Creating Legacies In Gothic House Design, 1750–1850

An individual’s home is often central to the manifestation of personal identity. Among the English elite of eighteenth-century England, this was especially true. During this period country houses were not private spaces, and house visiting meant that the home became an important medium for display of the family, open to the judgement of observers. However, this could be utilised to create personal legacies. Common themes during this period were the emphasis on family genealogy, the expression of the self, and a return to a ‘golden age’ of English history. In doing so, house and garden designs simultaneously appealed to established legacies and created new ones, securing the owner’s position within society: socially, politically and culturally.

Central to designs was the theme of nostalgia for a ‘golden age’ in England’s history. Looking back to a time of castles and knights, when religion and social structure held an important place in society, medieval England became an iconic period for certain individuals. The use of castle features created a historical narrative which linked contemporary elites with a past ruling class, more acceptable to the middling classes of the period. Some historians have identified the rise of the English middle classes in the eighteenth century, who threatened the position of the upper classes; threat became a reality during the French Revolution when elite individuals realised that they had to appeal to the wider population to maintain their position in society. Sculptures and deities which accompanied Classicism were mocked for being too luxurious and criticised as foreign symbols of authority. In contrast, gothic style was associated with the hospitable ‘old-English gentleman’, an acceptable ruling class in keeping with the principles of the Georgian middle classes. Gothic designs inspired by castles and cathedrals were incorporated into the homes of Englishmen in a modern way; Horace Walpole used cathedral motifs in furniture and over internal doorways of his, rather fantastical, Strawberry Hill.

The country house was the seat of the elite family and centre of their power. In the houses situated on these estates it was important to reinforce the family’s place as leaders of society. At Castle Howard the grounds, surrounded by medieval style battlements, situated the family legacy in the English ‘golden age’ and justifying their present position. This was even more important for families who were newly risen through mercantile wealth, and for individuals such as Walpole who wanted to salvage a reputation - as a younger son who would not inherit the family legacy. Walpole never had children, so leaving a monument such as Strawberry Hill was intended to be, successfully so, a reminder to posterity of himself and his achievements. Walpole founded Strawberry Hill on a long genealogy, returning to a more desirable ancestry in the medieval past. He continuously referred to it as ‘the castle of my ancestors’. The architecture of Strawberry Hill features heraldry of three aspects of his heritage; the Walpole, Shorter and Robsart crests feature in prominent locations throughout the house, such as above the entrance doorway. The library is an important room for the creation of Walpole’s legacy. Here he ties together the different elements of the past he has invented for his family and self though gothic architecture and interior design, heraldry and display of collections of antiques. These designs also supported Walpole’s image as a gothic novelist.

The narrative of the Gothic age was especially evocative of a liberal past. Remembered for the Magna Carta and the establishment of English parliament, the medieval period was identified as an age of liberty. Walpole displayed a copy of the Magna Carta in his house alongside the death warrant for Charles I. Both were seen as significant events in English history which led to the creation of the much revered English Constitution and parliamentary system. By representing this history in their homes, Whig politicians emphasised their standing as protectors of ‘the people’, the Constitution, and liberty. The Temple of the Four Winds at Castle Howard also represents Whig political ideas of progress and prosperity; the temple looks over to the surrounding countryside where the viewer can enjoy aesthetics of the view but also contemplate the agricultural progress going on around them. On the other hand, Tory supporters emphasised their affinity with the old Stewart line. Lord Scarsdale created the narrative of the Curzon Family as eminent Tories by displaying family portraits alongside prominent Stewart figure, linking the two histories. Thus we see how elite individuals could create narratives steeped in history but linked to their current beliefs.

Crucially, all themes of gothic design were rooted in a certain view of England. It is significant that during this period we see a move away from foreign classical designs and more emphasis on England’s place in history and culture. It could be argued that in doing so, England was given a position among and equal to the great empires of Rome and Greece, legitimising its cultural and political standing in the world, and in turn, those individuals who connected themselves with it. William Stuckley, a leading figure in this period, promoted England’s ancient history; in his garden, he re-created miniature versions of Stonehenge and Avebury. These scenes were meant to evoke contemplation of spirituality and English history. Stuckley made connections between the tree lined ‘Groves’ in which Druids worshipped, and the arching design of gothic cathedrals which resembled tree branches crossing overhead. By creating Druidic site in their gardens, individuals were aligning their own legacy with an ancient and more spiritual English past. Grottos, woods and hermitages became standard features of gardens.

Therefore, we have seen how important it was for elite individuals to refer to certain English legacies in order to create their own. In doing so, they defended their social and political status during a period of tension.

Image: Rictor Norton & David Allen