The Gothic Revival and the Arts and Crafts Movement

John Ruskin described Gothic as ‘not only the best but the only rational architecture… Undefined in its slope of the roof, height of shaft, breadth of the arch, or disposition of ground plan, it can shrink into a turret, expand into a hall, coil into a staircase, or spring into a spire, with undegraded grace and unexhausted energy.’ For many years I have described the Arts & Crafts Movement as being the secularisation of the Gothic Revival, while my old and much-lamented friend, Clive Wainwright, an inspired Keeper at the Victoria & Albert Museum, used to define it as ‘Gothic without the crockets’.

Perhaps the most iconic British Gothic Revival building is the London’s Houses of Parliament.

During October I was lucky enough to be in Italy as well as Provence and Edinburgh, which set me musing. It was Ruskin’s love of Venetian and French Gothic that inspired Pugin and the Gothic Revival and it was the Gothic Revival in England that led, by evolution, to William Morris and the Arts & Crafts Movement – Scotland followed a little later, and for slightly different reasons.

Jessie King, who had been a fellow pupil with Charles Rennie Mackintosh at Glasgow School of Art, in her little book published by T.N. Foulis in 1910, dubbed Edinburgh The Grey City of the North. Why was it that it was in grey northern Europe rather than the sunny South that the seed of Gothic sprouted and blossomed into the Arts & Crafts? It can’t just have been the Protestant work ethic because the Cevennes, an hours drive from Uzés, a perfect Provençal medieval town, was a stronghold of Protestantism and, although it has a traditional pottery-making industry it has no vestiges of the Arts & Crafts Movement.

Uzés Old Town, Edinburgh

The old town of Edinburgh, like Uzés, is clustered around its castle which is perched on the summit of a grim volcanic outcrop rather than overlooking the lush vineyards of the Gard. As one climbs towards the Castle, with its lowering grey towers, turrets, spires and stairways one is as near being in a mediaeval city as the modern world allows, until one comes in sight of Ramsay Gardens, an extraordinary arts and crafts infil, or rather slum clearance and replacement, with its houses built in red ashlar with white harling, clinging to the hillside like birds’ nests on a cliff face.

Ramsay Gardens

Ramsay Gardens was the dreamchild of the visionary town planner, Sir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) and his wife. They were acutely aware that people, like bees, are social animals and, unlike most planners, were concerned with what he defined as ‘primary human needs’. To this end, rather than sweeping away the slums wholesale in the name of progress, he and his wife employed two little known local architects, Stewart Henbest Capper and Sydney Mitchell to create this imaginative scheme.

Geddes’ background and training was unusual. Although he never took a degree, he studied at the Royal College of Mines in London under T.H. Huxley in the 1870s, before moving on to University College as a demonstrator in the Department of Physiology, where he met Charles Darwin. At the end of the decade, he moved back to Scotland, first becoming Lecturer in Zoology at Edinburgh University, before being appointed to the Chair of Sociology at Dundee. A further Chair in Sociology was to follow when, in the wake of the First World War, he transferred for five years to the University of Bombay, before returning to Europe and founding Scots College at Montpelier.

His vision was always based on human values, in stark contrast to those of the next generation of planners inspired by Le Corbusier, whose Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, was built only fifteen years after Geddes’s death. Le Corbusier’s ideas, about buildings being machines for living in led inexorably, particularly in post-1945 Europe, to the creation of some of the most soulless cities ever built.

The Arts & Crafts Movement was always about human values rather than theories, whether in architecture, furniture design, textiles, metalware, pottery, printing or even garden design, which accounts for its enduring appeal. As D.H. Lawrence wrote:

‘Things men have made with wakened hands,
and put soft light into
Are awake through years with transferred touch,
and go on glowing
For long years.’