This section is from the book "Hints On Household Taste In Furniture, Upholstery And Other Details", by Charles L. Eastlake. Also available from Amazon: Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details.
It is quite time that these evils should be remedied by legislation. It would not be difficult to strengthen my argument by artistic considerations, but I am content to leave it in a practical form. It is unpleasant to live within ugly walls; it is still more unpleasant to live within unstable walls; but to be obliged to live in a tenement which is both unstable and ugly is disagreeable in a tenfold degree. An Englishman's house was formerly said to be his castle. But in the hands of the speculating builder and advertising tradesman, we may be grateful that it does not oftener become his tomb.
It is true that within the last few years attempts have here and there been made to invest our street architecture - so far as shops and warehouses are concerned - with more character and stability. And this is mainly owing to the revival of a style which, however modified by the influence of climate and national habits in the various countries where it prevailed, was everywhere distinguished by a uniform honesty of constructive purpose. The Gothic Renaissance may seem a paradoxical term to use, but in a literal sense it may be fairly applied to that Reformation in the style of national architecture, which is slowly but surely taking place in this country.
The art-historian who, in a future age, shall attempt to describe the various phases of taste through which English painting and architecture have passed during this century, will have no easy task before him. If the march of science has been rapid, it has also been steady, and marked by events and discoveries which will enable posterity to distinguish between true and false theory, real progress, and futile digression. But no such landmarks exist to indicate the several roads by which we have arrived, or hope to arrive, at aesthetic greatness in the reign of Queen Victoria. The ancient highways of art are no longer traversed. Our modern geniuses have struck out new paths for themselves, which here and there cross, indeed, the course of their predecessors, but rarely coincide with it. These are so diverse in their direction that they may be said to have formed a sort of labyrinth which by and by it will be difficult to survey.
That this should be the case regarding pictorial art is not surprising. Before the time of Hogarth we never had a national school of painting; and even our modern English styles have derived more from foreign teaching than they have inherited from Hogarth. But a national architecture we did once possess. How much of its spirit was actually-indigenous - how much was introduced by the Normans, and how much it subsequently owed to external influences, we may leave the antiquaries to settle. It is sufficient to know that, during four centuries at least of English history, our houses, castles, churches, and country mansions, were designed in a fashion which was as characteristic of this country as the dress and manners, if not the language of the people. Then came the decadence or decline of mediaeval art, which was followed by a revival of classic design, modified to suit the requirements of modern life. It took its rise in Italy, and spread gradually over the whole of Western Europe. Its influence was at first only partially felt in this country. Long after Florence had raked her palaces of the Pitti, the Pandolfini, and the Strozzi; long after Raphael had completed the stately basilica which Bramante had begun for modern Rome; long after Venice and Verona could boast of a splendid Renaissance, English architecture continued in a degraded state of transition between the two styles. It had lost the purity of ancient Gothic. It had not yet developed the principles of Italian design. The result was a miserable compromise, by which classic details of the clumsiest description were grafted on buildings supported by the Tudor arch, and crowned with the Tudor gable. It is, perhaps, the bizarre and picturesque character of this bastard style which still renders it popular with the uneducated. To this day Elizabethan mansions are admired by sentimental young ladies (who, by the way, often call them Elizabeths) as the perfection of architectural taste. But the truth is, whatever real elements of beauty belonged to English architecture in the sixteenth century, were possessed in a tenfold degree by the style which preceded and the style which followed that epoch. Inigo Jones appears to have been the first of our countrymen who designed Italian with real purity. Even he in his earlier days did not altogether abandon Gothic. But the tide of public taste had now begun to turn. The fire of London opened a wide field for the genius of Wren; and from the rebuilding of St. Paul's Cathedral down to the accession of Queen Victoria every building of importance raised in England has been either Italian in character, or a modified adaptation of that style.
Window in Dining-room at Cothele, Devon.
It would be hazardous to ascribe to any special cause or influence the change of popular sentiment which has since taken place with regard to architecture in this country. We may, however, not unreasonably infer that it was in a great measure brought about by the new impulse which English literature received in the early part of the present century. Indeed such an influence would not be without precedent. It was the revival of classic letters which induced the imitation of classic art. It was the love of mediaeval lore, of Old English traditions, of Border chivalry, which by the magic power of association, led the more romantic of our sires and grandsires first to be interested in Gothic architecture, and then to discern its beauties. Horace Walpole, both as an author and a virtuoso, may be said to have sown the seeds of this taste, but it is to the writings of Sir Walter Scott that we must refer its further development. Even in his day it was but a sentiment. The grossest ignorance still prevailed concerning the practical adaptation of a mediaeval spirit to masonry and sculpture. One of the chief merits of the Pointed style is that the origin of every decorative feature may be traced to a constructive purpose. Thus the stone groining over a cathedral aisle not only presents a vista of graceful curves to the eye of the spectator, but covers the area below it with an imperishable roof. The earliest promoters of the Gothic revival appreciated the superficial effect of such features without recognising the utility which justifies their adoption. Accordingly, the glories of the 'fretted vault' were not unfrequently imitated in lath and plaster; nor were there men of taste wanting to praise the wretched parody.