The teleological theory of history holds that it may take several ‘transitional’ generations for one great idea to be brought to birth. This means that the worth of those luckless ‘transitionals’ can only be judged by the quality of the great idea finally emerges, even if it was one of which they never had any clear conception. It’s not a plausible theory, but it does have a certain allure when it is applied to the Gothic revival.
Fortuitously Lord M. of P. has written to ask whether the architecture of his Palladian house could ever be made compatible with the Gothic wing put up by his great-grandfather to accommodate his eight great-great-uncles in 1875.
He could start with Pugin’s understanding of Gothic in the 1830s and 1840s, as a native form of architecture unsullied by any neo-classical pastiche, as a form furthermore created by dedicated but anonymous men who were both artists and craftsmen, as the authentic expression of our relationship with the divine, and as a vessel through which to have access to the divine, that divine being Catholic.
Look at the rigour and vigour of Pugin’s mature style, and you have to conclude that the architectural pretender, Capability Brown, was entirely out-paced by him. Brown’s Gothic at Burghley by comparison looks pretty half-hearted and frivolous.
But then think again – take William Shenstone’s response to Gothic. Here is a gardener and near contemporary of Brown’s who put up gothic ruins to celebrate the destruction of the Catholic hegemony, a man for whom the Gothic ruins of Halesowen Abbey (‘an episode concerning the effects of Romish power, interdicts, etc.’) testified to the triumph of protestantism.
James Gibbs first and then Brown after him were relieving Gothic of the inference of sedition, stripping out its Catholic past and reinstating it as the aboriginal architecture of England, what Repton called ‘the true English style which has been opprobriously called Gothic.’ This was a complex enough revision, but it succeeded and without it Pugin would have had no platform to stand on. Without Pugin would we really be able to understand the challenge that Gothic faced in the aftermath of the ’45 rebellion, when neo-classical Palladian architecture represented the Hanoverian succession? Can we understand Brown without Pugin any better than we understand Pugin without Brown?
As for Brown, the lesson we draw for him is that he was trying to recover a lost part of England’s history – Pugin, and the Pre-Raphaelites after him, wanted to reach back to pre- Dissolution Catholicism; Brown, a protestant himself, only wanted to get back as far as Elizabeth I, before French influence found its way into the country. Both Brown and Pugin shared the dream of an uncorrupted past. Therein lies the compatibility.