Monday, June 24, 2024

Totnes, Devon

The attractions of Gothic

Again and again I feel drawn to houses with Gothic elements in their design – pointed windows, filigree tracery, battlements, and so on. Why should this be? Partly it's simply the delicacy of these designs – they seem have a fragility that’s wonderfully at odds with solid walls of bricks and mortar; Horace Walpole called his Georgian Gothic house Strawberry Hill a ‘paper house’, so fragile did it seem. Partly the attraction is that this aesthetic of pointed doors and windows is so different from the norm, which is all about straight lines, rectangles, box-like forms and sash windows.

The majority of these delicate Gothic houses date to the Georgian or Regency periods, from the 1740s to the 1830s. There are plenty of later examples too, but they tend to have a heavier, less filigree feel to them. Their inspiration, of course, comes from the Middle Ages, where we see Gothic most often in parish churches and cathedrals. The domestic architecture of the medieval period is now much rarer. Most small houses were rebuilt long ago, those that survive often altered beyond recognition. Medieval houses that do survive are frequently much plainer than churches, with square not pointed windows, although there are exceptions, like the wonderful Gothic hall of Stokesay Castle in Shropshire.

The truth is, of course, that Georgian Gothic houses aren’t really based on medieval houses at all – they take their inspiration from church architecture (from its dazzling variety of window tracery, for example) and from a refined and repurposed idea of what Gothic architecture can be: Gothic, if you like, seen through Georgian spectacles.

The small spectacle that results in this house in Totnes is delightful. The tall proportions, the ornate ground-floor bay window, the upper bays with their matching glazing bars, the battlements, even the cream finish of the walls, all elegant and pleasantly different from what surrounds it, as the array of sash windows on the building to the left shows. It’s also a welcome corrective to the current conception of Gothic as dark, gloom-laden, and possessed with death. Gothic can be light and bright and lively, and none the worse for it.


Chris Partridge said...

What a lovely house! I've always had a weakness for georgian play-gothic.
Horace Walpole was actually aiming for a sort of enjoyable gloom at Strawberry Hill. He even coined a word for it - gloomth, a portmanteau of gloom and warmth.
And Walpole had a second reason for calling it his "paper house". The "stone" vaulting inside is made of papier mache.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Chris: Yes, absolutely – a paper house literally as well as metaphorically. Re 'gloomth', I find it hard to see Strawberry Hill as embodying gloom, even with all the stained glass reducing the effect of the natural light, but I suppose one has to imagine its interiors at night, lit by a few candles, to get the idea.