Gothic revival

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Victoria Tower at the Palace of Westminster, London: Gothic details provided by A.W.N. Pugin

The Gothic revival was a European architectural movement with origins in mid-18th century England. In the 19th century, increasingly serious and learned neo-Gothic styles sought to revive mediæval forms, in distinction to the classical styles which were prevalent at the time. The movement had significant influence in Europe and North America, with perhaps more Gothic architecture built in the 19th and 20th centuries than had originally ever been built.

The Gothic Revival in architecture combined with the mood of Romanticism to create the atmospheric genre of the Gothic novel, beginning with Walpole's Castle of Otranto, and to inspire a 19th-century genre of poetry on medieval themes, which grew from roots in the pseudo-bardic poetry of "Ossian." Poems like Alfred Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" recast specifically modern themes in medieval settings of Arthurian romance.

This article will cover the Gothic revival in architecture and the arts of design. A separate article discusses the Gothic novel and other neo-Gothic literature.



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Hartwell Church, Buckinghamshire designed by Henry Keene and completed in 1755. Descibed by Pevsner as one of the most important early Gothic revival churches in England. It is octagonal with twin towers.

Survival and revival

Gothic architecture did not die out completely in the 15th century but lingered on, solely in some on-going cathedral-building projects and for churches in increasingly isolated rural districts of England, France, Spain and Germany. An urbane Gothic survival in the later 17th century can be traced in Oxford and Cambridge, where some additions and repairs to Gothic buildings were apparently considered more in keeping with the style of the original structures than contemporary Baroque. Sir Christopher Wren's Tom Tower for Christ Church College, Oxford University, and, later, Nicholas Hawksmoor's west towers of Westminster Abbey blur the boundaries between what is called "Gothic survival" and the Gothic revival.

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The Chesma palace church (1780), St Petersburg is a rare example of the Russian Gothic style.

In the mid 18th century with the rise of Romanticism, an increased interest and awareness of the Middle Ages among some influential connoisseurs created a more appreciative approach to selected medieval arts, beginning with church architecture and the tomb monuments of royal and noble personnages, and stained glass and late Gothic illuminated manuscripts. Other Gothic arts continued to be disregarded as barbaric and crude, however: tapestries and metalwork, for examples. Sentimental and nationalist associations with historical figures were as strong in this early revival as purely esthetic concerns. A few English, and soon some Germans, began to appreciate the picturesque character of ruins— "picturesque" becoming a new esthetic category— and those mellowing effects of time that the Japanese call wabi-sabi— and which Horace Walpole independently admired, mildly tongue-in-cheek, as "the true rust of the Barons' wars." The "Gothick" details of Walpole's Twickenham villa, "Strawberry Hill," appealed to the rococco tastes of the time, and by the 1770s thoroughly neoclassical architects like Robert Adam and, especially, James Wyatt were prepared to provide Gothic details in drawing-rooms, libraries and chapels, or a romantic vision of a Gothic abbey, Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire. The "Gothick" style was an architectural manifestation of the artificial "picturesque" seen elsewhere in the arts: these ornamental temples and summer-houses ignored the structural logic of true Gothic buildings and were effectively Palladian buildings with pointed arches. The eccentric landscape designer Batty Langley even attempted to "improve" Gothic forms by giving them classical proportions.

A younger generation who took Gothic more seriously provided the readership for Britten's series of Cathedral Antiquities, which began appearing in 1814. In 1817 Thomas Rickman wrote an Attempt to name and define the sequence of Gothic styles in English ecclesiastical architecture, "a text-book for the architectural student". Its long title is descriptive: Attempt to discriminate the styles of English architecture from the Conquest to the Reformation; preceded by a sketch of the Grecian and Roman orders, with notices of nearly five hundred English buildings. The categories he used were Norman, Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular. It went through numerous editions and was still being republished in 1881 [1] (

Romanticism and nationalism

French neo-Gothic had its roots in a minor aspect of Anglomanie starting in the late 1780s. In 1816, when French scholar Alexandre de Laborde said "Gothic architecture has beauties of its own" the idea was novel to most French readers. Starting in 1828 Alexandre Brogniart, the director of the Sèvres porcelain manufactory, produced fired enamel paintings on large panes of plate glass, for Louis-Philippe's royal chapel at Dreux. It would be hard to find a large, significant commission in Gothic taste that preceded this one, save for some Gothic features in a handful of jardins à l'anglaise.

The French Gothic revival was set on sounder intellectual footings by a pioneer, Arcisse de Caumont, who founded the Societé des Antiquaires de Normandy at a time when antiquaire still mean a connoisseur of antiquities, and who published his great work on Norman architecture in 1830 (Summerson 1948). The following year Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris appeared, in which the great Gothic cathedral of Paris was at once a setting and a protagonist in a hugely popular work of fiction. In the same year the new French monarchy established a post of Inspector-General of Ancient Monuments, a post filled in 1833 by Prosper Merimée, who became the secretary of a new Commission des Monuments Historiques in 1837. This was the Commission that instructed Eugène Viollet-le-Duc to report on the condition of the abbey of Vézelay in 1840.

Meanwhile in Germany, at Cologne Cathedral, started in 1248 and unfinished for over 500 years, in the 1820s the Romantic movement brought back interest, and work was started again in 1824, significantly marking a German return of Gothic architecture.

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Schloss Braunfels

Because of Romantic nationalism in the early 19th century, the Germans, French and English all claimed the original Gothic architecture of the 12th century as originating in their own country. The English boldy coined the term "Early English" for Gothic, a term that implied Gothic architecture was an English creation. In his 1832 edition of Notre Dame de Paris Victor Hugo appealed "Let us inspire in the nation, if it is possible, love for the national architecture", implying that Gothic was France's national heritage. In Germany with the completion of Cologne Cathedral in the 1880s, at the time the world's tallest building, it was truly seen as the height of Gothic architecture.

Gothic and neo-Gothic in Florence: the Gothic  and the Gothic Revival façade of the
Gothic and neo-Gothic in Florence: the Gothic campanile and the Gothic Revival façade of the Duomo

In Florence, the Duomo's façade was demolished in 1587-1588, but then stood bare. In 1864 a competition was held to design a new facade suitable to Arnolfo di Cambio's structure and the fine campanile next to it, and was won by Emilio De Fabris. Work to his polychrome design that includes panels of mosaic was begun in 1876 and completed in 1887 (illustration right).

Pugin, Ruskin and the Gothic as a moral force

In the late 1820s, A.W.N. Pugin, still a teenager, was working for two highly visible employers, providing Gothic detailing for luxury goods. For the Royal furniture makers Morel and Seddon he provided designs for redecorations for the elderly George IV at Windsor Castle in a Gothic taste suited to the setting. For the royal silversmiths Rundell Bridge and Co., Pugin provided designs for silver from 1828, using the 14th-century Anglo-French Gothic vocabulary that he would continue to favor later in designs for the new Palace of Westminster (see below) [2] (

In Contrasts (1836), Pugin expressed his admiration not only for mediæval art but the whole mediæval ethos, claiming that Gothic architecture was the product of a purer society. In The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841), he suggested that modern craftsmen seeking to emulate the style of medieval workmanship should also reproduce its methods. Pugin believed Gothic was true Christian architecture, boldly saying "The pointed arch was produced by the Catholic faith". Pugin's most famous building is The Houses of Parliament in London, which he designed in two campaigns, 1836 — 1837 and again in 1844 and 1852, with the classicist Charles Barry as his co-architect. Pugin provided the external decoration and the interiors, while Barry designed the symmetrical layout of the building, causing Pugin to remark, "All Grecian, Sir; Tudor details on a classic body".

John Ruskin supplemented Pugin's ideas in his two hugely influential theoretical works, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1853). Finding his architectural ideal in Venice, Ruskin proposed that Gothic buildings excelled above all other architecture because of the "sacrifice" of the stone-carvers in intricately decorating every stone. By declaring the Doge's Palace to be "the central building of the world", Ruskin argued the case for Gothic government buildings as Pugin had done for churches, though only in theory. When his ideas were put into practice, Ruskin despised the spate of public buildings built with references to the Ducal Palace, including the University Museum in Oxford.

In England, the Church of England was undergoing a revival of Anglo-Catholic ideology in the form of the Oxford Movement and it became desirable to build large numbers of new churches to cater for the growing population. This found ready exponents in the universities, where the ecclesiological movement was forming. Its proponents believed that Gothic was the only style appropriate for a parish church, and favoured a particular era of Gothic architecture — the "decorated". The movement's magazine, The Ecclesioligist, was so savagely critical of new church buildings that were below its exacting standards that a style called the 'archaeological Gothic' emerged, producing some of the most convincingly mediæval buildings of the Gothic revival.

Viollet-le-Duc and Iron Gothic

If France had not been quite as early on the neo-Gothic scene, she produced a giant of the revival in Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. As well as being a powerful and influential theorist, Viollet-le-Duc was a leading architect whose genius lay in restoration. He believed in restoring buildings to a state of completion that they would not have known even when they were first built, theories he applied to his restorations of the walled city of Carcassonne and Notre-Dame and Sainte Chapelle in Paris. In this respect he differed from his English counterpart Ruskin as he often replaced the work of mediaeval stonemasons. His rational approach to Gothic was in stark contrast to the revival’s romanticist origins, and considered by some to be a prelude to the structural honesty demanded by Modernism.

Throughout his career he remained in a quandary as to whether iron and masonry should be combined in a building. Iron had in fact been used in Gothic buildings since the earliest days of the revival. It was only with Ruskin and the archaeological Gothic's demand for structural truth that iron, whether it was visible or not, was deemed improper for a Gothic building. This argument began to collapse in the mid-19th century as great prefabricated structures such as the glass and iron Crystal Palace and the glazed courtyard of the Oxford University Museum were erected which appeared to embody Gothic principles through iron. Between 1863 and 1872 Viollet-le-Duc published his Entretiens sur l’architecture, a set of daring designs for buildings that combined iron and masonry. Though these projects were never realised, they influenced several generations of designers and architects, notably Antonio Gaudi.

The 20th century and beyond

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Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church (RC), Kensington Church Street, London. Late neo-Gothic by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, 1954-59.

At the turn of the 20th Century, technological developments such as the light bulb, the elevator, and steel framing caused many to see architecture that used load-bearing masonry as obsolete. Steel framing supplanted the non-ornamental functions of rib vaults and flying buttresses. Some architects used Neo-Gothic tracery as applied ornament to an iron skeleton underneath, for example in Cass Gilbert's 1907 Woolworth Building skyscraper in New York and Raymond Hood's 1922 Tribune Tower in Chicago. But over the first half of the century, Neo-Gothic became supplanted by Modernism. Some in the Modern Movement saw the Gothic tradition of architectural form entirely in terms of the "honest expression" of the technology of the day, and saw themselves as the rightful heir to this tradition, with their rectangular frames and exposed iron girders.

In spite of this, the Gothic revival continued to exert its influence, simply because many of its more massive projects were still being built well into the second half of the 20th century, such as Giles Gilbert Scott's Liverpool Cathedral. In the USA, Charles Donagh Maginnis's early buildings at Boston College helped establish the prevalence of Collegiate Gothic architecture on American university campuses. Ralph Adams Cram became a leading force in American Gothic, with his most ambitious project the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York (claimed to be the largest Cathedral in the world), as well as Collegiate Gothic buildings at Princeton University. Cram said "the style hewn out and perfected by our ancestors [has] become ours by uncontested inheritance."

Though the number of new Gothic revival buildings declined sharply after the 1930s, they continue to be built. The cathedral of Bury St. Edmunds was constructed between the late 1950s and 2005 [3] ( In 2002, Demetri Porphyrios was commisioned to design a neo-Gothic residential college at Princeton University to be known as Whitman College (illustration, right). Interestingly, Porphyrios has won several commissions after votes by student bodies, not university design committees, confirming what archiects have suspected: that neo-gothic architecture may be more popular among the public than among the architectural establishment.

Gothic revival architects

Gothic revival buildings

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Gothic drinking fountain, Regent's Park, London.

External link


Further reading

  • Clark, Sir KennethThe Gothic Revival: An Essay in the History of Taste ISBN 0719502330
  • Hunter-Stiebel, Penelope, Of knights and spires: Gothic revival in France and Germany, , 1989 ISBN 0916849059
  • Summerson, Sir John, 1948. "Viollet-le-Duc and the rational point of view" collected in Heavenly Mansions and other essays on Architecture.

Related topics

nl:Neogotiek pl:Neogotyk sv:Nygotik


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