The Gothic revival

The Gothic Revival was a 19th-century movement in art and architecture. Famous names associated with its early phase include those of A.W. Pugin, John Ruskin and Sir George Gilbert Scott. Temple Moore, together with G.F. Bodley, George Gilbert Scott junior and others, is associated with the Late Gothic Revival, which flourished from the 1870s onwards. All these men championed a return to the architectural standards of the Middle Ages, which they believed were superior to those of their own day.

Gothic is a term used to describe a style of architecture that appeared in the 12th century and dominated European building design until the 16th century. It was eclipsed during the Renaissance in Europe by the revival of classical models from ancient Greece and Rome. By the 18th century this neoclassical style of architecture had become the critical orthodoxy in Britain. It was associated with progressive values like rationalism and liberalism, whereas the Gothic had come to be regarded as at best backwards-looking and at worst suspiciously popish.

Yet the gothic never really went away. It remained a neglected but essential part of the vocabulary of building. Christopher Wren and Nicolas Hawksmoor both dabbled in gothic themes. Horace Walpole's fanciful country house in Twickenham, Strawberry Hill (1750), took up a literary fashion for medieval romance and applied it to interior decor. Even the most classicist of Georgian architects was not above employing a gothic flourish here and there: Robert Adams added medieval-looking crenellations to Culzean Castle in Ayrshire.

However, in the 19th century this gothic strand in British architecture became entwined with new religious and cultural ideas, and with that it became much more potent. The chief theorists and propagandists of this early phase in the Gothic Revival were Pugin (1812–1852) and Ruskin (1819–1900).

In his influential book Contrasts (1836) Pugin advanced the view that medieval architecture represented the zenith of human achievement because it expressed the ideals of Christianity in their purist form. Pugin was a Roman Catholic convert, and his lifetime coincided with a renaissance of High Church and Anglo-Catholic feeling in England. He hoped that a revival of the gothic would rejoin art with its spiritual roots.

John Ruskin's reverence for the gothic stemmed from his revulsion from what he saw as the crass philistinism of modern industrial society. For him, the exquisite craftsmanship of the medieval mason was the antidote to the soul-destroying labour of the factory worker. A revival of Gothic art and architecture would remedy all that was worst about modern life.

These abstract ideas were propelled out of the library and onto building sites by the enormous influence of the Ecclesiological Society. Founded by a group of Cambridge undergraduates in 1839, the Society campaigned for the restoration of Anglican churches to their medieval splendour. It's monthly magazine, The Ecclesiologist, contained detailed instructions on the “rules” of gothic architecture and design. Within a few years the Society had 700 members, including bishops of the Church of England, Cambridge University deans, and Members of Parliament — men who were in a position to put ecclesiological ideas into practice.

British towns and cities began to fill up with gothic buildings. Civic buildings like town halls and railway stations sprouted turrets and buttresses. Pugin's disciple Sir George Gilbert Scott added the famous gothic facade to St Pancras Station in London. Gothic cathedrals sprang up in industrial cities like Liverpool and Manchester. When the Palace of Westminster burnt down in 1834, it was rebuilt by Charles Barry in the Gothic Perpendicular style, with a clocktower by Pugin which soon acquired the nickname Big Ben.

In the countryside the Gothic Revival made itself felt in an unprecedented spate of church-building. Between 1840 and 1876, an astonishing 1,727 new churches were built and 7,144 restored. As the decades wore on and the social and political landscape changed, the gothic styling of these churches became less self-conscious and doctrinaire, and came more and more to seem the natural language of church-building.

Temple Moore's churches belong to this moment in the Gothic Revival. No longer ideologically preoccupied with leading modern society back to the Middle Ages, or even artistically preoccupied with bringing the medieval up to date, Moore's style of gothic is restrained and approachable. It takes the best elements of the medieval tradition and expresses them in forms that blend in beautifully with their setting. It was this sympathetic approach that made him the leading church architect of his time.