The Pursuit of Gothic

Rosemary Hill

Edward Blore (1787–1879), window detail possibly of Westminster Hall, London, illustration for James Hall ‘On Gothic Architecture’, 1809. Pencil and grey wash, 408 x 325 mm. DMC 1230. Ex collection: Howard Colvin.

William Gilpin notoriously suggested that the ruins of Tintern Abbey could be improved by ‘a mallet judiciously used’. [1] The next generation saw in the architecture of the Middle Ages something more than an assortment of ornamental landscape features, but it did not begin to understand it. Uvedale Price, whose own taste was Classical, could admire the effects of Gothic, the ‘dim and discoloured light diffused… through unequal varieties of space, divided but not separated’, which created an atmosphere that led the eye and the mind beyond the immediately visible. [2] He thought King’s College Chapel, Cambridge ‘more Christian, more grand’ than any other building ‘ancient or modern’, but like many of his contemporaries he also thought that medieval architecture had ‘no rules – no proportions – and consequently no definitions’. [3]

The attempt to counter this view of Gothic was one of the most energetic antiquarian projects of the late-Georgian years. The establishment of a chronology, terminology and structural analysis of medieval architecture was not only an object of curiosity, it was essential to the preservation campaign to show that Gothic buildings were more than random heaps of detail. John Aubrey had been the pioneer. ‘No person’, as John Britton noted, had ‘preceded him in attempting to distinguish the successive changes, in style and decoration’, and ‘by observing architectural features and details’ establish a date for a building. [4] Unfortunately, by the end of another century few had succeeded him either. The antiquaries now made up for lost time. While Aubrey had relied chiefly on comparisons of window tracery, most of those who considered the subject in the later Georgian decades thought that the key feature was the pointed arch, the element in which the Gothic differs most obviously from the Classical. The quest for its origin became something of an obsession, in pursuit of which much ink was spilled, many theories were propounded and, inevitably, many quarrels carried on. This is not the place for a blow-by-blow account of the long and often tedious quest; what matters is the principal questions that were asked and how they were answered.

The first requirement was to settle the terminology, beginning with the word ‘Gothic’ itself, originally intended as a disparaging term, suggesting the perceived crudeness of medieval art. John Carter was one of those determined to ban the word, this ‘rag of prejudice, this scum of innovation’. [5] Alternatives were suggested. Britton proposed ‘Christian’, his friend the Lincoln architect Edward Willson more accurately, but much more contentiously, suggested ‘Catholic’, while many people opted for ‘pointed’, but in the end Gothic stuck. It lost its pejorative connotations and the implication that it originated with the Visigoths, which would give it ‘too early a date by a great many centuries’, as John Milner noted. [6] On the question of its origins, Milner and Carter were among those who believed that Gothic was English and felt too passionate a commitment to the idea to look objectively at the evidence. Christopher Wren’s suggestion that it derived from Saracenic architecture and came to Europe with returning Crusaders was offensive to many more people who thought that, if not English, the Gothic was essentially Christian. Milner was dismissive, arguing that ‘throughout all Syria, Arabia, etc there is not a gothic building to be discovered, except such as were raised by the Latin Christians’. [7] The debate rumbled on and has continued to the present day, when Wren’s theory is thought to have been, essentially, accurate. [8] Milner and Carter, however, subscribed to the idea that the pointed arch derived from the interlaced arcading of the earlier round arch. In his History… and Survey of the Antiquities of Winchester Milner traced its origins to his beloved home city, to the cathedral and the twelfth-century Hospital of St Cross. 

Meanwhile the Society of Antiquaries embarked on the first of its great contributions to the antiquarian achievements of the late Georgian years. Richard Gough and his friend Henry Englefield (1752–1822), a vice-president of the Society, decided to commission sets of engravings of medieval buildings. Englefield was a member of the Society of Dilettanti, which published detailed studies of Classical architecture such as James Stuart and Nicholas Revett’s Antiquities of Athens. This was the model for the Antiquaries’ series, and the intention was to show that Gothic architecture was as much worth studying as Classical, that it merited equally fine and detailed plates and the same valued position in the gentleman’s library. The series began in 1790 with the Chapel of St Stephen in the Palace of Westminster. [9] Founded by Edward I and altered by Edward III, St Stephen’s had been England’s Sainte-Chapelle, one of the glories of medieval Christendom, but the structure and its decoration had long been obscured by Wren’s arrangements to accommodate the House of Commons, which had met there since the sixteenth century. John Carter, who was the chief draughtsman for the series, was obliged to crawl with a lantern behind the seventeenth-century panelling to make his drawings.

Edward Blore (1787–1879), pointed arch, clustered column, branching roof perspective view and ground plan, illustration for James Hall ‘Gothic Architecture’, 1809. Pencil and grey wash, 313 x 260 mm. DMC 1019. Ex collection: Howard Colvin.

The Society then moved on to the medieval cathedrals, beginning with Exeter. The project met with frequent objections from fellows who complained that it was a waste of time and money to document buildings they regarded as formless and, significantly, tainted with ‘popery’. That Englefield was another of the Catholic antiquaries no doubt added to suspicions. He and Gough pressed on. By 1797 Carter was at work in Durham. Here fate dictated he should encounter the antiquaries’ old enemies, Bishop Barrington and James Wyatt. Wyatt had by now a reputation for ‘improving’ cathedrals. To the horror of the antiquaries, he had worked his way through Lichfield and Hereford and added further to their alarm with a recently completed report on Ely. His friend and patron Barrington had in the meantime become Bishop of Durham, and duly invited Wyatt in to advise on alterations. One of his proposals was to ensure better access to the west entrance of the cathedral by demolishing the chapel at that end, known as the Galilee Porch. Built in 1189 and now a World Heritage Site, it is the burial place of the Venerable Bede and one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in Europe. Its survival is largely due to Carter. 

While he was drawing at Durham, Carter learned from the dean about the plan to destroy the Porch. After a furious argument in which Carter failed to change the dean’s mind he came south again, having tipped off local friends to keep an eye on developments. Back in London he heard reports that the deed was done. At the next meeting of the Society of Antiquaries, on 29 June, he showed his drawings of the Galilee Porch to illustrate what had been ‘lately destroyed by James Wyatt esq. architect’. [10] As it happened, Wyatt had been proposed for election to the Society and this was the meeting at which his election was to be put to the vote. The ballot was supposed by Wyatt’s sponsors to be a formality. They were unpleasantly surprised, though perhaps in the circumstances they should not have been, when no fewer than eleven fellows blackballed Wyatt and he was ‘declared… to be not duly elected’. [11] The king was annoyed, Wyatt was humiliated, his sponsors were embarrassed. Another, more carefully organised ballot was held in December and Wyatt was duly elected. It transpired that Carter was misinformed: work to demolish the Galilee Porch had been stopped. Wyatt had, however, almost entirely demolished the Chapter House, an undeniable fact which he flatly denied.

Wyatt’s ultimate election was a pyrrhic victory for his supporters. He never attended another meeting, but the Society was scarred by the row. Gough resigned as director. Milner – who had written a paper outlining the reasons why Wyatt should not be elected and had had it confiscated by the Society, which refused either to let Milner read it at the meeting or give it back to him – learned that several pro-Wyatt fellows had been going into ‘booksellers shops and other places’ and telling people that Milner’s paper had been ‘kicked out of the Society ’ as insufficiently scholarly. [12] Infuriated, he published it as A Dissertation on the Modern Style of Altering Antient Cathedrals, as Exemplified in the Cathedral of Salisbury. John Nichols printed it. From now on Gough, Nichols, Carter and Milner formed the nucleus of a new, interventionist school of architectural antiquarianism, working outside the Society through journalism, books and pamphlets as well as through the first conservation campaigns of the kind familiar today. The Antiquaries’ journal, Archaeologia, bears little trace of the great debates and scholarly advances of the next decades; those are to be found in The Gentleman’s Magazine, where, from 1798, Carter had a regular column. Under the sobriquet ‘An Architect’, he wrote a total of 212 campaigning, often vitriolic articles on the need to preserve historic buildings from the efforts of the ‘modern architect’.

All this time, the search for the origin of the pointed arch went on. ‘A subject of as much fruitless discussion as the… identification of the Man in the Iron Mask’, it generated a high proportion of heat to light. [13] Much of the heat came from Carter and Milner in their determination to claim Gothic for England. Milner’s popular essay of 1802 on the subject of the ‘Rise and Progress’ of Gothic benefited from readers’ patriotism at the time of the uneasy lull in hostilities that followed the Peace of Amiens. Carter was even more outspoken about ‘the infernal dispensers of ‘liberty and equality’’ across the Channel and the capacity of the Gothic to remind England of its heroic victories over ‘perfidious France’. [14] Like many academic disputes, the argument raged on long after the facts had been established. While the origins of the pointed arch remain contested today, the site of its first use in Europe, the first emergence of what can be called Gothic architecture, was discovered in 1802 by George Whittington (1781–1807). A well-educated and well-connected young man, Whittington made a tour of France and Italy during the Peace of Amiens in 1802–3 and wrote a treatise, An Historical Survey of the Ecclesiastical Antiquities of France; with a view to illustrate the rise and progress of Gothic architecture in Europe, published in 1809. Whittington having died in 1807 at the age of twenty-six, the book was seen through the press by his friend and travelling companion the Earl of Aberdeen.

Whittington had analysed, by eye and by comparison with surviving documents, half a dozen of the most important Gothic churches of Paris, Rheims and Amiens and deduced that Gothic should properly be said to derive from Abbot Suger’s alterations to the chevet of St Denis in 1140, a conclusion that has been supported by all subsequent research.

Without Whittington to defend it, however, his discovery was crushed between opposing prejudices. His friend the earl, Byron’s cousin ‘Athenian’ Aberdeen, was not an admirer of Gothic and his Preface made no attempt to disguise the fact. ‘The subject is not in itself very generally interesting,’ he wrote, discouragingly. [15] And while Whittington’s friends could not bring themselves to admire Gothic, those who did admire it had no time for the likes of Whittington. A combination of inverse snobbery and the commitment to Gothic as a peculiar and unique product of English history and culture led Carter to savage the book as a work of ‘Gallic scientific presumption’, the ‘mania of travelled prejudice’ and ‘blind delusion’. [16] Despite some more perceptive reviews, it was to be decades before Whittington got his due. [17] In the meantime, the antiquarian quest reached its wildest extreme with the Scottish antiquary Sir James Hall’s Essay on the Origin, History and Principles of Gothic Architecture, which argued that it had developed from wickerwork. Milner brushed off the ‘learned baronet’ and his ‘new and favourite system’ in a single sarcastic footnote. [18]

Edward Blore (1787–1879), circular gothic structures, elevations and ground plan, illustration for James Hall ‘Gothic Architecture’, 1809. Pencil and grey wash, 265 × 315 mm. DMC 1016. Ex collection: Howard Colvin.

Although Milner and Carter pursued the facts (albeit selectively), their attitude to the Gothic was infused with Romantic sensibility. Carter prefaced his works with engravings of imaginary scenes in which the buildings of the Middle Ages were restored and repopulated. The frontispiece to his Specimens of the Ancient Sculpture and Painting (1780–94) shows Edward III in Westminster Abbey ‘on a progress’, while a bishop (‘whose dress is copied from a brass plate in the Abbey chancel at St Albans’) points out an interesting royal monument. [19] The Romantic Picturesque, with its emphasis on sequential views, Price’s ‘unequal varieties of space, divided but not separated’, tended always towards narrative. In attacking Wyatt’s work Milner pointed out that by opening up the whole interior of Salisbury the effect was spoiled, eliminating just those varieties of space which allowed the mind to experience what Burke had called the ‘artificial infinite’. For Milner the aesthetic was also the spiritual; his was a sacred Picturesque. The criterion ‘by which we are to judge of the construction and alterations of Churches, and particularly of Gothic Cathedrals’ was, he believed, ‘as they are more or less calculated to impress the mind with a religious awe’. [20]

Together, Carter and Milner put their beliefs into practice by building a church themselves. St Peter’s, Winchester was consecrated on 5 December 1792, just a year after the second Catholic Relief Act made it legal to build a Catholic parish church. It was not the first new Gothic church since the Middle Ages but, as Kenneth Clark observed, it was the first to be built from ‘what we might call Gothic Revival motives’. [21] Those motives can be deduced from the relationship in which Milner placed his church to its surroundings, actual, spiritual and historic. It stood on a spot where, ‘except during a few stormy intervals’, there had always been a Catholic chapel. [22] It was approached literally through its historic origins, via a ‘Saxon portal’ which Milner had reconstructed after it had been removed ‘by piecemeal, from the church of St Magdalen’s hospital’. [23] Milner wanted to weave his church physically into the fabric of the past, to repair the wound of the penal years and elide the lost centuries since the Reformation. In his History of Winchester he placed the account of St Peter’s at the end of the second volume, as a continuation of the ‘Survey of Antiquities’. From a chronological point of view it belonged in Volume I, which covers the newest buildings. But for Milner his church was not new. It was like the cathedral and the Hospital of St Cross, a humble member of the same community of architecture whose fabric was imbued with the sacred power of the Gothic. Milner and Carter were not alone in their beliefs, and many more people, if they did not see medieval buildings as specifically Christian, believed them to be intrinsically spiritual. The ‘twilight saints and dim emblazonings’ of Gothic were taking on the character of a Romantic living symbol, the physical manifestation of a metaphysical reality.

On the question of taxonomy, the great breakthrough came in 1812 with the first version of Thomas Rickman’s essay An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of Architecture in England, from the Conquest to the Reformation. Rickman was a Quaker living in Liverpool. One of eleven children of a surgeon-apothecary, he grew up on slender means, destined for a medical career. Having found that he disliked medicine, he went into business as a corn factor. His friend, the polymath William Whewell, described him as ‘a little, round, fat man, with short, thick legs, and a large head… perpetually running from one side of the street to the other to peep into whatever catches his attention… very good-humoured, and very intelligent and active’. [24] To his passionate interest in Gothic architecture Rickman brought a strong organisational intelligence supported by a powerful memory. He had no particular interest in the nationalist implications of Gothic or, for the moment, in its religious connotations. Unlike Milner, Rickman had no Latin to read the records. He had to rely on his eyes. It was in many ways an advantage. He categorised and analysed, compared mouldings, tracery, capitals and other details, noting which features occurred together and which were later additions. It no doubt came as a relief to his readers to learn that his essay was not ‘a lengthy disquisition’ on the origins of Gothic but a division of the periods of medieval architecture by date and characteristics which he developed into the phases still recognised today: Norman, Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular, the last his own coinage. [25]

Rickman’s theory was first published in a popular journal, Smith’s Panorama of Science and Art. By 1817 he had tested it under ‘rigid scrutiny’ and was, he told his friend and fellow antiquary Edward Blore (1787–1879), ‘every day more & more strengthened in the conviction of my division of the stiles & the principles on which I have founded that division’. [26] In 1817 he brought his essay out in book form. It set a standard. ‘I hope Sir James will not be offended,’ Rickman wrote to Blore, who had drawn the whimsical frontispiece for Hall’s book showing a basketwork cathedral set in a forest, ‘but the more I consider it the more I am convinced that no man can be taught by wicker work alone or principally to make a window still less a moulding.’ [27] The general opinion was with Rickman. No more was heard of basketwork and the Attempt went through five editions in Rickman’s lifetime. His original terms, after some modification, were universally adopted and his assertion that his system was ‘the only one which will stand the test of continued research’ was justified. [28]

Extracted, with permission, from Time’s Witness: History in the Age of Romanticism by Rosemary Hill, published by Allen Lane © 2021. Available from Penguin.

Rosemary Hill is a writer and historian. She is the author of several books, including God’s Architect, her biography of A. W. N. Pugin.

You can download a facsimile of ‘On the Origin and Principles of Gothic Architecture’ by Sir James Hall, Bart. F. R. & A. S. S. Edin., from Papers of the Literary Class, in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Vol IV, 1798 below.


  1. William Gilpin, Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales etc . . . in the summer of the year 1770 (2nd edn, London, 1789), p. 47.
  2. Uvedale Price, An Essay on the Picturesque (London, 1794–8), p.174.
  3. Ibid., pp. 159–64.
  4. John Britton, Memoir of John Aubrey FRS (London, 1845), p. 3.
  5. The Gentleman’s Magazine, 71 (1801), pp. 413–14.
  6. T. Warton et al., Essays on Gothic Architecture (2nd edn, London, 1802), p. 128.
  7. Ibid., p. 127.
  8. It has come to be accepted in recent decades. See Peter Draper, ‘Islam and the West: The early use of the pointed arch revisited’, Architectural History, 48 (2005), and most recently Diana Darke, Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe (London, 2020).
  9. See Rosemary Hill, ‘’Proceeding like Guy Faux’: The antiquarian investigation of St Stephen’s Chapel, Westminster’, Architectural History, 59 (2016).
  10. ‘Minutes’, Society of Antiquaries, 29 June 1797.
  11. Ibid.
  12. John Milner, A Dissertation on the Modern Style of Altering Antient Cathedrals, as Exemplified in the Cathedral of Salisbury (London, 1798), p. ix
  13. Charles L. Eastlake, A History of the Gothic Revival (London, 1872), p. 120.
  14. The Gentleman’s Magazine, 69 (1799), p. 190.
  15. George Whittington, An historical survey of the ecclesiastical antiquities of France: with a view to illustrate the rise and progress of Gothic architecture in Europe (London, 1809), p. xiv.
  16. The Gentleman’s Magazine, 79 (1809), pp. 929–31.
  17. See Simon Bradley, ‘The Englishness of Gothic: Theories and interpretations from William Gilpin to J. H. Parker’, Architectural History, 45 (2002), pp. 325–46.
  18. John Milner, A Treatise on the Ecclesiastical Architecture of England During the Middle Ages (London, 1811), p. 22.
  19. John Carter, Specimens of the Ancient Sculpture and Painting, now remaining in the Kingdom (London, 1780–94).
  20. John Milner, A Dissertation on the Modern Style of Altering Antient Cathedrals, p. 48.
  21. Kenneth Clark, The Gothic Revival: An Essay in the History of Taste (London, 1928), p. 102.
  22. John Milner, The History, Civil and Ecclesiastical, and Survey of the Antiquities of Winchester (2 vols, Winchester, 1798, 1801), vol. 2, p. 340.
  23. Ibid., p. 242.
  24. Quoted in Alex Kerr, ‘Thomas Rickman in France’, in A Quaker Miscellany for Edward H Milligan, ed. Jeremy Greenwood and Alex Kerr David Blamires (Manchester, 1985), p. 120.
  25. Thomas Rickman, An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of Architecture in England (4th edn, London, 1835), p. 37.
  26. Rickman to Edward Blore, 16 September 1817, Rickman–Blore letters, British Library.
  27. Ibid., 21 October 1817.
  28. Ibid., 4 January 1818.