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Gothic Revival

  ‘Gothic revival’ was the name given to a rebirth of interest in medieval Europe, especially its architecture and decorative arts. The revival began in 18th-century Britain and became widespread in Germany and then North America. Its earlier manifestations have the decorated appearance of the rococo seen through historicizing spectacles, and the resultant filigree of such works is often called ‘gothick’ to distinguish it from the later, more ‘archaeological’ imitations and re-creations of Pugin, William Morris and others in the 19th century.

In England certain buildings, for example Westminster Abbey and some universities, had continued to be constructed in a continuation of Gothic traditions right up to the 17th century. Architects such as Wren worked in respect of the greatness of the building, in what might be called ‘Gothic Survival’. The ‘Gothic Revival’ proper derives from the late 18th and early 19th century historicist interest in the Middle Ages as a source for inspiration and style, and is part of a reaction, in all the arts, to the dominance and rationality of neoclassicism. (Characteristic and highly influential literary works, for example, are the poems of such pseudo-medieval bards as ‘Ossian’, and the ‘medieval’ novels of Walter Scott.)

If the taste for ‘Gothic’ began with literature, and was fuelled by fashionable antiquarianism (such as Walter Scott\'s ‘reconstruction’, actually invention, of ‘traditional’ Scottish dress, music and ceremonial to mark the 1822 royal visit to Edinburgh, or the huge upsurge in interest in King Arthur and Robin Hood at the same period), one of its most-lasting inspirations was genuine medieval architecture, especially the great cathedrals. To the early Romantics these were awesome in scale, picturesque, thrilling for their scale, height, command of internal space, and not least for their associations with Europe\'s ancient Christian and chivalric past. Such buildings, and the style of their construction, seemed to symbolize a kind of European dignity and solemnity, and the result was that Gothic architecture came to be perceived as a national style, particularly in the countries furthest from the centre of Roman classical civilization, and for whom therefore classical revival might be considered alien. In England, for example, the national significance of Gothic can be shown by the choice of the style for the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament in 1836-7.

The association with Europe\'s ancient Christian past was also significant since classically inspired church architecture had come to be perceived as yet another sign of the secularization of the Christian church, and the return to Gothic forms, now subject to the careful scrutiny and analysis of antiquarians and historians, was felt to have a religious purpose. As the century progressed architects such as A.W.N. Pugin (1812 - 1852) began to champion the functional qualities of Gothic architecture, and the ‘honest expression’ of its construction, as opposed to ‘false’ classical architecture, which hid a variety of functions behind a symmetrical façade. Nonetheless, the buildings of such men reflect a stylistic dilemma: though they are clearly Gothic, there is nevertheless a ‘classical’ severity and balance to their elevations.

The architecture of the Gothic Revival in England spans almost a century and changes to reflect the tastes and interests of different generations. What is now called ‘High Victorian Gothic’ was the phase of the 1850s and 1860s in English architecture which was dominated by an interest in continental Gothic. , John Ruskin (1819 - 1900) championed the north Italian Gothic of Venice and Verona, in his works The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851-1853), as well as promoting the interest, also advocated by Pugin in ‘constructional polychromy’, that is, the use of different colours and textures of building materials. Other architects such as , William Burges (1827 - 1881) were attracted by the simplicity of early French Gothic.

In a broader context—epitomized in the work of Morris, Millais and the Pre-Raphaelites generally—the Gothic Revival was an early episode of Romanticism, of the reaction of North against South, of spirit against flesh, of the intricate and vegetative against antique-based formalism. Hence arguments in favour of Gothic (in Germany and France as well Britain) often emphasized its ‘home-grown’ character (which was visible in monuments from earlier ages) as against the dry imports from the classical South. PD MG JM KMcL

See also Arts and Crafts.Further reading C. Eastlake, A History of the Gothic Revival; , Georg Germann, Gothic Revival in Europe and Britain: Sources, Influences and Ideas.



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