The arts, antiquaries and the Gothic revival
This kind of concentration on English subject matter was part of a general rejection of the Neoclassical ethos that had been the dominant artistic aesthetic for much of the eighteenth century. Based on the art and architecture of ancient Rome and Greece, and inspired by archaeological discoveries at Herculaneum and Pompeii, this ethos was absorbed by wealthy Englishmen on the Grand Tour who commissioned houses or works of art in a Neoclassical style.
Denied access to Italy by the upheavals following the French Revolution, patrons and artists reassessed the medieval heritage of their own country. An attraction to the ‘picturesque’ – wild scenery, ruins and castles – was also a theme of the popular ‘gothic’ novels that caught the public imagination with their stories of the macabre and super-natural. The romantic historical writing of Sir Walter Scott was less fanciful in imagination, but based on detailed historical research by a man who also published volumes on Scottish antiquities.
The defining moment for this new interest in the medieval past came with the designs for the new Houses of Parliament following the destruction by fire of the old Palace of Westminster in 1834. The competition was restricted to Gothic or Elizabethan designs, periods that were felt to express the antiquity of the Parliamentary institutions and the sense of national identity. The architect Charles Barry won with a building that was ‘modern’ in its comfortable contemporary amenities, but clothed in Gothic decoration by his collaborator Augustus Welsby Pugin. Pugin had studied Gothic design intensively, drawing on the work of earlier antiquaries and on the ideas of John Carter. The new Parliament provided an example for civic building in the rapidly expanding industrial cities and for new churches needed for their growing populations.
Artists who were concerned with the depiction of historical events now had a range of books analysing and describing stylistic developments in architecture, furniture, the decorative arts, armour or costume. One such artist was a young painter, Ford Madox Brown, who had unsuccessfully entered the competition for murals for the new Parliament, and who had a large range of source material for his representations of the British past.
Ford Madox Brown’s Chaucer Reading his Works at the Court of Edward III was shown at the Royal Academy in 1851. Sketched out as part of a triptych celebrating English poetry, Brown never attempted the other panels, concentrating only on the central painting. After its sale, he began the second version in 1856. Brown drew on antiquarian sources for the accuracy of his picture, which is set in 1375, on the forty-fifth birthday of the Black Prince, Edward’s eldest son, when Chaucer was at the start of his career. The strong vertical composition, which leads the eye up to the standing figure of Chaucer, was taken from a medieval miniature. The Royal figures are based on Brown’s study of tomb effigies. The women’s head-dresses come from copies of medieval manuscripts, and Brown spent much time searching out old pieces of fabric to be made into garments based on histories of costume.
Brown was a partner in Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co., the company set up by William Morris to maintain the old standards of craftsmanship and design that were being undermined by the Industrial Revolution. Morris was influenced by the ideas of John Ruskin, who saw the creation and appreciation of art as imbued with a moral virtue capable of transforming society. The company produced a wide range of decorative art and furniture that drew on the individual craftsman’s understanding of the art of the past. Morris, alongside the Antiquaries, campaigned for the preservation of ancient buildings, and Kelmscott Manor, Morris’s country home, is now owned by the Society.
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This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department's guide, Making History: Antiquaries in Britain, 1707-2007: An Introduction, by Greg Harris.
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