The Nature of Gothic – travelling with William Morris

40Last year my husband, Anthony, and I went on holiday to France. Our aim – or at least mine – was to follow in the footsteps of William Morris and his friends Edward Burne Jones (EBJ) and William Fulford and their dash around the great gothic churches of Northern France in 1855. They were there for three weeks, we for two. They saw more than 14 churches from Abbeville to Avranches, and we saw 8 of their 14+ from Abbeville to Louviers, falling down before Rouen and scuttling to the coast for beachside R&R on our last few days. Over that time I took notes in each church, and Anthony wrote poems. Woven in among the blogs on this site will be a series that chart that journey and Morris’s parallel one 160 years before.

Why were they so keen to go? Morris was only 21, and full of all the uncertainties of that age.  He and EBJ and several of their other college friends had already thought to lock away the modern world by starting a religious community – a monastery. But it was on this trip that Morris and EBJ decided that they would put aside the church and dedicate their lives instead to a more fickle mistress, art. Neither man ever wavered from that new path. It must have been a powerful holiday.

Why did I want to do this? I had long wanted to see the northern gothic cathedrals. I studied art history at university, and one of the courses I did was ‘Monastery and Cathedral’, which looked at the Romanesque and early Gothic churches of France and Britain. I loved that course. I suppose I was attuned to many of the same tastes as Morris and his friends, and probably came to that in part through my early love of the Pre-Raphaelites, discovered aged 13 when seeing a ‘hippy picture’ at my father’s house … he was shocked I didn’t know that the artist was Burne Jones, and bought me the Thames and Hudson The Pre-Raphaelites book. I read it so much it fell apart. So began my own lifelong passion for art and architecture. As part of the degree, we had a short trip to Paris, in which I saw two of the churches on Morris’s route, Notre Dame in Paris and Chartres. But no others. So I longed to see the other greats – but I also wanted to get under Morris’s skin a bit more, and give myself a purpose, all these years later, for seeing the churches.

Why Gothic? Britain – and France – were deep in the throes of a gothic revival. New gothic buildings – including our Houses of Parliament – were springing up everywhere, and Morris and EBJ were in love with the middle ages. They had studied medieval manuscripts, read medieval romances, steeped themselves in King Arthur – and, critically, they had read the works of John Ruskin. Ruskin, an art critic, had recently published a book called The Stones of Venice, about Venetian art and architecture. In this mammoth tome one chapter would come to be deemed by Morris as ‘one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century’ when he published it many years later. From this chapter, ‘The Nature of Gothic’, Morris would take what might be said to be the central tenant of his life – that work should be meaningful and pleasurable. But at this young age, instead, Morris was drunk on the architecture itself. Gothic architecture – and especially that of the 13th century – was the apogee of art for him at that time. Three weeks in the presence of that art, and among the ancient towns and cities and the gentle rolling countryside of France, so like his own southern Britain, but less tainted, it seemed, by the march of progress.

Gothic’s not my personal favourite of the medieval architectural styles. I’ve long been a fan of the Romanesque, that monumental style that owes its genesis to the architecture of Rome, but has a solid, raw power all of its own, and even of the scrips and scraps that remain of the Saxon architecture that preceded it here in England. But in the 19th century, Gothic was the favoured style, representing home-grown mastery, a simpler, better time, its soaring stone pillars and ribs took you into a time of romance and chivalry, its organic carvings and brilliant glass took you into a pre-industrial, religious time – a time that was starting to seem a distant dream in Britain’s rapidly industrialising cities, filling up as they were with factories, slums, smog, pollution and people, people, people. Gothic was a gasp of fresh air, ad for Morris – taking his lead from Ruskin – it was the simple Gothic of the 13th century that caught his imagination, that point when the new style, with its pointed arches, complex vaulting, huge deep-dyed windows and realistic statuary was at its most austere. At its most pure?

For Morris, looking back on his life, this holiday often seemed to him to mark a moment of clarity. In his lecture 1880s lecture The Aims of Art, he says, ‘Less than forty years ago – about thirty – I first saw the city of Rouen, then still in its outward aspect a piece of the Middle Ages: no words can tell you how its mingled beauty, history, and romance took hold on me; I can only say that, looking back on my past life, I find it was the greatest pleasure I have ever had.’[i] His greatest pleasure, looking at a building? Greater than the camaraderie of friends, the first flush of his marriage, greater than being a father, than all the work he had done? Perhaps. How to capture that rush of ecstasy he must have felt standing there? ‘Ecstatic’ is the word he uses most to describe his feelings on that holiday. The nature of gothic would haunt Morris throughout his life, playing over and over in his art, his writing, his politics, his very way of seeing the world.

But next words of the lecture bring us back down to earth and to the present: ‘and now it is a pleasure which no one can ever have again: it is lost to the world for ever.’ Morris was speaking about the march of progress of 30 years. How much more had 160 years wrought? For me, on that journey around France, a France twice wracked with war, was a very different place to that described then by Morris. The ecstasies of a 21 year old were not for me on this trip – indeed, I had a shock on the trip that reduced me to tears in one church, so great were the changes wrought in a place that had engendered the same pulsing uplift of ecstasy some 22 years before when I was 20 – instead, a more thoughtful approach had to be taken. I hope in these occasional blog posts I can try to bring together the buildings themselves, and the faceless men who built them, Morris and his friends with their aching feet, Anthony and I trundling about in our comfortable car (and our less comfortable campsites) and the modern world that we and those churches now inhabit.

[i] Taken from the excellent website, which has a pretty comprehensive set of Morris’s lectures:


Entrance to the South Transept, Rouen Cathedral by John Ruskin. Photograph from a watercolor. Source: Works, facing XXXV, 371. Photograph (2010) Scanned image and text by George P. Landow.


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