Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 19, 2018
Peter N. Lindfield Georgian Gothic: Medievalist Architecture, Furniture and Interiors, 1730–1840 Suffolk, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2017. 282 pp.; 59 color ills. Hardcover $99.00 (9781783271276)

Volume 8 in Boydell’s Medievalism series, Peter N. Lindfield’s Georgian Gothic: Medievalist Architecture, Furniture and Interiors, 1730–1840 explores the nuances of and developments in the early Gothic Revival. Lindfield couches his study within the growing appreciation of the Gothic, discussing how leading Gothic Revival architects (Kent, Essex, Wyatt), antiquarians (Carter, Rickman), and Gothic proponents (Gray, Warton, Walpole) crucially impacted the history of design. Working in an interdisciplinary context, he shows how the picturesque, the Gothic novel, antiquarian prints, and topographical studies influenced the arbiters of taste and led to gradual changes in the use of Gothic motifs in furniture and interiors. He also brings out the complexity and richness of the period with its amalgamation of different styles, rapidly changing tastes, and intricate Neogothic network, shedding new light on Georgian society and design and underscoring the continued popularity of Gothic forms throughout the eighteenth century.

Lindfield has identified four instructive categories of Georgian Gothic: Classical Gothic (1730­–40), Rococo Gothic (1750–65), Neoclassical Gothic, which developed alongside a more archaeological form (1765–1800), and Regency Gothic (1800–1840). His classification and terminology are based on the types of motifs, how they were integrated in furniture and interiors, and their relation to the predominating fashion. Each chapter is dedicated to analyzing a category and contains a rich assembling of original documents: letters and other writings by Gothic advocates as well as photographs of furniture and residences; however, the volume would have profited from more visual documentation of the many interesting examples discussed.

In his first chapter Lindfield presents a brief overview of the eighteenth-century intellectual and aesthetic responses to Gothic architecture. While he documents how proponents of the Gothic attempted to understand medieval architecture and demonstrates that increasing knowledge led to growing precision in theories, restorations, and visual images, his discussion reads with a sense of teleology and purpose, as if the understanding of Gothic were heading directly from the “unknown” (9) toward Rickman’s 1817 classification of medieval architecture. To his credit, however, Lindfield does not dismiss these early interpretations of the Gothic, but emphasizes their importance to Gothic Revival architecture and interiors.

Succinctly presenting the seventeenth-century architectural engagement with Gothic in his second chapter, Lindfield hails Wren, Hawksmoor, and Vanbrugh as forerunners of this early revival and of Classical Gothic, characterized intellectually by a superficial knowledge of Gothic structures and Gothic forms and practically by motifs applied to classically designed architecture and furniture. Rather than deprecating this Classic-Gothic hybrid, he shows it to be a serious style in which Gothic forms and ornament were used to create decorative effects in a manner compatible with the predominant classical taste. His argument is persuasive but insular, ignoring the Greco-Gothic ideal promoted on the Continent at that time.

Lindfield treats the elaborate Rococo Gothic just as seriously, underscoring its importance within the developing interest in Gothic ornament. He offers a new perspective by distinguishing two strains: First, the “whimsical” and exaggerated use of Gothic forms that have given Rococo Gothic its bad reputation. Although presenting little new information here, Lindfield emphasizes the rich variety of this strain, which though practiced by relatively few, has always held an important position within the traditional Gothic Revival discourse. In contrast, the relatively unacknowledged second strain was widespread in mainstream culture. It consisted of serious innovations that developed as Gothic ornament and forms were reworked and abstracted into complex and innovative Rococo patterns and scrollwork, which were popularized in widely circulated pattern books. Lindfield’s discussion is compelling, not only for revealing this less familiar dimension of Gothic Revival, but in succinctly documenting the transformation within Neogothic design from the ornamental toward an architectural use of Gothic forms that began dictating certain structures in furniture. Lindfield attributes this development, which continued through the century, to advances in antiquarian research.  

During Lindfield’s third period (1765–1800), the popularity of Gothic waned under the rising tide of Neoclassicism. Nonetheless, designers created an eclectic and ornamental style that blended Gothic motifs with Neoclassical design. Lindfield’s examples from Strawberry Hill (1717–97) and pattern books persuasively demonstrate the typical flavor of Neoclassical Gothic despite its extremely limited place within Georgian design. More might have been said, however, about the connections between this and the Rococo or Classical Gothic categories. Yet Lindfield traces a concomitant development, as architects intimately familiar with the principles of Gothic construction built and furnished residences in a scholarly and archaeologically informed Neogothic. Strawberry Hill, Arbury Hall, and Lee Priory are largely products of this period and share high standards of architectural fidelity at the expense of comfort and convenience. This archaeologically aware Neogothic, Lindfield argues, contributed significantly to Gothic Revival furniture. It was often blended with Neoclassical Gothic to signify Britishness through the material (oak), style (Gothic), or insignia. Surprisingly, this is Lindfield’s first mention of the ideological associations attributed to the Gothic since the seventeenth century. Though similar references are made in the following chapter, his concluding discussion of the Houses of Parliament reads as if the building brought new meaning to the Gothic, while it actually continued the longstanding Whig tradition that associated the Gothic with British liberties. Had Lindfield incorporated this crucial aspect of Gothic reception as part of his careful discussion of the aesthetic and archaeological context he so carefully sets up, his argument would have had more power.

In discussing his final category, Regency Gothic (a label neither explained nor sufficiently referred to in the book), Lindfield documents the consistent efforts made in the early nineteenth century to reform Neogothic furniture, which substantiates his view of the importance of Georgian Gothic. He sees the growing popularity of and fidelity to medieval models reflected both in the increasing number of Neogothic designs in furniture price books and in the more ambitious residences (Fonthill Abbey, Ashridge Park, Eaton Hall, Windsor Castle, Berkshire) where architects carried through complete medievalizing (and pro-British) programs of architecture, furniture, and interior design based on medieval (and Elizabethan) examples. Within this increasingly sophisticated development of archaeologically influenced design, Lindfield proposes to re-evaluate the originality of A. W. N. Pugin’s contribution by discussing L. N. Cottingham’s equally worthy, but much less familiar, designs for archaeologically faithful furniture. Nonetheless, the implicit teleology of Lindfield’s narrative supports the traditional discourse, that the turning point in the Gothic Revival occurred when Pugin fils turned his back on the abundantly decorative style of Pugin père and began sifting out the true principles of Gothic, paring down the excess of his father’s style and taking inspiration from medieval French woodwork and domestic furniture.

Despite its engaging argument, the book’s formal weaknesses are difficult to overlook: mistakes left from the copy-editing stage, chapter numbering in the introduction inconsistent with the actual chapters and table of contents, and the format of a multi-author volume—people, works, and dates are reintroduced in subsequent chapters, thus disturbing the monographic coherence. The bibliography is missing at least one important work, and besides a glaring alphabetization error, the index, although structured in detailed subcategories, lacks cross-references between them. Thus, page numbers overlap between entries, and references appear under different listings (or not at all). For example, a reader interested in Arbury Hall must look under Arbury Hall, Newdigate, Miller, and Keene to find all relevant references. Strangely, a reference to Newdigate’s drawings is not listed under Newdigate, but under Esher Place and Kent. Finally, this reader could find neither Moody Hall nor other frequently mentioned non-Neogothic buildings (Westminster Abbey, Henry VII’s chapel) under any heading.

Stylistically a number of improvements could be made. Repetitions abound: facts restated, quotations repeated, sentences worded almost verbatim, a main idea reiterated in consecutive sentences, and main points continually stated. Moreover, Lindfield’s use of the term “Gothic” in referring to both medieval works and medievalizing or Neogothic styles seems unreflected: “Under the influence of Wren . . . Gothic was no longer a logical . . . system of building, but instead a reconstitution of medieval shapes” (49). The idea might have been expressed more precisely as, for example: “building in the Gothic style no longer followed a logical . . .” Another instance, “Gothic became, as in the medieval period, a national style” (111), underscores the difficulty with the term “Gothic” by adding the anachronistic idea of “national style.” All in all, more attention should have been placed on expression in order to avoid such statements as “Moody Hall . . . is medieval through vague architectural expression” (57). Moody Hall cannot be medieval, but it could “have a medieval air” or “contain some medievalizing elements” (incidentally, variations on the title word medievalist are rarely used in the text).

Even so, Lindfield clearly makes his argument and accomplishes what he sets out to do. He has richly documented his study with a detailed appendix of Neogothic furniture designs, an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary works, and a useful glossary. His discussion of Chippendale’s contribution to Neogothic design and his intricate explanation of the transformation of Gothic applications into scrollwork are fascinating and well written. His many useful insights, including the shift from ecclesiastic to domestic models for Neogothic furniture, are valuable for understanding Gothic Revival. Finally, by embedding Strawberry Hill within his categories of design, Lindfield illuminates how and why Walpole’s ideas both changed over time and were manifested in the fabric and furnishings of Strawberry Hill. It is but one of many well-chosen examples that testify to the continual renewal and transformation of Gothic forms in the Georgian Era and their fundamental influence on the later revival.

Stephanie A. Glaser
Lecturer, Department of General and Comparative Literature, Ruhr-Universität Bochum

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