» The Gothic Revival Period

The Gothic Revival Period

The Gothic Revival Period

Though mainly associated with architecture, the Gothic Revival Period was a cultural and aesthetic movement that influenced all of the decorative arts, and eventually the entire moral fabric of Europe and the United States. Spanning loosely from the late 18th century through the greater part of the 19th century, the Gothic Revival grew in part as a reaction to Neoclassicism, and became associated with a re-awakening of the High Church due to growing religious non-conformity. Ultimately, the Gothic Revival came to embody what were considered by some to be the ‘lost ideals’ of medieval society.

Intellectual Origins of the Gothic Revival Period

Neoclassicism had its origins in the mid 18th century, drawing its inspiration for decorative and visual arts from the “classical” art and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. Reason and order were the ideals to be found in the cultures of antiquity, and by building on the classical orders and forms of the past, adherents to neoclassicism aspired to an objective, intellectual truth. Attendant to this aspiration was a kind of liberalism in the pursuit of knowledge and self, as well as a distance from the monotheistic, ecclesiastical system of the medieval period.

As heavy industry proliferated and real social mobility became a reality for much of the middle class, some saw these new institutions as a corruption of traditional medieval ideals, specifically the morality and authority of the High Church and the Monarchy. As a result, some architects, artists, and thinkers took a critical view of industrialization and liberalism, and began to look to the aesthetics of medieval Europe for artistic inspiration and a moral compass.

Neoclassicism had heavily influenced thought and culture during the tumultuous years of the American and French revolutions, and it comes as no surprise that the Gothic Revival, with a focus on Christian values and family, would flourish under the relatively stable reign of Queen Victoria. This wider cultural movement would find its most obvious visual manifestations in architecture and the decorative and visual arts.

Gothic Revival Architecture

Lord Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House

In its early iterations, Gothic Revival architecture was a simple, ‘romantic,’ hearkening back to the spirit, forms, and atmosphere of the Middle Ages, and lacked an accurate consideration of Gothic architectural and philosophical principles.

Built in 1747, Lord Horace Walpole’s villa, Strawberry Hill, exemplified this early phase of the Gothic Revival. The sprawling villa evolved over many years, and while considered by many to signal the birth of Gothic Revival Architecture, it was clearly impractical and lacked the rigorous structure of Gothic buildings.

Other examples of this early, imitative phase included Fronthill Abbey, designed and built by James Wyatt, and Richard Upjohn’s Trinity Church in New York in 1840. These buildings simply incorporated many features of medieval architecture, such as towers and battlements, arched, lancet windows, decorative patterns and finials. Though these building were widely praised for their picturesque qualities, they were also criticized for a lack of substance and an inaccurate imitation of the original Gothic structures.

In later Gothic Revival architecture, more diligent attention was paid to the the restoration of both Gothic architectural forms and philosophical principles. Scholarship on the Gothic period flourished, and architects were eventually able to draw on the works of John Carter, Thomas Rickman, and, most influentially, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. It was Pugin’s conversion to Catholicism and his belief that architecture reflects the condition of the society that creates it that informed much of the late Gothic Revival.

Since Pugin saw the medieval period as one of the highest standards of moral virtue and integrity, if followed that Gothic architecture was the ‘most moral form’ of architecture. This melding of architecture with ideology had a profound impact on design, and was most obviously manifest in the construction of churches. He argued that church designs should be a clean and functional adoption of Gothic forms, just as the moral condition should be.

The implications of Pugin’s insights were not lost on the Church, and countless churches were built and restored with his ideas in mind. These cathedrals featured soaring, castle like towers, parapets, and distinctive, pointed arched windows and entries. Gothic Revival style and design became functional, purposeful, and clean, reflecting the expectations of Church’s view of the moral condition.

Gothic Revival Jewelry

A Berlin Iron Hairpin From the 1800s
A Berlin Iron Hairpin From the 1800s

The complex ‘re-discovery’ of Gothic forms in architecture also found its way into the decorative arts, including jewelry. By the early 1800s, jewelry began to exhibit some adaptations of Gothic style, with Gothic Revival jewelry reaching the peak of fashion between 1830 and 1855.

Some of the earliest examples of the Gothic Revival in jewelry were known as Berlin Iron. These pieces were made in Germany and became popular during the War of Independence against Napoleon in 1813-14. This finely wrought cast iron jewelry was given to the women of Germany in exchange for their gold jewelry, which was used to fund the war. Inscribed with phrases like “gold gab ich fur eisen” (“I gave gold for iron”), these patriotic pieces featured distinctly medieval elements, and eventually inspired jewelers throughout Europe.

Throughout the 19th century, costume balls were one of the most popular forms of amusement for the upper classes in Europe. These historically themed costume balls were often set in Medieval times, and the resulting need for authentic looking Gothic style jewelry drove the fashion of the day. The famous Plantagenet Ball of 1842 was organized by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and featured the couple dressed as Queen Phiippa and King Edward II, England’s royalty from the 14th century.

Because there were few jewels from the Gothic period to use as models for imitation, jewelry designers looked to Gothic architecture for design ideas, and Gothic Revival jewelry took on a structural feel, often incorporating architectural details like ogives (pointed arches), or tracery elements like trefoil and quatrefoil motifs.

The Ferronnière
The Ferronnière

Spiritual images can be found on many pieces from the period, sometimes with devout figures under arched or canopied niches, much like carvings on Gothic churches. Themes of mythical beasts and gargoyles were prevalent, as were crosses, fleurs-de-lis, shields and crowns, and Latin inspirational phrases in Gothic lettering.

Gems were used only sparingly Gothic Revival jewelry, and were mostly colored stones and pearls. What stones were utilized were often set in gold or deliberately oxidized silver, in many cases with enamel accents. Colored stones were usually cabochon cut, and in the rare cases that diamonds were used, they were small rose-cut or table-cut stones.

Of all the Gothic Revival jewelry designed in the early 19th century, none is so evocative of the style as the ferronnière. Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s “La Belle Ferronnière,” a storied painting of a blacksmith’s wife who captivated Francis I in the 1400s, the ferronnière usually featured a center stone surrounded by smaller gemstones, which was held suspended at the center of the forehead by a chain.

The chain was usually fastened at the top of the back of the neck, accentuating the woman’s high forehead. The ferronnière was an extremely popular Gothic Revival jewelry item from the late 1820s through about 1850.

The Great Exhibition of 1851

Brooch by Froment-Meurice
Brooch by Froment-Meurice

Held in London in 1851, the Great Exhibition was the first real international trade exhibition. Initiated by Prince Albert, the Exhibition was ostensibly organized to stimulate international trade in technology and the decorative arts, but it proved to be even more of a cultural exchange than many had hoped for, and became the model for exhibitions held throughout Europe and the United States. Gothic Revival jewelry was among the goods on display at the Exhibition, including works designed by A.W.N Pugin and the important French designer François-Désiré-Froment-Meurice.

Pugin displayed a suite of Gothic Revival style jewels that he had designed as a wedding gift for his wife. The collection was made of enameled gold with half pearls and cabochon cut gems and featured an exemplar of the Gothic Revival style: a bandeau (a head ornament made for the brow) with a Gothic cross and the Latin phrase “Christi Crux ist mea lux” (“Christ’s cross is my light”) in enamelled Gothic lettering.

The works of Froment-Meurice featured groups of devout figures, including Virgin and Child, crusading knights, and angels playing musical instruments under pointed arches as the central focus of brooches and necklaces.

Made of gold, oxidized silver, and enamel accents, these scenes closely resembled Gothic stone sculpture, and typified the strong relationship between jewelry and architectural design. Froment-Meurice received the prestigious Council Medal for his contribution to the Exhibition, and Queen Victoria was impressed enough to buy several of his pieces.

Gold Griffin Brooches with Pearls

Froment-Meurice was arguably the most influential of the Gothic Revival jewelers, and his death in 1855 coincided with the style’s decline in popular European fashion. However, it did not disappear entirely. Gothic Revival jewelry survived into and blended with the Victorian period, and even the Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau movements, up until about 1900.

During this latter period, the Gothic influenced jewelry was not so much inspired by Church-related themes and architectural styles, but more by Fantastical creatures, such as Gargoyles and Griffins, as well as Gothic nature themes like Oak leaves and winged bats.