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What is Gothic Revival?

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Image of Allison Adler Inglis-Taylor
Allison Adler Inglis-TaylorResearcher, University of Oxford
A group of visitors standing outside the East Front at Tyntesfield, Somerset
Visitors standing outside the East Front at Tyntesfield | © National Trust Images/Trevor Ray Hart

The Gothic is a style associated with late medieval English art and architecture. Discover how it became popular in later centuries to ‘revive’ the ideas of this period and to style literature, architecture, visual and decorative art, landscape design and music after its features.

The Gothic

According to John Ruskin’s 1853 essay, The Nature of the Gothic, the Gothic style of the late medieval period encompassed features including irregularity, variety and naturalism. It also tended to favour the individuality of the craftsperson or artisan, rather than the classical and Neo-classical tendency to seek perfection.

Early origins of Gothic Revival

Although antiquarian and literary interest in late medieval art dates to the late 16th century, Gothic Revivalism began to gain real popularity with the ideas of 18th-century Whig politician, Horace Walpole.

Both his 1764 novella, The Castle of Otranto, and the Gothic Revival mansion that he created, Strawberry Hill, inspired a host of Gothic fictions, artistic endeavours and architecture, which were all moderately subversive of Neo-classical orderliness.

Gothic and Englishness

In its better-known 19th-century incarnations, the Gothic was seen as the quintessentially English style, and was adopted by both church and state as an expression of Englishness.

The Gothic was taken up by the Tractarians and others attempting to reinvigorate the ‘true’ English church. Parish churches all over the country were ‘restored’ to an ‘original’ medieval framework, often destroying early medieval features in the process.

When Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin designed the Houses of Parliament in 1835, they chose the Gothic Revival style. This reflected their view that a return to a medieval ethos would correct what they saw as a post-Reformation decline in English architecture.

Interior of Chapel has ornately carved stone walls and a high vaulted carved stone ceiling. The heavy mullion windows have fine stained glass and the floor is mosaic.
Inside the Chapel at Tyntesfield, Somerset | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Arts and Crafts

In the later 19th century, William Morris based his Arts and Crafts decorative style on the late medieval modes of individual craftsmanship, local materials, and dedication to the vernacular – returning to a more humble style using skills passed down through the generations.

Adopting these principles was a way of recovering the more humane methods of an earlier period in the face of the mechanisation of manufactured goods in post-industrial Britain. These ideas are clearly demonstrated at Red House, Morris's home and 'Palace of Art', which was designed by his close friend and architect, Philip Webb.

Social and political implications

The Gothic Revival revitalised English culture based upon assumptions about the beneficial nature of the medieval past.

At first it was a progressive response to Neo-classical order and all its rigidities in the 18th century. However, it ultimately became part of a far more extensive push for social and political freedom in the later 19th century.

Returning to the perceived community of designer-artists, artisans and craft labourers who built the country’s great pre-Reformation cathedrals, manors, and churches seemed the ideal retreat from the dark, mechanised and urban world of the 19th-century industrial revolution.

Examples of Gothic Revival features at the places in our care

The Entrance Hall at Hughenden, Buckinghamshire
The Entrance Hall at Hughenden | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Hughenden Manor

The home of Victorian Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, Hughenden in Buckinghamshire was remodelled in 1862 into a suitable country seat and ‘Gothicised’ to include plaster vaults in the hall. The comfortable rooms with their Victorian decoration include the sitting room, bedroom and study.

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Trusted Source

This is a Trusted Source article, created in partnership with the University of Oxford. This article contains contributions from Allison Adler Inglis-Taylor. Allison is a researcher specialising in English literature, history, and culture from 1800 to the present day at the University of Oxford.

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