A Gothic Revival in England Leads to Victorian Style Houses in America – page 2

Gothic Revival: A New Cast of Characters

The Gothic Revival may well have died out early had it not found a revolving cast of strong characters to give it voice. One such voice belonged to A.W.N. Pugin, who had more going for him than one too many initials.

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was the son of Auguste Charles Pugin, a draftsman for the Crown Architect John Nash, and a man who knew two things. He knew medieval design and medieval architecture (and especially its Gothic variety) and he know how to raise a son to follow in his footsteps. He taught young Augustus to draw and then brought him along on his journeys visiting royal properties and all the interesting places along the way. By age fifteen he was designing furniture for George IV’s royal apartments. His father, no slouch himself, began publishing books on Gothic design, a venture in which his son soon joined him. While Pugin (the younger) did a lot of real design work with both structures and interiors, it was through his writings that he had his most influence.

Remember those Renaissance architects who denigrated the medieval architecture with the name “Gothic”? Pugin was their ideological enemy, but a true peer in holding bigoted views on all he disliked. To Pugin Classical architecture was pagan, while medieval architecture was pure and holy. Architecture reflected the builder and a man who could build a Gothic structure was just, his morality reflected in his work. A world filled with Gothic buildings was not just prettier, it was holier.

It wasn’t just that Pugin promoted a Gothic revival. He promoted a way of thinking about architecture. His Gothic Revival required skilled building trades, and the men he trained started a resurgence in these skills. He decried the artificial symmetry of Classical architecture. Medieval architecture was more organic. If a room needed to be a certain size, it was. If this required a new wing, it was added. What you saw on the outside reflected what was on the inside. This was honest architecture, and any ornamentation on that building should enrich the construction of the building. What he stated was echoed a few generations later by the Bauhaus school of architecture in their famous dictum “form follows function”.

Whatever the merits of his arguments, his words had a powerful affect. And he put out a lot of words, backed up with a lot of drawings. Take a look at the books he and his father published:

While much of what he wrote had its effect primarily within the Gothic Revival of architecture his last book had a profound effect on the visual arts. He wrote against the decoration of walls with realistic pictures of flowers and other natural objects and promoted the stylized representations of these items. To draw realistically was essentially to lie. It was to pretend that there really were flowers on the wall. In contrast, regarding Gothic foliage, he says “The former disposed the leaves and flower of which their design was composed into geometrical forms and figures, carefully arranging the stems and component parts so as to fill up the space they were intended to enrich”. These words hit at a time when there was great realism in all aspects of art. They hit a man named William Morris pretty strong. He was one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement, which had its strong influence on the Craftsman style of house.

Another disciple was the architect George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878). George appreciated the possibilities of Gothic, but was not a stylistic purist. He espoused adapting the Gothic “so freely that it will eventually become a new style – the modern style. Mullioned windows, pointed arches and high-pitched roofs can be dropped, if inconvenient, without sacrificing the true character of Gothic.” That is quite a bit of adapting, and I am not sure how much Gothic would be retained if all those things were dropped, but synthesizing the old and the new, or, in this case, the old and the older, can lead to something better than either alone. Scott also had a book that promoted his views Remarks On Secular & Domestic Architecture, Present & Future (1857), so that his ideas started influencing those around him.

John Ruskin (1819-1900) was more in the mold of Pugin, a purist who saw only Gothic. Further he had a thing for Northern Gothic of the Thirteenth century. Like Pugin, he saw its use as an ethical matter. Ruskin was a socialist and he thought modern mass-production capable of great evil. He saw medieval architecture’s dependence on skilled craftsman as ennobling and something that should be revived. Like Pugin he had a strong influence on the visual arts in a reaction against the realism of the day. He also favored the polychromatic masonry used in Italy, and as a result buildings started popping up in England with colored brick as a decorative element.

Here are his books, for those who are interested in digging deeply:

The Gothic Revival architects I have noted were significant because they were authors. Their influence in England was profound, even though they never fully supplanted the Classical architects. Many others could have been listed whose works were in stone and brick, but books travel across the ocean better than buildings so that it was these gentlemen who were influential in America.

I will explore that influence on the next page on this history of the Gothic Revival. To continue click on Gothic Revival Americanized below.

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