Gothic Revivalism and the Legacy of Sir George Gilbert Scott

‘It is a happy circumstance, that the style which on its own intrinsic merits recommends itself as the groundwork of the future, is that which above all others is calculated to enlist our love and sympathy, from its association with the past’.

--- Sir George Gilbert Scott, Remarks on Secular and Domestic Architecture, Present and Future (1857).


Sir George Gilbert Scott, one of the most prolific 19th century English architects, trained all three of the founders of Watts & Co. at his practice: George Frederick Bodley, his close collaborator Thomas Garner, and George Gilbert Scott Jr. Scott. His architectural corpus represents the apex of Gothic Revivalism which flourished in mid-19th century England, accompanying a contemporary revival of medieval liturgical practices and religious aesthetics in the Anglican Church.


The Context of Medievalism in the 19th Century

The Gothic Revival architectural movement was firmly rooted in the belief, as Scott wrote, that English architecture at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth century was architecture ‘at its highest perfection’. In imitating medieval forms, Gothic Revivalism accompanied a revival of Christian traditions in the wake of the religious nonconformism of the 18th century; the Oxford Movement, which ushered in Anglo-Catholicism, was a significant theological parallel to the traditional sensibilities of Gothic Revivalism. The 1830s was a crucial decade: alongside the Tractarian advocacy for greater symbolism in the Church, Gothic Revivalist A. W. N. Pugin rose to prominence, publishing Contrasts: or, a Parallel between the Noble Edifices of the Middle Ages, and similar Buildings of the Present Day in 1836 which laid out a treatise for neo-Gothic architecture as well as a ‘return to the faith and social structures of the Middle Ages’. Pugin exerted great influence on architects and artists in Victorian England such as William Butterfield, George Edmund Street, and Scott himself. This ecclesial trend continued to strengthen in the 1840s and 1850s with works such as Frederick Lee and John Purchas’ Directorium Anglicanum, which advocated for medieval Church practices and architectural and interior styles.

When Sir George Gilbert Scott partnered with the young architect W. B. Moffat in 1838, he began to design a number of churches in the Gothic style under the influence of Pugin. Pugin emphasised the style’s Romanticism and national roots and his writings appeared to Scott like a ‘burning light’, as Scott recorded in his Recollections. The most important of these early churches was St Giles, Camberwell (1844), which heightened Scott’s reputation with the journal of the Cambridge Camden Society, The Ecclesiologist. The Society was heavily influenced by the teachings of the Oxford Movement on liturgical matters and agreed with Pugin that new churches should have steps leading up to the altar and a distinct nave and chancel, for the sake of continuity with historical church design. The Ecclesiologist became a champion of Scott’s church designs; however, Scott’s churches were broadly considered ecclesiologically correct for both evangelical and high Anglican congregations. Generally, he avoided the most radical Gothic approaches like that of Butterfield, with his ‘endless striping of red and black bricks’; instead, he preferred to design churches which were deemed acceptable to the ‘multitude’ given his ‘broad church’ acceptance of various denominations (Recollections, p. 112). He and his wife made many Anglican and Catholic friends, not limiting their circle to the strictly high Anglican.


Features of Gothic Revivalism in the work of Sir George Gilbert Scott

The most identifiable emblems of the Gothic Revival style include pointed arches for doors, lancet windows, and roof gables; steeply pitched roofs; finials (small decorative devices emphasising the apex of a spire, dome, or gable); ribbed vaulting; decorative crowns or drip-moulds over windows or doors; and castle-like towers with parapets, especially on very high-style church buildings. In interior design, lace and latticework, pointed arches, and elaborate carvings characterised Gothic Revival objects of painted furniture. Wallpaper patterns were markedly ornate like the various styles developed in the workhouses of Watts & Co. from the 1870s onwards.


The myriad churches and cathedrals which Scott designed and renovated enshrine the range of distinctive Gothic Revivalist features listed above. Scott first made his name in 1844 when, at the age of 33, he won the commission to rebuild St Nicholas’ Church in Hamburg. Scott designed a 480-foot-high spire at the west end of the building and walls enriched by ornate fourteenth-century carved stonework. When Scott’s drawings were hung alongside the competing entries, including a design by the formidable Gottfried Semper, the atmosphere among public witnesses was reportedly ‘perfectly electric’; Scott wrote in his Recollections that ‘they had never seen Gothic architecture carried out in a new design with anything like the old spirit; and as they were labouring under the old error that Gothic was the German (‘Alt Deutch’) style their feelings of Patriotism were stirred up in a wonderful manner. My design was to their apprehension far more German than those of any of the German architects.’


Sir George Gilbert Scott’s design for St Nicholas’ Church, Hamburg

 Sir George Gilbert Scott’s design for St Nicholas’ Church, Hamburg


Scott went on to work on all but two English cathedrals. One of his longest-standing projects was his work on Ely Cathedral from 1847 until his death. Scott worked on a new carved wooden screen and brass gates, a carved and ornamented alabaster reredos (ornamental screen covering the wall at the back of an altar), a new font for the south-west transept, a new pulpit, a new Organ case, and an octagon lantern parapet and pinnacles. He also designed the new reredos for Exeter Cathedral in 1871, a 22-foot-high screen of marble and alabaster and decorated with precious stones which was designed to replicate the original 14th century lost reredos. The ornate reredos was the source of much controversy: in 1873, the Archdeacon of Cornwall, William John Phillpotts, petitioned Bishop Temple against the new design, claiming that the images portrayed were contrary to Anglican ecclesiastical law. On 17th April, The Building News reported that the reredos was found to be illegal. After an appeal and a continued battle with Phillpotts, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council declared that the reredos and its figures were legal; Scott was left troubled by the whole affair, which was a testament to the sometimes-fraught reception of Scott’s particularly ornate Gothic Revival features in Anglican places of worship.


The Reredos in Exeter Cathedral, 1874

The Reredos in Exeter Cathedral, 1874


Scott’s triumphs were by no means limited to places of worship. Scott considered his greatest success to be a secular building: the Midland Grand Hotel, the frontispiece of St Pancras railway station. With its famous gargoyles, the Grand Staircase with iron balustrading, exposed iron beams, and distinctive brickwork and stonework, the hotel remains one of the foremost public buildings in the Gothic Revival style. However, contemporary reception of the hotel was by no means universally positive: in The Quarterly Review of April 1872, architect and critic John T. Emmett wrote of that ‘there is no relief or quiet in any part of the work; the eye is constantly troubled and tormented, and the mechanical patterns follow one another with such rapidity and perseverance, that the mind becomes irritated where it ought to be gratified, and goaded to criticism where it should be led calmly to approve.’ With this late construction, Scott marked his place in the history of English architecture as a divisive but undeniably paradigmatic champion of Gothic Revivalism. His death, according to The Builder, brought to a close ‘the most successful architectural career of modern times’. His pupils would continue his project, developing their own instantiations of Gothic Revivalism amid the rise of the competing Arts & Crafts and Queen Anne Revival styles, and in the mid-1870s, Watts & Co. would be born out of the culture of Gothic Revivalism.   

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