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MAKING A POINT ABOUT GOTHIC

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 26th February 2010
‘Gothic’ was once a term of abuse. To call a building ‘Gothic’ was to condemn it as old-fashioned, crude, even barbarian. In the 17th century, when the term was first applied to architecture, a Gothic building would send a shudder down the spine of any self-respecting aesthete.

That is not to say that the style was not used. Sir Christopher Wren, who is usually the most classical of architects, sometimes built in the Gothic style – because, as he wrote of his work at Tom Tower in Oxford, ‘to deviate from the old form would be to run into a disagreeable mixture which no person of good taste could relish.’ This was a contrast to a generation or so earlier, when Inigo Jones turned the old St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the most sumptuous Gothic buildings in the world, into a pseudo-classical hotchpotch.

During the 18th century the interest in Gothic grew. Initially it was as a ‘fun’ style – the sort of thing you would use to decorate minor buildings in your landscape but, unless you were very advanced in your tastes, you wouldn’t let loose on your mansion. To make it easier for architectural historians, this style is usually called, as it was in the 18th century, Gothick. By the end of the century, though, things were getting more serious. Proper attention began to be paid to what Gothic was really all about. Serious books began to appear, full of details of pointed arches, window tracery and twiddly details.

Ripon, on the whole, followed the taste of the times. The Cathedral, a great exemplar of Gothic style, was always a potent reminder of the past, but neither it nor its relatives, the chapels of St Mary Magdalen and of St Anne, had any influence on other buildings. So when classical was in fashion, Ripon built classical (like the Town Hall). Gothick made an appearance in details, in, for example, some pretty windows and buildings like the lock cottage on the canal. And that’s about it.

Until, that is, the start of the 19th century. The Church of England woke up to the consequences of the Industrial Revolution and found that thousands of people were now crowded into cities where there were few churches. They need to build fast – and they discovered that the Gothic style was cheaper to build than the classical. So in the 1820s plain Gothic churches, mostly with the tall, thin pointed windows known as lancets, appeared amidst the mills and factories.

And Gothic spread. Ripon’s Holy Trinity church was designed in 1826 by Thomas Taylor of Leeds in just this lancet style. Twenty-five years earlier it would have been a plain Georgian preaching-box; another 25 years on it would have been different again, because by that time much had happened in the Gothic camp.

In 1834 the Houses of Parliament burned down. The replacement building was the one we know today, bristling with Gothic detail. That detail was supplied by Augustus Pugin, one of the earliest and most creative users of Gothic in the 19th century. He believed in Gothic not as an ornamental style (he soon dismissed his work at Westminster as ‘mere Gothic detail on a classical body) but as a proper constructional style. A convert to Catholicism, he always insisted that he was an ‘English Catholic’, and looked for the church’s reconciliation with the Anglicans.

Meantime, the Church of England, too, was rediscovering its past – especially in its ritual. And it needed churches that matched the newly awakened rites, churches where proper altars could be put, where robed choirs could sing and where the faithful were brought to their knees by the beauty of the building. Pugin’s tragedy is that the Catholic Church would rarely pay for his visionary designs, so most of his surviving buildings seem rather sparse. It was the next generation of Catholic architects – influenced by Pugin and by other, Anglican architects like Gilbert Scott, who realised something of his vision.

One of these Catholic architects was Joseph Hansom, architect of St Wilfrid’s church, Coltsgate Hill. Yet its design would have puzzled Pugin, especially the tower over the sanctuary. Hansom (who gave his name to the Hansom cab, though he didn’t design it) was also responsible for the Presbytery beside St Wilfrid’s, which would have been much more to Pugin’s taste – Gothic used domestically, with pleasing asymmetry and a cone-topped tower.

This domestic gothic moved out into the wide community (Fremantle Terrace on North Road is a good example), into the commercial world, with the shop with its four (originally three) Gothic arches on North Street, and into schools, like the former Cathedral Primary School building in Low St Agnesgate. For a while – between the 1850s and the 1870s – Gothic was the modern style. Then others took its place – classical, renaissance, art nouveau, moderne. But the pointed arch of Gothic gave variety to Ripon – more variety, perhaps, than we can muster today.

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