We have had much discussion recently about the possibility of resuming talks and ultimately courses. However, regulatory restrictions, including frequent changes and modifications, have made this difficult. Our main article in this edition, therefore, is a statement of where we find ourselves at present. It is followed by a piece by John Sharp, which in its original form was an essay in response to Roger Mitchell’s course on the Victorian Country House. It has been modified to give it a wider relevance. In our ‘Responses’ section we include the views of three of our members on the possibility of using the latest technologies in providing events.
Planning for SUES’s Future
There has been a longer than usual gap between editions of Forum and you may well have attributed this to the glorious Indian Summer that we have been enjoying. There may be some truth in your attribution, but you also need to take into account the problems that the Committee have encountered in trying to predict the unpredictable. Not too long ago, when the omens were more encouraging, we began to plan a cautious re-opening of SUES activities at All Saints. David Town and his team there have worked hard to make the hall Covid-secure and available for educational use. However, over the past fortnight both the mood and the regulations have changed and so, even though we still have a tentative booking for 2pm on Friday 13th November, it seems likely that SUES activities for the rest of 2020 will need to be by post, by email, by telephone or by Zoom.
We intend to use all four methods. We will continue with editions of Forum, hoping for new contributions from members on new subjects. We hope that these will include a series of articles relating to Scarisbrick Hall. We have real expertise and widespread interest among our members and this is a fascinating topic to explore and to report on.
Roger Mitchell and Alan Potter both have projects that they are developing.
Roger reminds us that every year for the past twenty years, he has delivered a course in Southport and that he does not intend to let a mere global pandemic break that sequence. His course planned for the 2020-2021 session is on English Travellers from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The main sources are diaries and journals, which can be copied and distributed and, as an experiment, he hopes to use this approach with Samuel Pepys’ journey to the West Country in the 1660s and Celia Fiennes’ travels through North West England in the 1690s. Further details will be in the next edition of Forum.
Alan is keen to widen the use that we make of technology. E-mail has been very successful in distributing information and, we hope, entertainment, and it has encouraged feedback from individuals; but it does not make possible the discussion and debate which make SUES courses so lively and enjoyable. Zoom, which has done much to maintain contact in businesses and in families, can make an important contribution here, and Alan is keen to see this happen. It is simple and reliable and suitable for ‘everyone with a computer’. In the ‘Responses’ section of this edition two of our members, Heather and Margaret report on their experiences of using Zoom.
What Was the Lure of ‘Gothic’ in the Arts in the Nineteenth Century?
Last year I attended a concert at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall in which Haydn’s 90th Symphony was juxtaposed with Bruckner’s 4th. There is less than a hundred years between these two compositions, but the contrast in symphonic writing is striking. The same might be said of two country houses with a similar time difference, say Holkham and Scarisbrick Halls, one neoclassical and Palladian, the other neogothic and Romantic. The comparison with music is not inapt given the clean and balanced rationality of Haydn and the emotional exuberance of Bruckner. However, the word ‘gothic’ is not normally used in relation to music, though it is in architecture, painting and literature.
‘Classical’ is not always a matter of looking back. In music, for example, new styles were just that – newly invented – whereas in architecture the ‘Gothic’ is often described as a revival.
In literature and painting ‘Gothic’ is often linked with Romanticism, and here we can see how movements in arts reflect the spirit of the age. In the eighteenth century the background was the Enlightenment, which, although it took many forms, essentially put an emphasis on reason, dismissing the more superstitious and intolerant elements of religion, which is why the classical, pre-Christian world had an appeal. Romanticism was a reaction to the Enlightenment; it gave greater value to intuition and emotion, and reason, though not totally disavowed, had to take a complementary place. In literature and the visual arts the Middle Ages were not an unfortunate gap between the classical world and the Renaissance, but a period in which there were values to be admired. The great cathedrals could take their place alongside the monuments of antiquity. The ceremonies and traditions of the past could be relevant to the present.
Although the Romantic movement began in German culture, it was also strong in England. Here, it was often inspired by concerns about the Industrial Revolution as well as too great a reliance on reason. William Blake was perhaps the most explicit in his condemnation of ‘these dark Satanic mills’, but many others reacted against the hard utilitarianism, a sort of rationalism, of industry by a resort to nature, Wordsworth particularly. In an age when the profit motive seemed to be more important than humanity it was tempting to look back to a purer simpler past.
To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
Interest in the Gothic was an aspect of this Romantic movement and in architecture it started off quite explicitly as a look into the past, although in the course of time ideas evolved. The original Gothic era in architecture was analysed by Thomas Rickman in 1817. He introduced the nomenclature Early English (note the parochialism!), Decorated and Perpendicular to describe the three phases, and he described the details that characterise such buildings. The most obvious feature is the pointed arch, a technological as well as an aesthetic shift from the Romanesque. We also find: towers and spires, vaulting, elaborate portals, windows with tracery and stained glass, sculpted stonework including gargoyles, pinnacles, and often a distinctive sky-line. It was all very Romantic.
The so-called ‘Gothic’ novel was more limited in character. It began in the mid-eighteenth century with Horace Walpole’s ‘Castle of Otranto’, but its most famous exemplar was probably Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1818). These novels are characterised by gloom, horror and the presence of death: they are fantastical and escapist. However, although some of the works of the great novelists of the nineteenth century had what might be described as ‘Gothic’ elements, the genre did not dominate literature in the way that the parallel Gothic did with buildings. Similarly, in painting the works of Caspar David Friedrich, for example, show wild landscapes and tormented souls and were arguably ‘Gothic’ in the narrow sense, but the later pre-Raphaelites were more Romantic than ‘Gothic’ with their sentimentalised view of the Middle Ages. Moreover, the connection with architecture is somewhat tenuous: Gothic buildings could be heavy but not necessarily gloomy, even if sometimes they did stray unto the fantastical and escapist. The celebration of the Middle Ages as such is more evident in novels that can be described as Romantic, for example the tales of Sir Walter Scott, and if these are described as ‘Gothic’ it is only because of the medieval setting: here the link with architecture is more obvious. It is curious that the modern use of Gothic as a cult term amongst the young is more connected with the images of the ‘Gothic’ novel than anything else.
So, why did architects look back to the Middle Ages? In the nineteenth century Scarisbrick Hall in Lancashire went through phases of extension and external decoration under the direction of Augustus Pugin and later his son Edward. Augustus Pugin had been brought up in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, but he was repelled by its austerity in form and practice, and indeed as a young man he converted to Roman Catholicism. He was attracted by ceremony and grandeur and saw in the churches of the Middle Ages the true manifestation of the Christian spirit. In his book ‘Contrasts’, published in 1834, he argued for a ‘return’ to the Gothic style, and as an architect he was able to implement this in his many commissions, one of which was Scarisbrick Hall. The family was Catholic and the then owner, Sir Charles Scarisbrick, was keen to establish a clear link with this tradition. Despite disputes about the resources for carrying out the work, Pugin was able to create at Scarisbrick Hall, inside and out, one of the finest examples of the Gothic revival.
It would be wrong, however, to regard Roman Catholicism as the only driving force behind the Gothic revival. Buildings such as the Palace of Westminster and St Pancras Station were constructed for secular purposes and in the religious sphere many Anglican Churches adopted the Gothic style. In the former the link with the Romantic movement was more apparent. The appeal of the medieval period lay in its pageantry, nobility and grandeur; in its tales of knights and chivalry, sturdy yeomen and benign monks. There might have been something more sentimental than historical in all this, but myths have their power in presenting a rosy view of the past.
Augustus Pugin recommended a ‘return’ to the Middle Ages, but what we see in many buildings of the so-called Gothic revival is a greater flexibility, which makes it possible to regard the revived Gothic as a self-standing style in its own right, at least far as secular buildings are concerned. The architects used the language of Gothic, but were not inhibited by it. They deployed it not to replicate but to create something new. They were not limited by reason or utilitarianism but used their emotions and imaginations, and although some of the exuberance and fancifulness may not always appeal to modern eyes, the Victorian builders were confident enough to experiment and make their own works distinctive. All this fits in with the idea of Romanticism and it was the appeal to emotion and intuition rather than simply the forms of Gothic that was the ‘lure’.
We quote in full these responses from three of our members.
‘Many thanks for this (Forum 10). Roger’s architectural views and thoughts on Seaside, Florida were excellent, but …. What? No People. It looks like an architectural model. He is right about Poundsbury too, equally loved and hated. I think he meant that one subscribed to one camp or the other. But I hate it and love it. It is either a split personality or just sitting on the fence. I would miss Roger’s Monday morning January lectures, if they really won’t happen. What could be wrong with us all spaced out in the larger hall, and better still keeping awake because of the cold in there?’
‘I have been using zooms for many purposes, online learning, meetings of my book club, one to one or with groups of friends all over the country, quizzes, etc., and feel this is a perfect way to continue in this time. It will also be warmer and more comfortable than the cramped cold room where we normally meet. As we are the older age group it will help stop the spread of colds and flu as well as Covid 19 whilst continuing to be connected.’
Continuing education in 2020 means taking part in today’s society and that, for many, is online. Shouldn’t we encourage the older people to try it? I had a group of technophobes in one of the groups I am a member of and managed to get them all on Zoom and now they love it. Yes, it was a painful experience in the beginning but they loved it in the end and can’t imagine life without it now.
Getting on to Zoom could’t be easier if the organiser sends a link to click on and people have the internet. If you aren’t on the internet then it’s a problem. In the beginning you may have to familiarise people but you could easily make a video on Zoom and sent it to people before so they know what to expect.
I don’t think I will be coming to any face to face meetings any time soon, so that’s the only way for me.’
‘John asked for comments on Zoom. I have attended a continuing education course on Ancient Egypt at Liverpool, for several years. This course went on line after the Lockdown. The tutor has continued with Zoom courses all through the summer. These have been very popular, with participants from across the country. Zoom has worked very well to date. There are a lot of advantages both for the lecturer and the class – no venue and hence no travelling required. More people can ‘attend’ from further afield – a much higher limit on class size. The main disadvantage is that the social side is some what limited. In the Egypt class we can comment verbally but other lectures or webinairs I have attended have been more formal and questions and comments must be submitted ‘in writing’ using the Zoom chat or Q/A facility.
I have enjoyed these Zoom lectures very much, and I hope they continue particularly in the current circumstances, but it’s nice to meet up with actual people from time to time!’
Membership Secretary: Rob Firth
Chair: Alan Potter
See our archive for previous editions of the SUES Forum!