Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 1, 2016
Michael Hall George Frederick Bodley and the Later Gothic Revival in Britain and America New Haven: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in association with Yale University Press, 2015. 508 pp.; 200 color ills.; 100 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (9780300208023)
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The study of Victorian architecture has matured. At the forefront of recent achievements in scholarship now stands Michael Hall’s enormous and enormously rich biography of one of the greatest High Victorians, George Frederick Bodley (1827–1907). Hall’s monumental achievement is twofold. First, he has conquered the intrinsic difficulty of the project. Bodley’s personal and office papers are lost, and this unhappy paucity is complemented by the almost more troublesome richness of the surviving documentation that is dispersed among myriad clients and acquaintances. Hall has mastered this hard-to-assemble material and masked the difficulty of this encyclopedic accomplishment in a biography that, while huge and dauntingly dense, is coherently organized and well written. Hall’s other salient achievement is his successful grappling with the apparent contradictions of Bodley’s artistic production. He was one of the most brilliant practitioners of the muscular Early French idiom of High Victorian architecture in the 1850s and early 1860s, but he was also the leader of the seeming counterrevolution that subsequently steered the Gothic Revival back to gentler English precedents. Adding to this already contradictory record, Hall shows that we must also recognize a third category of activity: Bodley’s signal contribution to the Queen Anne movement in its earliest days.

Bodley’s multiple architectural idioms have not been well accommodated in the earlier, brief accounts of his career, and Hall may be right in suggesting that the relative neglect of the later phases of his activity, the Queen Anne and the English Gothic, should be blamed on the preference of macho modernist historians for his more demonstrably innovative High Victorian work, whose strong forms are culturally coded as male and heterosexual. To rebalance things, Hall places the rehabilitation of the Aesthetic Movement (arguably the banner under which Bodley’s Queen Anne and English Gothicism both marched) at the center of his project.

Ultimately, Hall does not claim to have identified a single artistic persona behind all the disparate forms of Bodley’s creative productivity. But he does convincingly argue that all of the architect’s work was informed by great, enduring interests. I identify three of these. The first is Bodley’s personal religiosity, which both informed his commitment to the toil of making architecture and energized his relationships with clients, fellow architects, and artistic collaborators. While cherishing our own liberal pluralism, we moderns must never doubt the importance of Christian faith for this generation of English designers, something that William Morris’s atheism sometimes fools us into doing. A second important and permanent star that Hall identifies in Bodley’s personal firmament is his connection to the Pre-Raphaelite painters and the decorative arts designers who were their friends and collaborators. More than any of his architectural contemporaries, Bodley made use of the work created by the partnership of Philip Webb and Morris. While he ultimately turned to other designers and suppliers, Bodley followed the Morris and Company model when establishing his own design firm, a bold and unique choice among contemporary architects. He also continued to commission talented (although not absolutely top-tier) painters to decorate his churches, keeping him connected to the Aesthetic Movement. A third persistent theme in Bodley’s work, related to the second, is his passionate visuality. Although he trained with George Gilbert Scott and was a good friend of George Edmund Street, both of whom were indefatigable writers as well as designers, Bodley was an artist first, last, and always, with no apparent interest in writing history or theory—or explaining what he did.

In addition to identifying these unifying themes in Bodley’s work, Hall significantly increases our understanding of the three styles of architecture that he practiced, more or less seriatim. To start, Hall provides an excellent, fresh account of the High Victorian colloquy among Bodley, Street, and William White, the three friends who met and worked together for a time in the office of the prodigious Scott. Under the slogan of historical development, they abandoned stylistic purism and traveled on a path parallel to that of William Butterfield toward a synthetic Gothic. Borrowings from abroad—especially Italian polychromy and French massiveness—were the visual hallmarks of this High Victorian eclecticism, in which Street (just three years Bodley’s senior) is shown to have played the leading role, both as theorist and designer. Indeed, Hall identifies a source in Street’s work for almost every aspect of Bodley’s early style, and, for a few pages, he seems to be writing a biography of the older architect. But whereas, in my view, Street’s visual art, mighty as it is, was always somewhat constrained by his impulse to work out his theoretical principles in masonry, Bodley’s fine eye was not so fettered, and for absolute optical panache there is no beating the majestic procession of cross-vaulted side chambers that line the nave of St. Augustine, Pendlebury (1870–74), or the majestic saddle-backed tower of All Saints, Selsley (1861–62).

Bodley’s dramatic shift away from a Gothic style of massy form and foreign pedigree occurred, out of public view, while he was revising the design of All Saints, Cambridge, from 1861 to 1862—an important turning point in the history of taste, when “every element of developed Ruskinian Gothic . . . vanished” (107) and Bodley led the way toward a Gothic based on English and generally later historical precedents (including the Perpendicular). Hall offers “no simple explanation” for this change (108), but he does describe (somewhat fleetingly, in various places) several contexts with explanatory power for it. First, at least chronologically, was Bodley’s engagement with English Gothic in his restoration work, which, because his foreign travels were more limited than those of his peers, may have had an outsized influence. He was also less committed to the study of history and its processes—the understanding of which led others to study foreign architecture—and this may have allowed him to gaze more contentedly on English models.

In Hall’s account of Bodley’s change of style, the most significant factor was probably his strong connections with the artists of the Aesthetic Movement, who moved rapidly to embrace later medieval and Renaissance forms. They came to see the vigorous High Victorian style of their youth as vulgar and uncouth; Hall joins other scholars in viewing the resulting architecture in terms of the “feminisation” (132–33) of High Church religious arts and liturgical practices. However, Hall breaks with some of his predecessors in assigning a positive valence to this shift and stresses the role of women patrons, most notably Emily Meynell Ingram at Hoar Cross (1871–72). The resulting style of architecture, which Hall describes as possessing “breadth” (240–42) and “refinement” (253–55) was seen at the time as literally classical. Bodley, whom Hall assures us was an admirer of both Walter Pater and Morris, and who met Oscar Wilde in 1894, wrote that English Gothic “is like Greek work in its great refinement and delicacy” (quoted 293).

The refinement of these later churches, Hall convinces us, was more consonant with such High Church values as gentleness and obedience than the Ruskinian “savageness” of High Victorian architecture. Indeed, “muscular” theology and the art that it inspired were rooted in evangelicalism. The masterpiece churches that Bodley designed in his English mode, preeminently Hoar Cross and Clumber (1886–89), are beautifully interpreted. Hall emphasizes their anti-Puritan synesthesia: e.g., the sumptuous paintings of Tue Brook (1866–70) and Charles Hallé’s music at Pendlebury. These big, later churches are placed in the context of similar churches built for large urban congregations in the last decades of the nineteenth century. In this discussion, the work of James Brooks is surprisingly absent, perhaps because his churches in East London remained faithful to the now old-fashioned Early French style. J. L. Pearson’s city churches also deserve mention in an account of the later Gothic Revival.

The shift to English Gothic for churches was not Bodley’s only innovation. Hall also shows that the architect needs to be accorded a more prominent position alongside his friend Richard Norman Shaw in the invention of the several vocabularies—Old English and Anglo-Dutch—that have always been somewhat charmingly lumped together under the name Queen Anne. While it is rather easy to understand how those who embraced later English models for churches were also adopters of a half-timbered, big-windowed style for houses, the fad for Pont Street Dutch has always been more mysterious. In analyzing Bodley’s domestic work in the 1860s, Hall does not really explain why this happened, but he does reveal the steps by which the transformation occurred. It began with brick houses, in the mode of Butterfield’s vicarages and Webb’s Red House, but without pointed arches; then (still mysteriously), little triangular pediments appeared over windows and doors; and finally, shaped gables sprouted on top. The bellwether project is apparently the vicarage of St. Martin’s, Scarborough (1866–68). No sooner was this innovation made—and claimed publicly with the victory of his Dutch-gabled design in the competition for the London School Board Building (1872–76, demolished 1929)—than, just as mysteriously, Bodley abandoned the style, along with almost all involvement with domestic architecture.

In the remaining chapters of the book, Hall treats other later commissions under broad headings: school chapels, projects at Oxford and Cambridge, and the largely unrealized cathedrals from the end of his life (Hobart, Liverpool, San Francisco, and Washington). Detailed attention is given to his office practices and the builders, artists, and craftsmen with whom he worked. A few final pages are accorded to the Gothic Revival after Bodley’s death, in both England and the United States. The latter is rather disconnected from the larger narrative of the book.

Because Bodley built substantially less than his mentor Scott and his friend Street, both of whom had hundreds of commissions, there is a strong temptation to discuss fully each of his major works, and Hall succumbs to it, laying out not only the artistic character but also the details of patronage, construction, decoration, and afterlife of several dozen commissions. The result is an immense book that slightly exasperates even an avid reader who is anxious to learn all there is to know about Bodley’s architecture. But it is worth persisting, because Michael Hall has given us a compelling account of his multifaceted and path-breaking creativity.

David B. Brownlee
Frances Shapiro-Weitzenhoffer Professor, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

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