What does Gothic Revival mean?

Close view of towers and turrets at Wray Castle, Cumbria

The ‘Gothic’ is a style associated with late medieval English art and architecture; its many revivals are attempts to style literature, architecture, visual and decorative art, landscape design, and music after its features. These include, according to John Ruskin’s 1853 essay, ‘The Nature of the Gothic’, irregularity, variety, naturalism, and a general tendency to favour the individuality of the craftsperson or artisan in all of its eccentricities rather than the perfection for which classical and neoclassical art strive.

Early origins

Although antiquarian and literary interest in late medieval art dates to the late sixteenth century, Gothic revivalism might be said to begin properly with the eighteenth century Whig politician, Horace Walpole.

His 1764 novella, The Castle of Otranto, and ‘Gothic’ mansion, Strawberry Hill, inspired a host of Gothic fictions, artistic endeavours, and architecture, all moderately subversive of neoclassical orderliness.

Gothic & Englishness

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

Taken up by the Tractarians and others attempting to reinvigorate the ‘true’ English church, the Gothic was the basis on which parish churches all over the country were ‘restored’––to an ‘original’ mediaeval framework (often destroying early mediaeval features in the process).

Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, who in 1835 designed the Houses of Parliament, constructed that fine example of the Gothic Revival style to reflect their view that a return to a mediaeval ethos would correct what they saw as a post-Reformation decline in English architecture.

Arts & Crafts

In the later nineteenth century, William Morris based his arts and crafts decorative style on late medieval modes of individual craftsmanship, local material, and dedication to the vernacular.

These were all means of recovering the more humane methods of an earlier period in the face of the mechanisation of manufactured goods in post-industrial Britain, and are clearly demonstrated at Red House, Morris's home and 'Palace of Art' designed by his close friend and architect, Philip Webb.

Social and political implications

The Gothic revival was a means of revitalising English culture based upon assumptions made about the beneficial nature of the medieval past.

At first a progressive response to neoclassical order and all of its rigidities in the eighteenth century, it ultimately became part of a far more extensive programme for social and political freedom in the later nineteenth century.

A return 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 urban world of the nineteenth-century industrial revolution.

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