Gothic Architecture

Florence S. Boos

Morris singled out his 1889 essay “Gothic Architecture” for publication at the Kelmscott Press as an homage and companion piece to his 1892 edition of Ruskin’s essay “On the Nature of Gothic.”  In 1877, he had remarked in “The Lesser Arts” that if you read “On the Nature of Gothic”, and the “Office of the Workman” . . . you will read at once the truest and the most eloquent words that can possibly be said on the subject. What I have to say upon it can scarcely be more than an echo of his words, yet I repeat there is some use in reiterating a truth, lest it be forgotten. .    . .” In his preface to the Kelmscott edition of “The Nature of Gothic,” he added that “in future days [it] will be considered as one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century.”

            In his own praise of “the Gothic”, Morris employed plain speech and historical insights to argue the cause of a more broadly conceived ideal of organic art, which extended the essential features of Ruskin’s definitions of “the Gothic,” but elided or modified the latter’s prescriptive categories (“savageness,” “rigidity,” “changefulness,” “naturalness,” “grotesqueness,” “rigidity” and “redundance”). Ruskin’s “changefulness,” for example, had evolved into “flexibility,” which Morris interpreted as a willingness to accommodate free ornamentation (“redundance”) as well as rough decoration (“savageness”). He also set aside “rigidity” and “grotesqueness” altogether, perhaps in part because grotesquerie was absent in many Gothic churches, or because Morris found straightforwardly beautiful a number of carvings Ruskin might have considered grotesque.

        In his preface to “The Nature of the Gothic,” Morris had observed that “ethical and political considerations [were never] absent from [Ruskin’s] criticism of art; and, in my opinion, it is just this part of his work. . . which has had the most enduring and beneficent effect on his contemporaries, and will have through them on succeeding generations” (AWS I, 274). Here he refers, of course, to Ruskin’s magisterial assault on the effects of industrial capitalism:  

 [i]t is not, truly speaking, the labor that is divided; but the men: . . . so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin, or the head of a nail.

as well as his spiritual denunciation of market-driven materialism:

And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this,--that we manufacture [sic] everything    there except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages. (Ibid.)

            More plainly and directly, Morris argued in “Gothic Architecture” that “works of . . . art are man’s expression of the value of life, and also the production of them makes his life of value” (K2-3), and characterized “Gothic” ideals in intensional terms: as a humane practice and artistic tradition which “must needs have had laws to be a style . . . [but] followed them of free will, and . . . unconsciously,” (K31). Such a practice, he argued, would embrace “abundance” and natural “organic” form quite naturally, and would not be “ashamed of . . . super-abundance of ornament, any more than nature is” (K31-32).  For such “abundance” was “[its] share of a great epic, a story appealing to the hearts and minds of men” (K43).

Historically and geographically, Morris’ personal preferences were unabashedly Anglo- and Francophilic, as well as firmly Eurocentric:

. . . during [the twelfth and thirteenth centuries] as far as the art of beautiful building is concerned, France and England were the architectural countries par excellence” (K42).

. . .  it is not to be thought that there was any direct borrowing of forms from the East in the gradual change from the round-arched to the pointed Gothic: there was nothing more obvious at work than the influence of a kindred style, whose superior lightness and  elegance gave a hint of the road which development might take (K37 ).

Such artistic traditions would also grace the “new society” he so ardently sought:   

[i]f the new society when it comes (itself the result of he ceaseless evolution of
countless years of tradition) should find the world cut off from all tradition of
art. . . much time will be lost in running hither and thither after the new thread. . . . if we are . . . to have architecture at all, we must take up the thread of tradition there and nowhere else” (K5-7).

In his account of Nowhere’s “great change,” he characterized such desires to “take up the thread of tradition” as an innate “craving for beauty [which] seemed to awaken in men’s minds, and they began rudely and awkwardly to ornament the wares which they made” (chapter 18). But he did not pretend to anticipate, much less define, the directions such natural desires might take:

I looked, and wondered indeed at the deftness and abundance of beauty of the work of men who had at last learned to accept life itself as a pleasure, and the satisfaction of the common needs of mankind and the preparation for them, as work fit for the best of the race. I mused silently; but at last I said, “What is to come after this?” The old man laughed. “I don’t know,” said he; “we will meet it when it comes.” (chapter 27, Ibid., 201)

Indeed, he suggested at one point in “Gothic Architecture” that all artistic traditions may be subject to periods of quasi-cyclical decline and renewal:

For when anything human has arrived at quasi-completion there remains for it decay and death, in order that the new thing may be born from it; and this wonderful joyous art of the Middle Ages could by no means escape its fate. (K46)

Such cyclical and developmental arguments are not without the faults of their qualities: if the evolution from Greek to Roman to Gothic artistic traditions was ‘progressive,’ for example, why not the emergence of Renaissance arts and crafts from their medieval antecedents as well?  

Fortunately, Morris’ wryly practical sense redeemed a slight tendency to beg historical questions. Morris’ gentle mockery of “pedantic retrospection” (K59), for example, calls to mind the pillars and cariatides which incongruously line the grime-encrusted façade of St. Pancras Church on Euston Road:

A Greek columnar temple when it was a real thing, was a kind of holy railing built round a shrine: these things the people of that day wanted, and they naturally took the form of a Greek Temple under the climate of Greece and given the mood of its people. But do we want those things? If so, I should like to know what for. And if we pretend we do and so force a Greek Temple on a modern city, we produce such a gross piece of ugly absurdity as you may see spanning the Lochs at Edinburgh. (K59-60)

And “cycles” or no “cycles,” Morris understood that “whatever the form of [the architecture of the future] may be, the spirit of it will be sympathy with the needs and aspirations of its own time, not simulation of needs and aspirations passed away (K55-56).

Morris often seemed to think in clauses and paragraphs, rather than individual sentences, and in passages such as these he managed to compress deeply held convictions in a kind of  prose-poetic undertow of reflective emotion. So preoccupied was Morris with the flow and ebb of these currents that he buoyed them, so to speak, in the visual presentation of his Kelmscott texts. Six such shadings and division, for example, appeared on pages 52-53 of “Gothic Architecture.” Bright red headers, first, proclaimed that “Beauty [is] lost” on the right, and “The past slays the present” on the left. Separate leaves next introduced three sentences:


“There are many artists at present who do not sufficiently estimate the enormity, the portentousness of this change . . . .”;

         “How on earth could people’s ideas of beauty change so? You may say. . . .”; and

         “Well, was it their ideas of beauty that changed?”

 An emboldened first word of a paragraph, finally, appeared as

This used once to puzzle me. . . .”

 One way to illustrate the wave-fronts of Morris’s cadential language in “Gothic Architecture” is to rewrite its billows as free verse. Consider the following pair of ‘sentences” (the first of them twenty lines long):

Once for all, then, when the modern world
finds that the eclecticism of the present
is barren and fruitless,
and that it
needs and will have
a style of architecture
which, I must tell you once more,
can only be as part of a change
as wide and deep
as that which destroyed Feudalism;
when it has come to that conclusion,
the style of architecture will have to be
historic in the true sense;
it will not be able to dispense with tradition;
it cannot begin at least with doing something quite different
from anything that has been done before;
yet whatever the form of it may be,
the spirit of it will be sympathy
with the needs and aspirations of its own time,
not simulation of needs and aspirations passed away.
Thus it will remember the history of the past,
make history in the present,
and teach history in the future.
(K55-56)

(Notice the natural undulation in the length of lines.) Thus ‘graphed’ (or heard), the graceful dance of Morris’s repetitions, assonance, and clarity create a sense of personal involvement (“I must tell you once more . . .”) as well as “spirit of . . . sympathy.”

Conclusion

Discerning a hoped-for “revolt on foot against the utilitarianism which threatens to destroy the Arts,” Morris was convinced “that great changes which will bring about a new state of society are rapidly advancing.,” and believed passionately that “these two revolts should join hands, or at least . . . learn to understand one another” (K4-5). 

This has not yet happened, though the legacy of the Arts and Crafts movement has offered valuable anticipations. Morris hoped that art would liberate people from their servitude as “machines . . . who [are] not asked to think, paid to think, or allowed to think (K57).  He loathed, for example, the early instances of “advertising” he encountered, and he and “Guest” would have been stunned to learn that they anticipated the “creative side” of the  propaganda ministry of corporate capitalism. But Morris’ and “Guest”’s ideals—of harmony, cooperation and personal fulfillment, in art as well as life—remain. They are elusive and remote.  But they are “alive as you and me,” and it is our turn to try to make them “a vision not a dream.”


Morris had published Signs of Change, his final essay collection, in 1888. He delivered “Gothic Architecture”  seven times in 1889 and 1890, and it is the only one of his essays printed at the Kelmscott Press.

Hopes and Fears for Art, in The Collected Works of William  Morris, ed. May Morris, London: Longmans, 1914,  22, 5. See also the Marxist International Archive, http://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/index.htm

May Morris, William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist, Oxford: Blackwell, 1936, I, 274.

John Rosenberg, The Genius of John Ruskin, London: George Allen, 1963, 180.

News from Nowhere, ed. Clive Wilmer, Penguin, 1998, 160.