King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences

The Gothic Revival

By Karl Ulas, BA Classical Studies student at King’s

Frontispiece engraving of the Church of St. Andrew, PlaistowFrontispiece engraving of the Church of St. Andrew, PlaistowThe Gothic Revival was an artistic and cultural movement that swept through Britain in the 19th century. It is defined by the resurgence of certain themes and motifs which had lain dormant through the Age of Enlightenment. The style was most prominently expressed in architecture and the public realm, harking back to past centuries and rooted in a lost medievalist wonder. Arches, turrets and gargoyles dotted Gothic buildings, empowering them with a sense of mystery and tempting the inquisitive with secrets.

Page of accompanying textPage of accompanying textOne way to contextualise this renewed fascination with the medieval world is to see it as the embodiment of a broader historical conflict between Classicism and Romanticism.

The two heralded a different set of virtues; the former a balanced, structured harmony, the latter an almost unrestrained human passion with religious overtones. Yet an increasingly industrialised and secularised world had seemingly disenchanted a generation.

Eminent thinkers, writers and architects from Gilbert Scott to John Ruskin championed the Gothic Revival cause; the matter could not, as Augustus Pugin noted at the time, be reduced to the ‘servile imitation of ancient models’. Such collective sentiment was in part a social reaction to the rigid order and symmetry of Classical principles.

This particular revivalist movement revolutionised the face of British cities at a time when they were growing at an unprecedented rate. The architectural style of choice for civic buildings swung back to favour the Gothic and many magnificent edifices survive to tell the tale.

From Manchester to Bradford to Rochdale, industrial hubs across the north of England competed with one another to build a town hall even grander and more inspiring than that of their neighbours. As the capital of a burgeoning empire, London had its share of celebrated Gothic buildings too, including our very own Maughan Library.

The entire affair culminated in an ideological clash that is popularly referred to as the ‘Battle of the Styles’. Fierce debates raged at a national level on the question of whether our public institutions were to be built in the Classical or Gothic style. Ultimately, however, rapid industrialisation and the wars of subsequent years saw a decline in the popularity of both styles and other internationally influenced movements such as Art Deco and Modernism came to prominence in their place.

In this exhibition

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