Andrew Graham-Dixon in the old St Pancras cemetery, where Mary Shelley used to hang out.
It has been a while since my favourite TV-historian, Andrew Graham-Dixon, has presented a high profile art show. The wait was worth it: The Art of Gothic (Britain’s Midnight Hour) is shedding light the big cultural phenomenon of the 18th and 19th centuries in the Western World – the revival of the Gothic.
Horace Walpole’s folly: Strawberry Hill
Architecture plays one part – Strawberry Hill in Richmond is shown as an example – however, wild landscapes, darkness, feudalism, all those started to look more and more attractive to the top one per-cent of that time. The industrial revolution tore the bucolic English landscape apart, masses of poor, unwashed workers (i.e. disenfranchised farmers) started to ‘swamp’ cities like London, Bradford and Manchester. Those that profited from the possession of land, slaves and ownership of the means of production (ie Walpole) started to have their faces rubbed into it – urbanisation, stench and disease did begin to become visible to anyone, no matter who you were.
The (Feudalist) Middle Ages of course where so much lovelier – everyone knew their place, social unrest was unheard of (or very easily suppressed), Barons got away with murder, and could do as they pleased. There was no social mobility, colonies like America didn’t rebel, and chivalry was the myth everyone lived by.
The Gothic Revival was about the revival of that that never was – a grand delusion of a deluded elite who thought by building like their forebears they could halt the wheel of time, make all the nasty consequences of their politics that had been going on for generations simply go away. (Of course they could have invested in healthcare, education and so forth as did the post WWII Labour government – but that was a 100 years later. It took two horrendous conflicts to wipe rich man’s delusion off his face, and only for a few decades as current times show.)
The Art of Gothic is a great show because it hints ar all that and more: There were a lot of strong minds, like Mary Shelley, who as opposed to being a courtier like Augustus Pugin, realised that in order to alleviate present developments one had to address them heads on. Gothic being in fashion was a great stylistic instrument to achieve that, never to be taken as the remedy but more as the catalyst for illustrating the ills of Victorian society, especially that emerging obsession with out-of-control scientism.
The Vienna Rathaus, built in 1883.
Neo-Gothic was of course not limited to Britain. Vienna, the US, Germany all had their revivals. The Viennese Rathaus is a good example, but one could argue that in mainland Europe Gothic revival was just one part of ‘Historismus‘, a revisiting of all the styles of the past (see the Viennese Ringstrasse).
Back to the show – what makes Graham-Dixon so eminently watchable is not just the great camerawork but his own delivery – intelligent without showing off, sympathetic to the subject with just the right amount of piss-taking and, most important of all, there is humour and contextualisation.
The Art of Gothic is about so much more than Gothic revivalism, it’s about how mass delusions affect those in power if times are moving too fast – and how they fail to deliver a tangible solution, burying their heads in follies instead (think Sorcere’s Apprentice). Reality never ceases to break through eventually, no matter how many spires and buttresses one builds against it, and that’s what Dixon calls the Dark Gothic Movement – which, in his own words, has stayed fresh and believable to this day.