Giants of the Gothic Revival



On Saturday 25 October at the V&A, leading experts on the Gothic Revival and modern British design will convene for an innovative public study day exploring how Victorian and modern architects contributed to cultural history across 150 years. Everyone is welcome, and tickets are selling quickly!

Giants of the Gothic Revival: Watts & Co. from Pugin to Comper celebrates two anniversaries: the 140th anniversary of Watts & Co., a design firm founded by the architects G. F. Bodley, Thomas Garner and George Gilbert Scott Jr in 1874, and the 150th anniversary of the birth of the architect and designer Ninian Comper.

With presentations from textiles historian Mary Schoeser, architectural historians Gavin Stamp, Alan Powers and Gerry Adler, and a panel discussion with the directors of Watts & Co alongside the director of the Soane Museum Abraham Thomas, it promises to be a stellar day of research and discovery. Talks are accompanied by sessions with rare and unique items from the RIBA, V&A and Watts & Co. archives. Original drawings by Comper, Scott, Bodley and many other key designers will be on display to enrich the day and highlight new understandings of design history as a process of continuity and innovation. Michael Hall’s new book on George Frederick Bodley and the Gothic Revival, published by Yale University Press, will be available for purchase and Michael will be on hand to sign copies.

From the Houses of Parliament and coronations at Westminster Abbey, and from cathedrals to domestic interiors, this V&A study day highlights the power of the Gothic Revival to shape and challenge cultural identities from the Victorians to the present.

Books that Matter – Two Lists

Like a large number of people over the past few days, I’ve been asked by Facebook friends to write a list of 10 books that are really significant for me. I stuck to fiction and found that the books that I remember best from childhood to the present have a lingering connection with my academic interests around the intersections of religion, sexuality, modern Britain, and architecture.

Within those vast fields and across disciplines, my primary focus is on Gothic Revival architecture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Why were all those arches and crockets and stained glass windows so appealing? With this in mind, I decided to write another list. Below is a group of ten Gothic Revival texts (and a bonus short preface by William Morris because it’s so clear about why and how his politics and art connect so firmly to John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice). I come back to these publications again and again as key works that commented on and contributed to the Gothic Revival in Britain and America. Most are by architects, two are by priests, and one of them is a translation of a medieval text by the leading lights of the Ecclesiological movement.


Ralph Adams Cram, The Gothic Quest (1907)

William Durandus, The Symbolism of Churches and Church Ornaments, J. M. Neale and B. Webb, transl. (1843)

Charles Locke Eastlake, A History of the Gothic Revival (1872)

Ernest Geldart, A Manual of Church Decoration and Symbolism (1899)

Thomas Graham Jackson, Modern Gothic Architecture (1873)

John Mason Neale, A Few Words to Church Builders (1844)

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, Contrasts (1836; 1841)

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841)

John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, 3 Vols (1851-1853)

George Gilbert Scott, Personal and Professional Recollections (1879)

…and William Morris, ‘Preface’ for John Ruskin, ‘The Nature of Gothic’, Kelmscott Press (1892)


Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
E. M. Forster, Maurice
C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
Timothy Findley, Not Wanted on the Voyage
Thomas Mann, Death in Venice
Virginia Woolf, Orlando
Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red
Oscar Wilde, The Selfish Giant
Leonid Borodin, The Year of Miracle and Grief
Jeanette Winterson, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit

Modern Monasteries and Convents in Britain

This summer the Twentieth Century Society organised a packed tour of modern convents and monasteries, ranging from John Ninian Comper and Leonard Stokes’ architectural designs for the Anglican All Saints Sisters of the Poor at London Colney to Giles Gilbert Scott’s Carmelite chapel in London, Francis Pollen’s 1960s sweepingly monumental church for the Roman Catholic Benedictine community at Worth Abbey, and Maguire and Murray’s characteristically simple and light-filled space at the Anglican Benedictine convent in West Malling.

Some of these places are thriving, some are dwindling, and some – London Colney in particular – are under significant threat. What happens to these places of major architectural, cultural, and religious significance now and in the future remains uncertain in some cases, and the C20 Society day highlighted advocacy and conservation as much as it showcased an array of approaches to crafting holy spaces in new ways.

Led by Kate Jordan and John East with contributions from Alan Powers on Francis Pollen and me on Ninian Comper, the event’s architectural diversity proved the dynamism, innovation, experimentation, and tradition that guided new building projects for these unique religious communities from c.1920 to the present. As 31 July is the feast day of St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, it seems apt to focus on monastic architecture for modern Britain which has been done ‘to the greater glory of God’.





Neo-Gothic and Neo-Byzantine: Two Montreal Churches

In 1823, reconstruction of Montreal’s Notre-Dame began. This building dominates the oldest precinct of Montreal; it was the first sacred space I visited when I arrived in the city this June. Approaching it on a Bixi bike (which was the perfect way to get around the city, from Buckminster Fuller’s biosphere for Expo 67 to the Five Roses flour mill), the two towers signalled a transformation in the urban landscape from sprawling business and industry into preserved settings firmly associated with the French settlement’s earliest history. The church’s seventeenth-century foundation building proved too small for the city’s growing population in the early nineteenth century, and the new structure was to be a grand statement of Roman Catholic power wrought in fashionable Neo-Gothic forms. The architect was an unusual choice: James O’Donnell, a New York Irish Protestant. He converted to Catholicism during the building process. The church was inaugurated in 1829, months before his death. The towers rose slowly through the 1840s, and the interior is a mixture of blaring high-contrast jewel-toned polychromy, late nineteenth-century flowing tracery toplighting, and a series of sturdy stained glass windows from the 1920s. The interior was inspired by Ste Chapelle in Paris, but the building couldn’t be anything other than nineteenth century in its detail, materials, and deployment of Gothic features. East of the sanctuary, the Chapel of the Sacred Heart was designed by Perreault and Mesnard in the 1880s. A fire in 1979 destroyed this section of Notre Dame and it was rebuilt in an uneasy (and very, very brown) mixture of postmodern elements, combining Gothic Revival arcades and side chapels with a vast bronze altarpiece by Charles Daudelin. Neither fully embracing the modern possibilities of 1970s architecture nor offering a renewed and innovative historicist view on modern Gothic, the chapel’s stylistic awkwardness suggests anxiety regarding past, present, and future in relation to revivalism and Catholic identity towards the close of the twentieth century.

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A week after my visit to Notre Dame, I went to Mile End for three things: brunch at Nouveau Palais, comparative bagel shopping at the city’s two prime locations for their bulk production (they bake them on long wooden boards, and both shops are stripped to essentials: counter, fridge full of cream cheese, infinite bags of flour, massive roaring open oven. C’est tout.), and a church I spotted while walking over the flyover from the nearest Metro station. This was the last sacred space I visited in Montreal, a few hours before I caught a flight back to London. In 1902, the parish of St Michael the Archangel was founded for the region’s Irish Catholic population. The church, completed by 1915, boasted the largest dome in Montreal until St Joseph’s Oratory surpassed its hefty scale. The Byzantine style was suggested by Aristide Beaugrande-Champagne, the building’s local architect. He was a vocal advocate for reinforced concrete, an archaeologist, and a founding member of the Groupe des Dix. The interior of the church combines searing orange and green floral motifs in stained glass panels with a complex scheme of figural and patterned painting alongside rhythmic structural polychromy. The lighting made it nearly impossible to photograph; the dome’s interior features an aggressive Archangel Michael casting rebel angels from heaven. The rogue divine creatures tumble into the pendentives, falling towards the nave in graceful billowing drapery, surrounded by staunchly upright trees representing fruits of a lost paradise. The artist was Guido Nincheri, whose murals and stained glass are a key element of Quebec’s sacred sites, including the Trois-Rivieres cathedral and Set Madeleine d’Outremont. I’ve been researching twentieth-century murals and religion lately, and am delighted to have been introduced to Nincheri’s work before heading home. London’s C20 churches could have been enhanced by a rogue angel or two, perhaps.


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Modern English Painters: John Rothenstein, L. S. Lowry and D. G. Rossetti

IMG_1927This weekend I took my laptop and a large stack of paper off to a garden in Lincolnshire to Get Things Done and to Sit in the Sun and Drink G&Ts. On my way up north from Nottinghamshire I stopped at a second-hand bookshop. This is always a dangerous idea. It was a small shop, but despite this within ten minutes I’d found five books I had to have. Among these were two volumes of John Rothenstein’s three-volume Modern English Painters, the British answer to Giorgio Vasari’s classic biographical collection of Italian greats, Lives of the Artists. Published in 1952 and 1956, Rothenstein’s personal and engaging accounts of artists including Paul Nash, Henry Moore, David Jones and Ben Nicholson have their limitations – particularly when viewed through the reflected light of recent art historical methodologies – but these books affirmed what by the 1950s was clear: that British art had a distinctive modern movement of its own, and that its practitioners needed sustained public, critical, and art historical attention. Rothenstein himself was a giant figure in twentieth-century British culture, and his leadership as Tate’s director from 1938-64 is still the longest in the institution’s history. He also, perhaps understandably, and after a lot of provocation, once punched Douglas Cooper in the face.


In Volume 2 of Modern English Painters, Rothenstein’s chapter on L. S. Lowry includes the artist’s recollection of his favourite painters. Lowry, who was born in Manchester in 1887 and whose reputation has enjoyed a recent surge due to the 2013 exhibition at Tate Britain curated by T. J. Clark and Anne Wagner, was inspired – of course he was – by French late nineteenth-century painting, and the classic exponents of European Modernism. But Rothenstein’s frank account of Lowry’s interests and influences offers something more:

The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra 1857 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882

D. G. Rossetti, The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra, 1857 (Tate)


Speaking of the effect upon artists of the pictures they see early in life, [Lowry] said to me: ‘As a student I admired D. G. Rossetti and, after him, Madox Brown. The queer thing is, I’ve never wavered; they’re my two favourite artists still.’


‘Yet your admiration for neither of them is even faintly reflected in your work,’ I said.


‘No. I don’t believe it shows; nor, if you were to ask me, could I tell you why these two artists are constantly in my mind.’

As an art and architectural historian for whom the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle are never far from the surface of her own thinking, this declaration of Lowry’s leapt out amidst the modern art dialogues in Rothenstein’s biographical essays. I wondered how many other artists in the book’s fourteen chapters had something to say about the Pre-Raphaelites. With the recent exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art and design at Tate Britain in mind (its London success was followed by an epic tour to Washington DC, Moscow and Tokyo – the Prioress’ Tale wardrobe painted by Edward Burne-Jones as a wedding present for William Morris is much missed at the Ashmolean, apparently) and the surrounding determination by its curators Jason Rosenfeld and Tim Barringer and associated scholars including Elizabeth Prettejohn and Diane Waggoner to re-examine the movement’s modernity afresh, I turned to Rothenstein’s index. Impressionists and Impressionism are mentioned six times. The PRBs get seven page references; Rossetti gets seven too just on his own. Whether loved or reviled, these Victorians were prominent figures in the memories and imaginations of Rothenstein’s modern English painters.

L. S. Lowry, St Augustine's Church, Pendlebury, 1924 (Tate). The church was designed by G. F. Bodley, a leading Victorian Gothic Revival architect with close ties to the Pre-Raphaelites.

L. S. Lowry, St Augustine’s Church, Pendlebury, 1924 (Tate). The church was designed by G. F. Bodley, a leading Victorian Gothic Revival architect with close ties to the Pre-Raphaelites.

Cambridge Aesthetes

blog headerThe 1870s was an important time of major transition for Cambridge. As the colleges transformed their structures, expanded, and (at least in some cases) enjoyed a bit of extra cash flow, there were also numerous instances of Fellows wishing to take on building and decorating projects as patrons. This ushered in a new phase of the Gothic Revival that was richly inflected with the visual qualities of the Aesthetic Movement. The 1860s and 70s were the high point of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones’ involvement in Cambridge interiors, especially stained glass and wall painting. In a number of cases that interest me most, Morris and Burne-Jones worked with or added their designs to architectural schemes conceived by George Frederick Bodley, Thomas Garner, and George Gilbert Scott Jr. These three architects were also the founders of Watts & Co., an ecclesiastical and domestic furnishing and decorating firm that opened its doors to a range of elite and clerical clients in 1874. Watts & Co., whose architectural associates, designers and directors included Giles Gilbert Scott, John Ninian Comper (albeit briefly), Keith Murray and Stephen Dykes Bower, is still producing designs and maintaining its Victorian traditions today. A study day at the V&A on Saturday 25 October will highlight Watts and Comper to mark their 140th and 150th anniversaries respectively. Everyone is welcome, speakers include Gavin Stamp, Mary Schoeser and Abraham Thomas, and it promises to be a stimulating day of new research on Victorian design and its legacies.


Last Thursday I spent the day in Cambridge following up on a few research questions that I first began to explore in my PhD thesis at the Courtauld. I always find that revisiting places and investigating them closely is a great way to formulate fresh thinking about old subjects. The first time I visited G. F. Bodley’s All Saints, Jesus Lane, which includes stained glass by Morris and his circle as well as painting and designs by C. E. Kempe and Frederick Leach, it was 2006 and I was right at the beginning of a long stretch of research. Every time I’ve seen it since I’ve learned something new. On this visit, I was curious about colour and pattern in relation to revivalism and temporality, as two ways of thinking about connections between architecture and sound. The same day I also spent a long time looking at Victorian spaces at Peterhouse and at Queens’. Together, these places form a microcosmic visual lexicon of a tight social network’s art and architectural priorities as they worked together and independently to revive a medieval past and reinvent a modern Victorian visual culture.


Peterhouse – William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, George Gilbert Scott Jr – 1870s

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Queens’ – G. F. Bodley Thomas Garner, Frederick Leach, C. E. Kempe, Philip Webb, William Morris, Ford Madox-Brown, Edward Burne-Jones – 1860s-1890s

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All Saints, Jesus Lane – G. F. Bodley, Frederick Leach, C. E. Kempe, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown – 1860s-1870s


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Utopian Modernisms

Middlesex Guildhall (now the Supreme Court), James S. Gibson with sculpture by Henry C. Fehr, 1912-13

Middlesex Guildhall (now the Supreme Court), James Gibson with sculpture by Henry Fehr, 1912-13


In a few days hundreds of art historians will congregate at the Royal College of Art in London for the annual AAH conference. Those who know me well know I love a good conference – some of the most important work in the field is accomplished somewhere between the papers, the vigorous dialogue surrounding them in focused panels, and the bar. I was last at AAH in 2012, when I co-chaired a panel with Alan Powers on ‘Modernism’s Other’, exploring what else happened in the midst of the rise of Modernism in architecture and architectural criticism. Predictably, a lot happened. Crucially, the dominance of Modernism as the narrative of twentieth-century architecture’s progress has marginalised a lot of other history, and it’s time to recover it. Ornament, historicism, and the perpetual slippages and reworkings of ‘modern’ itself as a category, are all at stake. These themes still preoccupy me in my own research, particularly in relation to the Gothic Revival’s long reach into the twentieth century. This year, my AAH contribution is a paper for a panel investigating ‘dream spaces’ at the turn of the twentieth century. I’m looking forward to offering a talk that considers intersecting priorities and stylistic tropes in two major building projects: Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson’s St Thomas’s Church on Fifth Avenue in New York, and James S. Gibson’s designs for Middlesex Guildhall in London. I’ve spent long periods of time studying both buildings and increasingly feel that they express a surprisingly coherent set of affinities connecting modern medievalist architecture practiced in both Britain and America.


To date, the richest and most thoughtful assessments of the Middlesex Guildhall’s history and features are the chapters by Peter Cormack and Jeremy Musson in Chris Miele’s edited volume celebrating the institutional structures and adopted building of the Supreme Court. The Court moved into the old Middlesex Guildhall building a handful of years ago, and not without serious controversy. The SAVE Britain’s Heritage campaign to stop the Supreme Court from radically altering the interior was ultimately a failure, but it did raise the building’s profile amongst architects and historians. Indeed, within its testimonial report, Gavin Stamp also mentioned that he saw a kinship between Gibson’s design and the American Gothic creations of Cram and Goodhue.


My interpretation of Middlesex Guildhall’s design and impacts in relation to a powerful American ‘Gothic quest’ amplifies its importance in histories of British architecture, and widens the research dialogue from localised and nationalist approaches to a broader sphere of modern cultural concerns. The Middlesex Guildhall is a fascinating site, teeming with sculpture and densely layered with meaning, produced at a time of increasing anxiety regarding empire and political upheaval mere months from the triggers that set the First World War in motion. The building continues to hide in plain sight, relatively speaking; there is much to see, and much to learn. As I research the structure in relation to developments in Gothic architecture a few timezones to the west, it’s increasingly clear that the building deserves more reflection so that we might gain fresh purchase on what is at stake when revivalism – and modern Gothic in particular – is deployed as a progressive strategy for a major architectural statement regarding cyclical patterns of history, the perils and pleasures of nostalgia, the expectations of justice, and the prospect of utopian dreaming. Long after Pugin’s Gothic skin clad the Houses of Parliament across the square, Gothic still remained as a powerful language in which designers and patrons could craft a future in the early uncertain years of the twentieth century.

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