UNDERSTANDING GOTHIC STYLE
The architecture of the stone buildings of the Middle Ages continued to hold a fascination for designers in the 18th and 19th centuries, when its principles were applied to a whole range of domestic objects.
Stone buildings - usually churches - constructed in Britain in the 11th century and earlier were
based on principles learned from Roman architecture. They were generally low and solid, with the roofs supported on round-headed arches and massive pillars. This style, known as Norman or Romanesque, was gradually supplanted from the 12th century onwards by one based on pointed arches and slender columns.
This style reached its peak in the 15th century, when the growing wealth of Britain, largely derived from the wool trade, was invested in spacious and soaringly tall buildings, decorated throughout with carvings in stone and wood and with huge windows full of delicate stone tracery and stained glass. The carvers and metalworkers who made the church fittings used the same skills and motifs to create secular furniture, jewellery and domestic items in gold and silver.
The style pendulum swung back again after that, as the influence of the Renaissance focussed attention back on ancient Greece and Rome, on classical ideas of proportion and the perfection of the circle, and on
decorative styles involving mythical figures and motifs such as swags, urns and vine leaves, rarely if ever used before in northern Europe. The pointed medieval style came to be seen as barbaric, and was dubbed Gothic, after one of the northern tribes that sacked Rome and helped to bring about the end of its empire.
In the second half of the 18th century, there was a brief vogue for Gothic styling in domestic buildings and interiors. Designs based on window tracery appeared on pieces of furniture such as chair backs and
glass-fronted cabinets - Chippendale incorporated the style into several pieces in the 1760s - and medieval glass and metalwork were re-created for the self-consciously stylish. The peak of this fad was represented by the house of the writer, Horace Walpole, at Strawberry Hill in Middlesex, south-west of London, and the style is sometimes known as Strawberry Hill Gothic.
After about 1770, this fashion was supplanted by the neo-classical style. Gothic didn't go away completely, though. The Romantic movement kept it alive, both as an appropriately foreboding setting for the sort of blood-curdling novels satirized by
Jane Austen in Northanger
Abbey (Modern Library Classics), and in the extremely popular escapist historical romances penned by Sir Walter Scott and others.
Gothic was just one among many style possibilities in the Regency period, but came back into the forefront of design in the early Victorian period, largely as the result of the work of Augustus Pugin, an architect and designer who espoused Gothic not only for reasons of taste, but also because he thought it the only truly Christian style. As well as buildings, Pugin also designed
richly decorated furniture, wallpaper, stained glass and silver in the style.
A war of words between the supporters of 'pagan' classicism and 'Christian' Gothic - particularly the religious reformers of the Oxford Movement - broke out
after Pugin's book, The
true principles of pointed or Christian architecture, was published in 1841. The supporters of Gothic eventually won the argument. The pointed style became the norm for church and public
buildings - notably the Houses of Parliament - and was also re-established as a fashionable domestic style.
Architectural details such as lancets (tall, narrow, pointed windows),
trefoils (a pierced ornament made up of three lobes, rather like the club symbol in a pack of cards) and quatrefoils (similar, but with four lobes) were applied to furniture, pottery and silverware.
Colourful encaustic tiles, made by creating a design in different-coloured slips which were then fired on to the tile, were used for floors and walls. Stained glass made a comeback, and was mimicked in less expensive materials, such as roller-blinds. Other medieval details not usually associated with churches, such as panelled walls, tapestries (or dark, richly-coloured wallpapers) and heavy oak furniture were also revived in grand houses.
Victorian taste in interior decoration, though, was very broad; few large homes were furnished and fitted throughout in the same style. Gothic grandeur was thought of as particularly suitable for libraries, halls and dining rooms, while softer, more
feminine styles were paramount in drawing rooms and bedrooms.
In the second half of the 19th century, pieces in the Gothic style - especially furniture became heavier, more imposing and more formal in style, moving further and further away from the work of the medieval craftsmen who had first inspired it. However, the influential critic John Ruskin kept a European-influenced Gothic style - with decorative motifs drawn more from nature than geometry - in the forefront of architecture.
Many men inspired by Ruskin' 5 writings looked back to the Middle Ages for new ideas. One of them, George Edwin Street, designed furniture and buildings in a style that was less 'churchy' than many others, and helped to train several men who would take the Gothic influence into new dimensions.
These included William Morris, Philip Webb and other pioneers of the Arts and Crafts movement. The medieval concerns of Arts and Crafts - more about reviving traditional methods than old
forms - were different from the increasingly cliched Gothic style, which was rarely used for domestic pieces after the Victorian period.