Thursday, 26 July 2007

Gothic proportions

Lovers of anything gothic should rush to their nearest cinema and revel in the latest horror blockbuster Van Helsing … "A shrieking bore” according to Peter Travers in Rolling Stone magazine, "[A] disaster of gothic proportions..." said MaryAnn Johanson in Flick Filosopher.

But forget the unlikely storyline (or lack of it), Kate Beckinsale’s amazing hydraulic teeth and the bloody special effects. Go and revel instead in the glorification of everything gothic. And if there isn’t a modern day revival in interest in gothic antiques, I’ll eat my bat!

The first gothic revival began in England during the 18th century as romantic interest in medieval art became a fashionable pastime. The next revival, which occurred in the 19th century, resulted in what was subsequently described as "the most widespread and influential artistic movement which England has ever produced".

Gothic furniture was inspired by the architectural ornament, the pointed arches of stained glass windows and the pinnacled towers of medieval churches and tombs.

Robert Adam and Thomas Chippendale were early devotees of the Gothic style, but arguably the most significant designer of Victorian Gothic furniture was a 15-year-old boy!

Not just any boy, though. In later life, he single-handedly designed every detail of both the interior and exterior of the new Houses of Parliament after a fire destroyed the original building.

His name was Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin and he became the inspired pioneer of the Gothic Revival – the influence of which is still felt today.

Pugin’s life was to be tragically short but prodigiously energetic and the fruits of his labour remain in both fine art and architecture that is extravagant but not always attractive.

A.W.N. Pugin (1812-1852) was essentially an architect, but he rejected the excesses of the Regency period and other styles that had gone before, choosing instead the refined essentials of more simple lines.

He took his lead from his father, Augustus Charles (1762-1832) a French émigré who worked as a draughtsman and watercolourist.

Examples of the latter's furniture designs, while limited in number, show a distinct leaning towards the gothic and his son was clearly inspired.

His son’s involvement in his business began early in 1827, just as George IV was giving up his London home, Carlton House.

The young Pugin was working at the time for the firm of furniture makers Morel and Seddon. Nicholas Morel had been employed as "Upholder Extraordinary" to the Prince Regent (subsequently George IV) on a variety of commissions, the first being the sumptuous oriental frivolity, the Brighton Pavilion in 1795.

In partnership with Robert Hughes, Morel supervised the furnishing of Carlton House (1810-1812) and, by the express command of the King, was subsequently employed at Windsor Castle with George Seddon, whose partner he became in 1827.

Although much of the furniture from Carlton House was dispersed, various pieces were selected for use at Windsor and in his uncompleted autobiography, Pugin wrote "began to make drawings of furniture in Carlton palace for Mr Morel previous to their removal to Windsor Castle".

These drawings were almost certainly intended to be incorporated into the room designs for Windsor, prepared that year for the King's approval by Morel and Seddon, along with the architect, Sir Jeffry Wyatville.

Later the same year, on June 26, 1827, Pugin's autobiography records more of his involvement: "Went to design and make working drawings for the gothic furniture of Windsor Castle at £1. 1s. per day for the following rooms. The Long gallery, the coffee room, the vestibule anti-room, halls, grand staircase, octagon room in the Brunswick tower, and Great Dining Room".

Immediately after George IV's death in June 1830, the government disputed Morel and Seddon's bill - of just over £200,000 - for the work undertaken at Windsor, on the grounds that it far exceeded their original estimate.

In their defence, the firm argued that had been impossible to make accurate projections for such a large commission, and their account of the work reveals details of men being obliged to labour through the night, as well as fascinating evidence of an all-out strike on the part of the royal decorators, which cost the firm "many thousands of pounds". In the end, and after much wrangling, the bill was settled at £179,300 18s 9d.

Pugin, meanwhile, was keeping busy. At about the same time, he was also designing silver for the royal goldsmiths Rundell and Bridge and by the 1830s, he was heavily committed to architecture, insisting on archaeological sincerity and truthfulness to the materials he employed.

He attempted to make his designs look like medieval originals, whereas other designers latching on to the gothic revival merely paid lip service to the movement by adding angles and points to contemporary shapes.

By 1835, he had written his first treatise on design - "Gothic Furniture in the Style of the 15th Century", followed by "Designs for Iron and Brass Work" the following year and "The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture" in 1841.

Pugin also designed gothic ceramics for Minton, heraldic wallpapers, heavy but impressive jewellery and ecclesiastic plate, furniture and furnishings for churches built to his specification.

One noted Pugin design contract was for the Medieval Court at the Great Exhibition of 1851, but his tour de force was the Houses of Parliament in 1836-7.

Working around the clock and without so much as a clerk or assistant, he designed every detail from the facade of Big Ben down to the inkpots and umbrella stands - all, of course, in high gothic style.

Strangely, though, he subsequently decried the frivolity of his early work. In his autobiography he wrote: "Everything is crocketed with angular projections, innumerable mitres, sharp ornaments, and turreted extremities ... I have perpetrated many of these enormities in the furniture I designed some years ago for Windsor Castle ... all my knowledge of pointed architecture was confined to a tolerably good notion of details in the abstract; but these I employed with so little judgement or propriety, that, although the parts were correct and exceedingly well executed, collectively they appeared a complete burlesque of pointed design."

Clearly Pugin worked himself into an early grave. He died insane, aged 40, in 1852, after a nervous breakdown eight months earlier.

I wonder what he would have made of the Van Helsing movie sets!

Picture shows: A grandly gothic revival carved oak armchair, circa 1870. Note the positively architectural features of the arched back. It’s worth £2,000-1,500 Photo: Sotheby’s

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