Aesthetical Aspects of the Gothic Revival Nature and Beauty

Cora Zoltán
Cora Zoltán

To attain a better understanding of the semantics of Gothic in the eighteenth-century, it might be worth looking at the interpretation of Gothic in the mirror of the aesthetic system of Classicism since I intend to have an overview of the aesthetic changes that were brought about in discourses pertaining to the notions of Nature, Beauty, and Gothic in the eighteenth-century.

Due to these changes, new dimensions were developing within the realms of arts and aesthetics, that is, the picturesque, the sublime and the infinite. Before concisely discussing the aesthetical background, however, a precise understanding of the term “Gothic” should be offered in order to show how different paradigms of aesthetics were applied to the Revival which was one of the major cultural and artistic trends of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century in Britain.

The notion of Gothic needs to be classified so that one can shape a picture of the eighteenth-century aesthetical change that happened, as we will see, in favour of the Gothic Revival.

In Classical aesthetics Gothic meant “barbarous and tasteless.” It is interesting though that this attitude prevailed in the years of the ascending Gothic Revival. Connotations implied that Gothic is (1) any structure not in the Classical style, (2) a style originating from Northern tribes, especially from the Goths, or (3) having an Arabian-Goth two-fold origin.

As a matter of fact, this polyphony soon gave voice to the opinion that a certain order had to be done. The necessary distinctions led to a more precise denotation of the characteristics of Gothic.

First, according to the eighteenth-century Classicists, it was agreed that a lack of simplicity is evident in Gothic architecture, that is, Classical style demanded that the most excessive feature of an ideal building should be simplicity.

Classicists thought that simple, majestic and regular were equalled with “natural“, so the overdecorated fluttering of Gothic seemed utterly unnatural. Nevertheless, others like Montesquieu paid attention to Gothic’s variety, contrast, and surprise as its chief conveyors of aesthetic enjoyment. This is all the more so important, I think, since in the following aesthetical discourse these aspects will be the turning points with regard to the notions of Nature and Beauty.

Secondly, in Classical terms the imitation of Nature, as a perfect state of the art, implies symmetry. In connection with this, a lack of symmetry was also attributable to Gothic. Here I can turn to Lovejoy’s brilliant description: “a lack of symmetry […] militates against the unity effect, that produces upon the eye or the mind a distracting multiplicity of impressions which cannot be immediately recognised as a forming of a single well-defined pattern, is inconsistent with beauty.” It coincides with literary theory again, where the unities in the drama and the disapproval of the mixture of genres were stressed.

Finally, two more disparagements were attributed to Gothic, that is, the lack of “regularity” and the lack of universal acceptability. The former was used in Vitruvian terms, that is, the joint aesthetical exercise of symmetry, repetition, uniform and exact rules of proportion, while the latter, in my view, was a verbal confusion at that age, since there could be found enough historical evidence for both styles. Therefore, I think, it loses its overall validity. All the more so since as soon as the 1740s, an actual approval of Gothic architecture was going on in England.

The reader may still ask what the cause was, then, that led to the perseverance of Gothic, and what its aesthetic grounds were. As the major trends were the Gothic remodellings of the 1740s and the beginning of Gothic domestic architecture in the 1750s, I might argue that there was a strong divergence from the tradition of Classical architecture.

“Nonconformist” architects discovered Gothic as more natural, being more in conformity with Nature. In this context, the logic of Classicism was not only dismissed but reversed as Gothic architecture appeared as the imitation of Nature.

This theory implied that it is natural harmony that determines architecture instead of a set of strict rules. It also brings us to the aesthetic principle of irregularity because Nature in its pious state is displaced in an irregular way, however, it still retains its harmony. Therefore, the imitation of Nature, as well as Gothic architecture, needs a certain degree of irregularity which means that the Classical aesthetical paradigms of Nature were replaced by those of Gothic.

Edmund Burke, in the ‘Sublime and Beautiful’ (1757) describes and supports this aesthetical process, at the same time, he adds that beauty results from certain proportions between parts of the objects. Thus, those aesthetical principles were carried back into Gothic architecture which formerly derived from there.

In my opinion, this change that culminated in the 1740s and 1750s, and the derivation and common appreciation of these aesthetical principles of past and present made a considerable impetus to the Gothic Revival.

The notion of Nature, consequently, rebuilt the paradigms that also steered the way of Gothic, making “naturam sequi” an aesthetic imperative which meant that the primacy of irregularity was soon generalised.

In the 1750s and 1760s, Nature attained a very high moral and aesthetic level in arts, literature and culture. It is worth mentioning here that it was imminently important that this change paved the road not only for Gothic but for Romanticism as well.

The Neoclassical doctrines of simplicity and regularity were transmuted into complexity and irregularity in the Gothic. Thus, the Gothic Revival brought about, on the one hand, a “return to Nature”, on the other hand, evoked a reinterpretation of Beauty parallelly with new paradigms, such as the picturesque and the sublime. So, the Gothic semantics acquired an aesthetical ground besides its vigorous political theory.

As it has been earlier referred in this study, new aesthetical categories appeared in the eighteenth-century English cultural realm which were elaborated and applied in architecture from the second half of the century.

The paradigm of picturesque seems to be one of the most important as it intricately formalised the main aesthetical principles of Gothic, asymmetry, irregularity, variation and roughness. Therefore, it seems to be suitable here to discuss the historical precedents, the development of the idea, its association with other aesthetical categories, and finally its contribution to the Gothic Revival.

First of all, it is preeminent to examine the origin of picturesque itself for a better understanding of its unique English afterlife. The place where the notion was born is not at all surprisingly Italy. Originally, it was used in connection with painting.

There are several seventeenth-century Italian painters who apply the word “pittoresco”. Giorgio Vasari uses the expression “alla pittoresca” in a phrase meaning “painted with a brush after the manner of painting”. The Baroque painter, Salvator Rosa (1615-1673) applies “pittoresco” to a travel to Loreto. Francesco Redi (1626-1698) speaks of “licenza pittoresca”, that is, picturesque license. Pablo Segneri (1623-1694) also mentions “pittoresco” as an extravagant painting style. The same idea recurs by Filippo Baldinucci (1624-1696). It is evident, I think, that picturesque was attributed to painting and denoted a style not conformable with Classical rules.

After this modest Italian excursion, it is important to investigate how picturesque developed in England and how it contributed to aesthetics in general. The term was adopted in 1705 as picturesque by Richard Steele (1672-1729).

William Gilpin (1724-1804) attributed picturesque to landscape painting. He interpreted picturesque as something different to the well-formed and symmetrical contours of Classicism. His picturesque meant variety, irregularity and roughness.

At the same time, Gilpin created an alternative notion of beauty to that of Burke, for he argued that roughness is the main source of beauty. That is one of the reasons why painters and architects of his age preferred ruins, as opposed to smooth plastic buildings.

It was a sharp change in aesthetics since picturesque’s roughness enabled painters to expound their imagination on a larger scale. Gilpin’s ideas were developed by Uwedale Price (1747-1829). For Price, it meant roughness and sudden variation. He extended picturesque to all kinds of visual phenomena, including architecture.

Walter Scott’s edifying and illuminating description of the Rectory of Willingham offers an excellent perception of this complex artistic sensation of picturesque: “It was situated about four hundred yards from the village, and on a rising ground which sloped gently upward, covered with small enclosures, or closes, laid out irregularly, so that the old oaks and elms, which were planted in hedge-rows, fell into perspective, and were blenden together in beautiful irregularity. When they approached nearer to the house, a handsome gateway admitted them into a lawn, of narrow dimensions, indeed, but which was interspersed with large sweet-chestnut trees and beeches, and kept in handsome order. The front of the house was irregular. Part of it seemed very old, and had, in fact, been the residence of the incumbent in Romish times. Successive occupants had made considerable additions and improvements, each in the taste of his own age, and without much regard to symmetry. But these incongruities of architecture were so graduated and happily mingled, that the eye, far from being displeased with the combinations of various styles, saw nothing but what was interesting in the varied and intricate pile which they exhibited. Fruit-trees displayed on the southern wall, outer staircases, various places of entrance, a combination of roofs and chimneys of different ages, united to render the front, not indeed beautiful or grand, but intricate, perplexed, or, to use Mr Price’s appropriate phrase, picturesque.”

Since now all kinds of artistic production could be evaluated on the basis of the picturesque, Price unambiguously distinguished between Grecian and Gothic architecture. His ideas were further improved by Richard Payne Knight (1750-1824)26 who established picturesque’s aesthetic value of variety, colourfulness, irregularity, undiluted with emotional associations, and secured a broader yet more unbound definition for beauty as an aesthetical reality independent of mental sympathies or intellectual fitness.

Though not in Kantian terms, he circumscribed picturesque beauty as unrelied on associations. Knight made a decisive step in demolishing the traditional planned gardening and building up a “more natural” landscape similar to that of landscape painters. Therefore, the notion of picturesque gained a foothold on the aesthetics of architecture and the Gothic Revival as well.

Gothic and Romanticism challenged the Neoclassical aesthetic realm since the deliberation of imagination in poetry by a chain of associations produced an alternative perception of beauty and sublime. I will shed some light on these two paradigms, their connection with the picturesque and their exercise on the architectural current of the nineteenth-century Gothic Revival.

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