GOTHIC AT THE GOTT 2 – Engraving Fear

Posted by Dr David Annwn Jones on May 26, 2015 in Uncategorized tagged with

A Gothic gate, richly ornamented with fret-work, which opened into the main body of the edifice […] Above the vast and magnificent portal of this gate arose a window of the same order, whose pointed arches still exhibited fragments of stained glass, once the pride of monkish devotion.

Stainborough Castle

As these sentences from Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791) remind us, some Gothic novels are imbued with an almost obsessive interest in the appearance of abbeys and castles. Dale Townsend’s fascinating talk about Radcliffe’s ‘architectural romance’: Gaston de Blondeville (1826) at Manchester Gothic Festival reminded us of ‘the centrality of architecture to the writerly imagination’. Moreover, as Dale went on to describe, the text itself is vitally involved with a spectrum of shifting politics, particularly the political myth of Gothic origins.
As well as from the evidence gained through first-hand observation, many writers’ main experience of these buildings stemmed from their perusal of engravings. Radcliffe herself pored over books of engravings of the Continent in researching foreign travel. Later publishers made the most of this interest; Joseph Farington’s Britannia Depicta juxtaposes quotations from Radcliffe’s Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 with topographical engravings. Joseph Strutt, author of the Gothic adventure Queenho Hall (1808 (completed by Walter Scott)), was also an engraver and was so interested in this art that he produced a Biographical Dictionary of Engravers (1785-6.) Sheridan Le Fanu possessed an ‘elephant’ folio of engravings and it is probable that certain scenes in his novels derived from long study of this volume. In Le Fanu’s story ‘Willing to Die’, the narrator associates ‘some volumes also of engravings’ with ‘signs of care and refinement’, proof against the ‘terrifying’ and ‘desolate character’ of the setting. Yet Jane Eyre finds terror in the vignettes of Thomas Bewick’s book of innovative woodcuts: ‘The fiend pinning down the thief’s pack behind him’ and ‘the black horned thing seated aloof on a rock’. Engravings could be used to further religious interests too. In Melmoth the Wanderer, we are told of Sir Roger Mortimer, a devout Reformer in religious matters who, instead of dispensing beef and ale to his tenants like other landowners at Christmas, gave them Tyndal Bibles which contained an ‘uncouth print’. The engraving inside depicted Henry VIII handing out English Bibles to the common masses.
The Gott follows each stage in the synergy between Gothic revival architecture and Gothic literature. Of course the taste for castellation and Medieval motifs had persisted in some Baroque, Rococo and Neo-Classical architecture, but the first stage proper in the development of the British Gothic revival came in the practice of clearing and adapting of certain landscapes which already contained authentic ‘antient’ Gothic ruins. In assembling his collection, William Gott paid particular attention to such a scape at Duncombe Park which contained the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey. The Gott includes multiple views, plans and front elevations of the hall at Duncombe executed by the celebrated ‘father of Georgian architecture’, Colen Campbell. It is interesting to contrast these workmanlike views of the hall so redolent of the later Baroque with Samuel Buck’s engraving (1721) and Edward Dayes’s watercolour (1804) of the nearby derelict abbey, both also in the Gott.

Samuel with his brother Nathaniel Buck embarked on a huge project of engraving, their Views of Ruins of Castles & Abbeys in England, (1726-1739). Buck’s image of Rievaulx’s ‘veritable remains’, complete with armorial bearings and legend, is as flat and artificial as a stage-set:

His linking of Gothic ruins, antiquarianism and heraldry in the medium of engraving is no accident. As long ago as William Camden’s Britannia (1586), the power of the writings of antiquarians to contextualize and legitimize claims of the ruling class had been recognised and Camden was rewarded with a herald’s post, as the Clarenceux King of Arms. Heraldry was a primary means by which royal and noble patrilineal genealogy was recorded and subsequently blazoned in the form of display, legal rolls and deeds and architecture. Further, heraldry was a form of substitution and abstraction by which the authority vested in a sign represented its owner’s power even at a considerable geographical and trans-generational distance. Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser were amongst the many of Queen Elizabeth’s supporters who employed antiquarianism and heraldry as part of that which Jerrold E. Hogle in his landmark study, ‘The Gothic Ghost of the Counterfeit and the Progress of Abjection’ (2000), calls ‘Renaissance symbolization of the self’. As Hogle accurately points out, even by Shakespeare’s (and, incidentally, Camden’s) day, this form of symbolization ‘was already counterfeit’. The ghost of Hamlet’s father has a beard which is ‘A sable silver’d’, a knowing heraldic metaphor where a reported phantom becomes a sign of absence. The actor who plays Pyrrhus is covered with a ‘heraldry more dismal; head to foot’ and is ‘total gules’ but both these blazons are counterfeit and untrustworthy.

The increasing distance of such imagery from, in Hogle’s terms, ‘aristocratic based concepts of signification’, only increased with the rise of engraving. From its first arrival in England, engraving inherited the project of legitimization from antiquarian and heraldic authorities. The Bohemian engraver Wenceslas Hollar in his service for Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel (that collector whom Horace Walpole called ‘the father of virtu in England’), pursued just this enterprise. The first act of grand consolidation in aligning antiquarianism and engraving came a generation later when Oxford antiquary Anthony Wood published his Historia, et antiquitates Universitatis Oxoniensis, (1674) accompanied a year later by David Loggan’s book of engravings Oxonia Illustrata, with instructions on how to tip the illustrations into the Historia. So widespread was the demand for of coats of arms rendered in the comparatively new art of engraving in the 17th century that the engravers, constrained by the costs of colouring their work, discovered (much to the pique of the College of Arms), a way to represent different tinctures in the techniques of ‘hatching’ and ‘tricking’ their monochrome lines. Bucks’ version of Rievaulx reinstates these connections with a vengeance.

This kind of visual tradition is strongly represented at the Gott. John Coney, one of the most gifted engravers represented here, also illustrated an edition of William Dugdale’s Monasticon Anglicanum, (1655-73). This work of Dugdale, an antiquarian and chief herald, takes us back into the fraught political maneuvering of circles of embattled Royalist and Parliamentarian antiquarians: Sir Edward Dering, Sir Thomas Habington (whose life reads like an addendum to Lee’s The Recess),  Sir Christopher Hatton and Sir Henry Spelman.
By contrast, Edward Dayes’s wonderfully evocative and sprightly watercolour of Rievaux with its bristling ivy outcrops, scudding clouds and sense of quickly drifting shoals of shadow in the foreground has a distinctly Romantic feel and recalls Ann Radcliffe’s topographical descriptions:

Dayes himself wrote about the prospect: ‘In short, Rievale (sic) Abbey, from the fine state of its remains, enriched by weather tints and ivy, its retired situation, and boldly rising grounds covered with wood will afford ample amusement to those who are emulous to delineate after nature.’ Indeed, in Daye’s picture, the abbey seems an integral part of the landscape rising organically out of the land and clustered with growth.
Only a few miles from Rievaulx, Sir John Vanbrough built Castle Howard which, with its eleven heavily fortified towers in the outer wall, castellated and buttressed, is the epitome of the next stage in Gothic revival building. Yet the two buildings which were to exert the most lasting influence on the development of Gothic art, architecture and literature, Bridlington Priory and Wentworth Castle.
John Hornsey’s engraving of Bridlington Priory (1812) is a ungainly masterpiece depicting a shaggy hulk of a building poised between splendour and decay:
Timothy Mowl argues that this edifice which ‘unrolls’ ‘from left to right like some ideal child’s guide to the sequence of Medieval styles in their correct chronological order’ was a seminal influence on the artistic imagination of William Kent, father of the Gothic Revival’.
John Setterington’s view showing ‘The Garden Front of Wentworth House’ (1728):
in fact depicting Thomas Watson’s seat, Wentworth Woodhouse, is a vital image with regard to writing of The Castle of Otranto, a key to perhaps the most famous dynastic furore of 18th century Britain. Sir Thomas Wentworth (1672-1739) expected to inherit this ancestral house and lands from the 2nd earl of Strafford but it actually passed to the 2nd earl’s sister’s son, Thomas Watson. (There are tales of Watson anxiously burning sheafs of any documents which might conceivably challenge this inheritance.)
Under Watson’s ownership, Wentworth Woodhouse went on to become of the great Whig palaces of Britain. Seemingly disinherited and furious, Thomas bought a neighbouring estate on rising ground and subsequently built the lavishly-appointed hall Wentworth Castle, landscaping the countryside above and below his home. On visiting Wentworth Castle in 1756, Walpole wrote: ‘This place is one of the very few that I really like […] nobody has a truer taste than lord Stafford’. Best of all was ‘a handsome castle in the true style, on a rude mountain, with a court and towers: in the castle yard, a statue of the late lord who built it.’ Walpole’s language of approbation here, as often elsewhere, involves imaginary gigantism. The ‘rude mountain’ was merely a moderately rising hill topped by the folly of Stainborough Castle. The anger and fear of a very public and shameful disinheritance, the rows over succession and burning of deeds, questions of dynastic legitimacy, Stainborough folly with its four-towered keep, the enclosed ‘yard’ within the bailey wall with its paternalistic statue; from one critical angle in a long perspective, it might be easy to conclude is that Gothic literature in Britain started at the moment Walpole first clapped eyes on this place.
Hogle notes that ‘ the dictates of the rising industrial simulacrum’, as he defines it, eventually subsumed ‘the ghost of the counterfeit’. The span of William Gott’s career in collecting these engravings (the prints predominantly date c. 1750-1830), straddles and crosses the border between ‘the ghost counterfeit’ and the ‘industrial simulacrum’. Factory owner William ‘s wealth was based on new developments in technics.

William Gott

As the nineteenth century developed, the rise of steel engraving, lithography and mass publication meant that these simulacra were now produced on an industrial scale and, with the popularity of Augustus Pugin and his followers, Gothic Revivalism became, in time, a mundane feature of Britain’s high streets and suburbs. As if to honour his father’s antiquarian vision of ecclesiastical history preserved in this collection, John Gott, a High churchman but ‘not partisan’ obligingly rose to don a bishop’s mitre and rule, paradoxically, in a brand new faux Gothic cathedral.
Yet the world of the Gott engravings survived into another age of Gothic horror writing:
a full-face view of a not very large manor-house of the last century, with three rows of plain sashed windows with rusticated masonry about them, a parapet with balls or vases at the angles

This is the description of a print bought from Mr Britnells’s emporium by the antiquarian, Mr Williams, in M. R. James’s ‘The Mezzotint’ in his Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904). Though the mezzotint was the product of a slightly newer technology than those prints in William Gott’s collection, in his hunger for ‘topographical views’ Mr Williams sounds very like Gott, and the mezzotint resembles many in Gott’s collection. The increasingly tremulous cognoscenti who gather around the picture are at many removes, many shifts in abjection, from this ‘unknown’ manor. James understood that, as contemporary readers sensed, just as the paintings in Otranto move, so can engravings. Gothic themes of unavenged violence, legitimacy and anxieties over usurpation will out. They will come seeking the vulnerable progeny of the guilty. They will emerge from the obscure past in the form of a furtive, dark and almost bestial presence bearing  upon him the heraldic blazon of his tomb:

It was crawling on all-fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.

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