Langley’s approach, he proposed that it was Gothic’s own characteristics, rather than those of classical architecture, that gave the style its magnificence and virtue,_ and although Walpole’s research was largely superficial, it was honest because it concentrated on aesthetics.

Instead of producing a history or treatise on Gothic ornament, Walpole’s preoccupation with Gothic resulted in the declaration that “I am going to build a little Gothic castle at Strawberry Hill”._ Upon visiting Hardwicke Hall, his bias towards Gothic is evident; “the house […] did not please me at all; there is no grace, no ornament, no Gothic in it”,_ whereas “Newsteade delighted me. There is grace and Gothic indeed — good chambers and a comfortable house. The monks formerly were the only sensible people that had really good mansions”._ Walpole associated Gothic ornament with grace, and he believed that medieval edifices were the best source for acquiring this vocabulary. The monastic connection can be seen in Thomas Rowlandson’s A Country Procession Passing Strawberry Hill, 1789.

Although Walpole professed absolute disgust towards Langley’s ‘Carpenter’s Gothic’ in Ancient Architecture: Restored, this was after he annotated his personal copy of it. Indeed, one of its designs was used at Strawberry Hill: the quatrefoils and window-labelling in the south elevation have their nearest printed sources in Langley’s publication._ The stylistic influence that Ancient Architecture had over Strawberry Hill, however, was short lived. Instead, Walpole assembled and chaired a ‘committee of taste’, the ‘Strawberry Committee’, that was largely  and latterly concerned with executing historically accurate work at Strawberry Hill. His own understanding of Gothic architecture was conveyed in a letter to Sir Horace Mann:

I thank you a thousand times for thinking of procuring me some Gothic remains from Rome; but I believe there is no such thing there […] Indeed, my dear Sir […] I perceive that you have no idea what Gothic is; you have lived too long among true taste, to understand venerable barbarism. You say, “You suppose my garden is to be Gothic too.” That can’t be; Gothic is merely architecture; and as one has a satisfaction in imprinting the gloomth of abbeys and cathedrals on one’s house, so one’s garden, on the contrary, is to be nothing but riant, and the gaiety of nature._

Walpole added: “I was going to tell you that my little house is so monastic, that I have a little hall decked with long saints in lean arched windows and with taper columns”._

His sources for authentic medieval design were printed materials that predated Strawberry Hill in the development of the Gothic Revival. In the Preface to A Description of the Villa of Mr Horace Walpole, Walpole noted the benefit of these sources:

A farther view succeeded; that of exhibiting the specimens of Gothic architecture, as collected from standards in cathedrals and chapel-tombs, and shewing how they may be applied to chimney-pieces, ceilings, windows, ballustrades [sic], loggias, &c. The general disuse of Gothic architecture, and the decay and alterations so frequently made in churches, give prints a chance of being the sole preservatives of that style._

The use of printed material as the basis for Gothic ornament at Strawberry Hill is illustrated by Walpole and Chute who “determined upon the plan for the Library, which we find will fall in exactly with the proportions of the room, with no variations from the little door-case of St Paul’s but widening the larger arches”._ Both Bentley’s original and updated designs for the Library did not meet with Walpole’s ideas of authentic Gothic design as “the double arches and double pinnacles are most ungraceful; and the doors below the book-cases in Mr Chute’s design had a conventual look, which yours totally wants”._ Although Bentley’s imagination was not under control whilst designing the Library, it illustrates how closely Walpole wanted the Gothic designs to align with printed records of medieval Gothic. Therefore, it is not surprising that “the chimney-piece is imitated from the tomb of John of Eltham, Earl of Cornwall, in Westminster-Abbey”_ instead of Bentley’s proposed fantasy.

Similarly, Walpole attempted to appropriate micro-architecture for use at Strawberry Hill. Writing to Sir William Hamilton he noted, “For this year past I have been projecting a chimney in imitation of the tomb of Edward the Confessor, and had partly given up, of finding how enormously expensive it would be”._ Much cheaper, but equally authentic, in design at least, was the wallpaper used to cover the entrance hall. The paper engaged with the Gothic theme: “imagine the walls covered with (I call it paper, but it is really paper painted in perspective to represent) Gothic fretwork”._ Later in A Description, Walpole noted that the paper was “painted by one Tudor, from the Screen of Prince Arthur’s tomb in the cathedral at Worcester”._ This paper, therefore, offered Walpole an affordable means of recreating the ‘gloomth’ of medieval architecture._

Unfortunately the printed material that recorded Gothic ecclesiastical edifices did not convey the scale or medium in which the medieval model was executed. In 1753 he noted in a letter to Bentley that “Prince Arthur’s tomb, from whence we took the paper for the hall and staircase, to my great surprise, is on a less scale than the paper and is not of brass but stone, and that wretchedly whitewashed”._ Although Walpole was harsh in the criticism and rejection of Bentley’s designs for the Library, the work sponsored by his strict imitation of antiquity lacked the authenticity of its models. Consequently, his aim to execute Strawberry Hill using accurate Gothic components was spectacularly deflated, and the letter to Bentley in 1753 illustrates the humbling effect it had on Walpole._

Additionally, there was a fundamental problem with Walpole’s use of Gothic architectural sources. He and his Strawberry Committee approved the use of architectural features out of their original context or function whereby tombs were used as fireplaces in bedrooms. The accuracy of this micro-architecture mattered, but any respect for a model from the thirteenth or fourteenth century as a whole not to be separated from its genuine setting or function was still absent._ The most arbitrary and spectacular deployment of motifs was in the Holbein Chamber, where “the ceiling is taken from the queen’s dressing room at Windsor. The chimney-piece, designed by Mr. Bentley, is chiefly taken from the tomb of archbishop Warham at Canterbury […] the pierced arches of the screen from the gates of the choir at Rouen; the rest of the screen was designed by Mr. Bentley”._

Walpole did not accept that the misappropriation and disjointed reuse of Gothic architecture at Strawberry Hill affected its authenticity, and he maintained, “The designs of the inside and the outside are strictly ancient”._ Despite the emphasis that was placed upon authenticity, Walpole admitted that in the Breakfast Room “the chimney-piece and windows are not true gothic, but were designed by Mr. W. Robinson of the Board of Works, before there was any design of farther improvements to the house”._ This clearly indicates that the authenticity of Gothic architecture was an idea that Walpole developed and crystallised once the Strawberry Hill project was under way. At best, it was confined wholly to a visual parity with medieval examples, rather than scale, material or function.

This parity allowed Walpole to argue that “I erected an old house, not demolished one”._ Moreover, instead of criticising Walpole for his superficially antiquarian Gothic, the respected antiquary, William Cole looked forward to taking “a walk in your gallery and give a peep into the round chamber, I shall then more than ever fancy I am in some castle in King Edward III’s time”._ In a manner similar to The Castle of Otranto, the Gothic in Strawberry Hill formed a playground for romantic reconstructions of the past.

Later reflections

Despite all of the effort that went into assuring the authenticity of the architecture and fittings at Strawberry Hill, Walpole recognised that:

Mr. Wyatt has made him [a Mr. Matthew] too correct a Goth not to have seen all the imperfections and bad execution of my attempts; for neither Mr. Bentley nor my workmen had studied the science [of Gothic], and I was always too desultory and impatient to consider that I should please myself more by allowing time, than by hurrying my plans into execution before they were ripe. My house therefore is but a sketch by beginners._

Six years later he admitted, “every true Goth must perceive that they [the rooms at Strawberry Hill] are more works of fancy than of imitation”._

Notwithstanding Walpole’s regret over the more whimsical examples of Gothic fireplaces and decoration, he played a key role in developing the respectable position of Gothic within the current architectural practice. Even though Walpole, his workmen and Bentley were not as proficient in the science of Gothic as his ambitions of authenticity required, Strawberry Hill advanced Gothic architecture and furnishings from Langley’s experiments.

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