Victorian Medievalism: What happened to ‘gothic’ visual culture?

Posted by cwagner on November 24, 2012 in Corinna Wagner, Guest Blog, Uncategorized tagged with , , , ,

Arthur Hughes, Eve of St. Agnes (Keats), 1856

I am co-curating an exhibition on Victorian Medievalism at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), from September 2014-March 2015.  The AHRC generously awarded us a substantial sum of money toward researching and borrowing pieces for this exhibition. As these things go, pieces from other galleries have to be ordered quite far in advance, so I’m thinking about what fabulously gothic, medieval paintings, objects, architectural drawings, illustrated books (think William Morris’s wonderful Kelmscott Press productions) to request. NOTE: Please note any suggestions for materials for the exhibition wanted! Anything from anywhere! Please note suggestions below – it would be very appreciated!

William Morris, News from Nowhere, Kelmscott Press

Anyway, my searches for material got me thinking: what happened to the symbiotic relationship between gothic writing and the visual arts?   Do we in the twenty-first century have anything like the Victorians did, by way of a huge aesthetic, political, cultural movement like the Neo-Gothic Revival?

More to the point: What happened to this dual, parallel relationship between writing and visual art? Does something exist that we might describe as a gothic visual culture? What does it consist of? Will we ever have such a huge and influential movement that combines literature, architecture and art? Do we have, or will we have, a ‘gothic’ art movement that is properly socially and politically engaged?

As we know, there has been a close historical relationship between the (medieval) past and the (modern) present in gothic forms of art. In addition, writers and artists shared a vision of how the medieval past might be represented and toward what ends. This is demonstrated most clearly by the endeavours of the eighteenth-century antiquarian and man of letters Horace Walpole. During the various building stages of his fantastically neo-gothic villa Strawberry Hill (1749-1776), he wrote what we most often term the first gothic novel, Castle of Otranto (1764). This joint project initiated a close relationship between literature, architecture and design.

Stawberry Hill

Strawberry Hill Library

In the following century, the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood would create lush iconographic images, recalling the saturated colours and compositional style of illuminated medieval manuscripts. John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt where inspired by Keats’s poems, while John William Waterhouse and Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted scenes from Tennyson’s work. In addition, Arts and Crafts furnishings, tapestries and wallpapers display courtly scenes culled from Arthurian legend and Chaucerian tales.  Some writers, designers, and artists (like William Morris) also duplicated the techniques and practices of medieval craftsmen and women in the production of these fine objects.

Frederick George Swaish, Eve of St Agnes (Pensive while she dreams), RWA (Royal West of England Art Academy), early 20th C

In addition, Victorian medievalists were politically and socially engaged. They responded to a rapidly modernizing world, and often, but not always, produced an anti-rationalist language that questioned the goals of Enlightenment secularism, philosophy and scientific thought. Medievalists engaged in important debates and big questions, as is reflected in a vocabulary that includes such words as “community,” “kinship,” “liberty,” “justice” and “democracy.”

Medievalists challenged political, economic, philosophical and scientific developments that they identified as threatening to human happiness, social welfare and political stability. In the 1830s and 40s, medievalism generated the Tory humanism of the Young England movement, which promoted a romanticized feudalism and philanthropic work among the well-to-do. Key political figures, headed by Benjamin Disraeli, sought a strong monarchy and national church and a society founded in a model of idealized, paternalistic feudalism. In the 1860s, the artisanal socialism of the Arts and Crafts Movement, associated most strongly with Morris, advocated medieval decoration and craftsmanship alongside anti-industrial economic reforms.

Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys, Morgan Le Fay, 1864

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