The Gothic Revival in Britain

From the mid-eighteenth century Britain was undergoing a revolution. This was not a political or ideological revolution, it did not execute kings and aristocrats, it did not (initially) challenge the power of the landed elite to govern Britain, but in more subtle and insidious ways this revolution was to transform Britain from an agricultural country ruled by a traditional landed elite to the world's first great industrial power. Forces and movements were unleashed with which we still live. I am, naturally, talking about the Industrial Revolution. This 'revolution' was in many ways fuelled by the enormous wealth generated during a century of global expansion. Britain at the end of the eighteenth century was a small country bursting with surplus capital.

The Gothic Revival grew out of and was a response to the industrial revolution and in many ways expressed a fear that industrialization and the factory 'system' were creating a spiritual and artistic crisis. While people marvelled at railways, suspension bridges, steam ships and myriad technological 'marvels' there was growing concern that the price for this 'progress' was 'dark satanic mills,' grim, insanitary, smoke-clogged cities, slum housing, the workhouse and the triumph of greed and ugliness. In place of unbridled capitalism Gothic suggested a land re-connected with tradition, where the poor were cared for in a society rooted in spiritual values and where craftsmanship was prized and encouraged.

Our exploration will begin with a brief introduction to the development of Gothic architecture in the Middle Ages before looking at the 'Gothic Survival' in England. The Gothic style never really died out and even as dedicated a classicist as Sir Christopher Wren could design in the Gothic style if the commission required it. The eighteenth-century introduced the fashion for pseudo-Gothic - or 'Gothick' - park ornaments and follies. 'Gothick' also became hugely popular through the novels of Mrs. Radcliffe and others, full of dark, mysterious castles, ruined abbeys and vulnerable heroines in the clutches of villainous dark strangers! This genre was to be parodied by Jane Austen in 'Northanger Abbey.' Then there was the rise of the 'picturesque' when the wealthy built themselves cottages by the sea and tried to recreate an idyll of rural England.

The nineteenth-century witnessed a move away from the fashionable eccentricities of the 'Gothick' to a more profound understanding of the essential principles of Gothic design and construction, and from the 1830s architects such a Augustus Welby Pugin emerged who sought to apply the 'true principles' of Gothic architecture to their buildings. Pugin and others also used Gothic in a polemical way, contrasting a debased and brutal England scarred by industry and profit with a moral, Christian and 'English' Gothic style. This polemical vision inspired an explosion of Gothic architecture in the middle of the century across Britain and the Empire. From a humble village church which was either rebuilt or 'restored' to railway stations, town halls and the Palace of Westminster, Gothic seemed triumphant.

During our course we will examine individual buildings and the lives and careers of individual architects. We will also consider some of the movements which grew out of the Gothic Revival such as Arts and Crafts, the vernacular movement and Art Nouveau etc. While our course is centred on Britain, towards the end we will consider how Gothic spread around the world, from the United States to New Zealand, and how its influence endured well into the twentieth-century.

Dr Andrew Lacey
May 2021

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