The Last English Style

Gothic: Art for England 1400–1547

Catalog of the exhibition edited by Richard Marks and Paul Williamson
an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, October 9, 2003–January 18, 2004. V&A Publications/Abrams, 496 pp., $75.00

In my childhood one of the first great questions of style that I encountered was the classification of medieval architecture. This was not a matter of marginal curiosity to a child growing up, as I did, in cathedral closes. The learning of church styles was the great key to visual experience. Paintings of any merit I hardly knew till I was in my teens, but architecture of the very highest merit (in Lincoln, Durham, and Lichfield) was there to be seen from the bedroom window. I lived and studied and sang, in choir and congregation, among this architecture.

The education in style was based on a simple and memorable classification. For us in England (and England in this context means England, never Britain), church architecture began with what we invariably called Norman—the style which elsewhere in Europe was known as Romanesque, a word never used by us. What happened before Norman belonged to a kind of prehistory that came under the label Anglo-Saxon (or sometimes, in sculptural or decorative style, Celtic), but Anglo-Saxon architecture was rare and unfamiliar.

After Norman, typified by the rounded arches of Durham Cathedral’s nave, there were the pointed arches of Gothic. Gothic was divided into three periods: Early English, Decorated, and Perpendicular, reflecting an increasing elaboration in the detail. Perpendicular, with its relatively flattened arches and its characteristic fan vaulting (as seen in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, or King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, or the Divinity Schools in Oxford) was to me the most exciting—because the least familiar—of the styles. And after Perpendicular came… nothing.

That is to say, after Perpendicular came the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries, the great iconoclasm that destroyed all religious images it could reach. Because the cathedrals were being subtracted from, rather than added to, the lessons came to an end. What happened in later centuries belonged to a different kind of story, a different part of the syllabus, altogether.

It was a part of the experience of growing up in and around cathedrals that one knew in intimate detail that these were buildings that had lost a major part of their functions. We slept at school in dormitories, but the monks’ dormitories had no monks sleeping in them. No one was eating in the refectories. No one was cooking in the vast old kitchens. No one was singing the offices through the night. The great stone basin at the center of Durham cloisters had once been part of the lavatorium, but nobody washed in it now.

The monasteries had lost their functions and their art. We knew (although it was a surprise to learn it) that much of this architecture had been painted, and we knew that there had been statues everywhere. But the vast majority of the sculptures we now saw were Victorian (and therefore, among most adults I knew, to be despised), and I have already said that paintings of any age or merit were almost nowhere to be found …

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