English Gothic

It seems to be often the case that the best research is often done by people not involved in a subject. As far as I know, the world centre for Islamic Art is still Edinburgh, and the best travel writing is rarely done by people who travel for a living, and it is rare to find a farmer who writes well about the beauty countryside.

English architecture is a strange thing to define, as, until the rise of modern architecture, it was largely imported. The Angles and Saxons left us huge gloomy stone box churches, Normans gave us huge rounded arches in their cathedrals, but when one thinks of parish churches, the default is inevitably gothic – the square tower, the tall thin windows with fancy stone tracery. Despite its name, Gothic is French architecture, which was named as it was seen as degenerate compared with classical forms. Because so many wealthy and educated people looked to Rome for inspiration, few bothered to pay much attention to this gothic, so it was not until the mid 18th century that the rebuilding of many churches led to an interest in the Gothic, in architecture as well as literature, and the early 19th century that proper scholarship was applied to it, not by an Anglican, but by an outsider, a Quaker.

This is from Jenny Uglow’s book,  Pinecone:

“Scholars became fascinated by the mystery of the pointed arc and its derivation, coming up with some novel theories: James Murphy held that medieaval pinnacles derived from Egyptian obelisks; James Hall (a distinguished chemist and geologist) opted for willow poles and arches; Rowland Lascelles decided that the mother of all Gothic arches was the keel of Noah’s Ark.

Setting aside arguments about the derivation fo Gothic, which he simply called ‘English’, the Quaker antiquarian and architect Thomas Rickman published the first edition of An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of Architecture in England in 1817,…Rickman’s terminology is that which we still use – Norman, Early English Gothic, Decorated and Perpendicular Gothic – so familiar to us now it is hard to realise how new it was…. Rickman was a doctor and an apothecary, then a clerk, before he began his great ‘attempt’. He based his classification and chronology not on historical records, but on careful examination and diagnosis of building materials, stylistic details and ornaments, ‘steeples, naves, transepts, windows, arches, fonts and monuments’, noting how buildings evolved over time, with contributions from different centuries. His drawings were clear and elegant and his lively writing was designed to inspire ‘the rising generation’ and, he hoped, to provoke the clergy into realising what treasures they had and looking after them better.’

Roughly speaking, the three types correspond to very specific times. Early English followed the Norman invasion, when masons started to make the round arches more angular, so are a transition between the two styles. Decorated is the most ornate, with lots of fancy carving, often ornate to excess. This period ended with the Black Death which saw the death of so many people and many skills were lost. Perpendicular  followed, a simpler, pared down form of Gothic which corresponded to the great expansion of the English wool trade, the national economy boomed,  so many churches were built or enlarged at this time, hence this is the commonest form of church architecture to this day, ie the default setting.

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