Romanticizing a “Specimen” of Gothic Architecture

Sophia Cai is a senior at Syracuse University, majoring in Psychology and minoring in Art History. Born in Queens, New York, she enjoys travelling, cooking for friends, and exploring art museums.

Augustus Pugin was a British architect in the nineteenth century and was recognized as an influential force in the revival of Gothic architecture in England (Stanton, 10). Though there was a renewed interest in the Gothic, not everybody shared Pugin’s passion for the Gothic style (Vaughan, 100). Pugin collaborated with architect and antiquarian Edwards James Willson to compile a series of plates of Gothic “specimens” of English architecture to “represent the geometrical proportions, plans, and construction of genuine examples of the Architecture of the middle ages” (Pugin and Willson, vol. 1, 5). The result was Specimens of Gothic Architecture: Selected from Various Ancient Edifices in England: Consisting of Plans, Elevations, Sections, and Parts at Large (1825), a book that contains historical and descriptive accounts of various examples of Gothic architecture accompanied by corresponding plates. The historical and descriptive accounts go into detail about the basic characteristics as well as the functions of the featured edifices. Pugin and Willson hoped that people would use this book as a reference to study examples of pure Gothic architecture (Pugin and Willson, vol. 1, 5). A copy of the book is housed in the Special Collections Research Center at Syracuse University.

   The plate seen here was retrieved from volume two of Pugin and Willson’s Specimens of Gothic Architecture (pl. xlvi). It displays a turret and gable found in the chapel at King’s College at the University of Cambridge. Construction of the chapel was commissioned by King Henry VI in 1446 and was split up into three distinct phases (Pennick, 30). The turret and gable shown in the plate are only a handful of architectural elements in the chapel, but they embody the Gothic style that Pugin and Willson hoped to represent in their voluminous study. Moreover, they have been detached from the chapel and enlarged to show their intricate detail and ornament. A turret is a small tower, used for ornament or to increase the strength of a building (Parker, 310). A gable is the upper wall of the end of a building, where the top conforms to the slopes of the roof (Parker, 126). Shown in this plate is the “upper part of one of the four lofty turrets which adorn its angles; with a portion of the adjoining gable” (Pugin and Willson,vol. 2, 29). The turret and adjoining gable are accompanied by a plan from the lower part of the elevation, labeled Plan at A (Pugin and Willson, vol. 2, 29). The turret is then even further fragmented and a corner of the plan is enlarged and labeled B (Pugin and Willson, vol. 2, 29). The cross that lays upon the crest of the gable is also magnified and is labeled C (Pugin and Willson, vol. 2, 29). In the accompanying reading to the plate, Pugin describes the process through which the turret is placed upon the gable. “The turrets are carried up without any ornament as high as the battlements of the roof, above which they are beautifully decorates, as shown in the plate” (Pugin and Willson, vol. 2, 29).

   Specimens of Gothic Architecture is an elaborate record of Gothic buildings in England. It appears that Pugin and Willson wanted to popularize the style of Gothic architecture and make it accessible to the general public by carefully documenting medieval edifices. But what was novel is that they did not document entire buildings, selecting instead key Gothic features. Architectural elements were extracted from their structures and contexts, drawing attention to each element’s essential characteristics. In doing so, each Gothic feature emerged as its own entity, its function and importance accentuated in the process. By clearly stating the purpose of each “specimen,” Pugin and Willson emphasized Gothic architecture as logical and functional (Vaughan, 130). Such an approach mirrored Pugin’s belief that architecture should be governed by utility and function, and that ornament should enhance and not obscure (Vaughan, 130). By compiling this dense and extraordinary record as a reference for future architects, Pugin and Willson hoped to prevent any blunders in designing modern Gothic edifices in which Gothic principles might be disregarded (Pugin and Willson, vol. 1, 5). They “hoped and believed that every form and member here represented can easily be executed” (Pugin and Willson, vol. 1, 5).

   Pugin was an expert on Gothic architecture and he “considered it to be the only truly style of Christian architecture” (Hyland, 236). A convert to Catholicism in 1835, Pugin’s life was heavily influenced by his religious beliefs. His devotion to Catholicism is evident from his belief that incorporating classical Greek styles in churches was a sin (Vaughan, 129). He also was known to wear medieval clothing around his home (Vaughan, 129). Pugin believed that “integrity and propriety were to be found only in the Gothic architecture that was produced in what he believed had been a more moral age – an age when life was regulated by Christian principles” (Hyland, 236). During the medieval ages, churches were adorned to reflect Christian principles, and as a result these churches “were not simply buildings in which, but rather with which one might worship god” (Hyland, 235). Pugin regarded Gothic architecture as uniting earth and heaven in the same way that William Blake’s Angels Watching Over the Body of Christ in the Sepulchre (1805) united the two realms (Hyland, 236). Blake, like Pugin, was interested in the spirituality of the Gothic and his medieval works took the form of Christian subjects (Vaughan, 101). This etching by Blake depicts two angels hovering over the body of Christ, their wings uniting to form an arch – a popular characteristic of the Gothic style. The origins of the arch can be thought to have derived from the natural forces of two adjacent trees interlocking (Vaughan, 122).

   Pugin’s views on Gothic architecture align with ideas of the Medieval Revival in England, which drew attention to the grandeur and splendor of the English Gothic (Vaughan, 100). According to Pugin and Willson, Gothic architecture was “acknowledged throughout the principal countries of Europe, as the most beautiful and convenient style of building…with edifices of such lightness and sublimity of effect as the world has never before witnessed” (Pugin and Willson, vol. 1, 5). There was an interest in the Gothic for its evocative quality. For artists, it became associated with everything unsettling (Vaughan, 100). Pugin and Willson describe the decorations of the turret and gable as “bold and decisive, producing a clear and distinct effect, even at the great height they are placed” (Pugin and Willson, vol. 2, 29). Their use of the word “effect” in their description implies that these edifices evoked an emotion or a sensation. The planning of King’s College Chapel relied heavily on sacred measurements or proportions recorded in scriptural accounts as was common in medieval architecture (Pennick, 26). These dimensions defined the chapel as a sacred vessel (Pennick, 27). Such an approach to architecture can also be seen as aligned with the Romantic idea that the Gothic was not just a style but an atmosphere (Vaughan, 100).

   All the plates in Specimens of Gothic Architecture are the most basic depictions of medieval edifices. There is a heavy emphasis on line without the excess of elements such as how light and shadow might affect the buildings. In Romanticism, the line itself was regarded as a key artistic feature that was capable of evoking emotion, which in turn created atmosphere (Vaughan, 16). Outline was the visual method that came closest to the allusive quality of poetry, and line was thought to coax the imagination to fill in the gaps (Vaughan, 16). Line could also be seen as inspired by a medieval aesthetic, as demonstrated in John Flaxman’s Penelope’s Dream (1805). Flaxman grasped the essence of form of the figures in this outline drawing, in the same way that Pugin and Willson would in their architectural plates (Vaughan, 16). By depicting medieval edifices on paper in their most basic form, Pugin and Willson enabled their forms to be easily replicated by anyone interested in reproducing Gothic architecture.

   Pugin and Willson’s study of Gothic architecture is based on empirical observation, which Pugin delivers through his comprehensive scrutiny of selected edifices. Empirical observation was popular in the Romantic era as it focused on learning from nature. By recording architectural details like scientific specimens, Pugin and Willson preserved their knowledge of medieval architecture, while also presenting the vastness and diversity of Gothic architecture in one convenient source. “No previous publications having presented so many details of mouldings and ornaments adapted to actual practice” (Pugin and Willson, vol. 1, 5). Indeed, Pugin and Willson’s presentation of architectural detail can be compared to how botanists and zoologists depict their specimens against blank backgrounds. In the same way that scientists separate animals and plants from their natural habitats to represent them on paper, Pugin and Willson separated architectural details from buildings to reproduce them in their book. Pugin and Willson’s observations would become important sources for future Gothic replicas.

   Today, Pugin and Willson’s extensive documentation of Gothic architecture can be compared to the growing field of digital architecture in 3D. Specimens of Gothic Architecture and digital architecture share the same goal to preserve and educate people about the built environment, past and present. Digitizing historical architecture is a growing trend in international preservation initiatives. Virtual environments are created that can be retrieved from anywhere and by anybody. The digitizing of historical architecture is a more modern version of what Pugin and Willson accomplished with Specimens of Gothic Architecture. In the same way that being able to access historical architecture online may seem novel and exciting to us, being able to retrieve different examples of Gothic edifices in a single voluminous study probably seemed as novel in the nineteenth century.


Further Reading

  • Digitizing Architectural Heritage: What Role History?” Centre for Architecture Theory Criticism History, The University of Queensland.
  • Hyland, G. J. The Architectural Works of A.W.N. Pugin: A Catalogue. Reading: Spire Books, 2014.
  • Parker, John Henry. A Concise Glossary of Terms used in Grecian, Roman, Italian, and Gothic Architecture. Oxford: J. Parker, 1879. Vol. 5.
  • Pennick, Nigel. Secrets of King’s College Chapel. London: Aeon Books, 2011.
  • Pugin, Augustus, and Edward James Willson. Specimens of Gothic Architecture: Selected FromVarious Ancient Edifices in England: Consisting of Plans, Elevations, Sections, and Parts at Large. London: Bohn, 1825.
  • Stanton, Phoebe. Pugin. New York: Viking Press, 1972.
  • Vaughan, William. Romanticism and Art. Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1994.

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