Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Fenn III: “Castles, Palaces, Gates, Crosses”

By Katharina Boehm

The plates that Fenn grouped together under the category of “Castles, Palaces, Gates, Crosses” show English medieval and early modern architectural remains. These plates speak to the growing interest which vernacular Gothic traditions of British architecture held for members of the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) as well as for the broader public in the eighteenth century. Seventeenth-century antiquaries with an interest in the medieval period had occasionally commented on architectural antiquities. William Dugdale’s (1605-86) Monasticon Anglicanum (1655) expressed admiration for the architecture of some of the ruined ecclesiastical buildings that dotted the landscape. John Aubrey’s (1626-97) manuscript “Chronologica Architectonica”, on which he worked intermittently for over thirty years from the 1650s to the 1680s, elaborates an early technique for dating medieval buildings through analyzing the shape and decoration of windows (Horsfall Turner 2011). While Aubrey acknowledged the aesthetic qualities of some of the cathedrals he visited, he also shared the dismissive attitude towards Gothic architecture prevalent in his day, describing Gothic architecture as “degenerated” and “fantastic” (qtd. in Horsfall Turner, 179). Contemporaries of Aubrey’s who were engaged in early attempts to classify and periodize medieval architecture included the architect Christopher Wren and the musicologist and biographer Roger North (North 1981; Soo 1998). However, as Rosemary Sweet notes, seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century antiquaries with an interest in the middle ages for the most part concentrated on the study of ancient manuscripts and charters (Sweet 2004, 233). Pioneering medievalist publications from this period, such as Thomas Hearne’s (1678-1735) numerous editions of medieval chronicles dealing with English history and English monarchs and Thomas Madox’s (1666-1727) carefully contextualized edition of medieval charters and his History and Antiquities of the Exchequer of the Kings of England (1711), opened up previously little-known areas of English history and remained influential throughout the eighteenth century.

The SAL’s decision to include a considerable number of plates dealing with medieval architectural remains is of a piece with the slow emergence of more appreciative attitudes to Gothic as an indigenous architectural style over the course of the eighteenth century. The starkly negative tone in which Gothic buildings were still frequently compared to Classical architecture in the first half of the eighteenth century is exemplified in John Evelyn’s (1620-1706) dismissal in An Account of Architects and Architecture (1706):
[T]he Goths, Vandals and other Barbarous Nations, […] [i]ntroduced […] a certain Fantastical and Licentious manner of Building which we have call’d Modern (or Gothic rather) Congestions of Heavy, Dark, Melancholy and Monkish Piles, without any just Proportion, Use or Beauty, compar’d with the truly Antient[.] (Evelyn 1723, 9)
Members and affiliates of the SAL, such as Charles Lyttelton (1714-68), Smart Lethieullier (1701-60), Thomas Warton (1728-90), Richard Gough (1735-1809), and John Carter (draughtsman to the SAL 1778-95), played a major role in ushering in more favorable perspectives on medieval architecture. However, it is important to note that their work unfolded within a wider cultural landscape that was becoming more hospitable to intellectual and aesthetic projects that reclaimed different versions of the nation’s Gothic past. Among the best known of these endeavors are the publications and building projects of Horace Walpole and his circle (McCarthy 1987; Townshend 2019, 59-72; Reeve 2021). Significant steps towards the systematic study of medieval architecture were made by Thomas Gray, who carried out extensive research into Gothic sepulchral monuments and medieval cathedrals in the 1750s, although his findings were only circulated in manuscript (Roberts 1993). The architectural writer Batty Langley, who was ignored by Walpole and Gray despite the fact that he shared their antiquarian interests, helped to birth Gothic Revival architecture and influenced later architects such as William Pain and T. C. Overton when he published his pioneering treatise Ancient Architecture, Restored, and Improved (1741-42), which appeared in 1747 in a new edition under the title Gothic Architecture, Improved by Rules and Proportions (Lindfield 2014). Meanwhile, literary antiquaries like Warton and Richard Hurd gave attention to native literary “Gothic” traditions and explored medieval prose romances as a rich mine of clues to the manners, customs, and values dominant during the medieval and early modern period. They presented these insights to a wider readership in publications such as Hurd’s Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762) and Warton’s Observations on the Fairy Queen of Spenser (1754), two works which also made an eloquent case for reevaluating Gothic architecture on its own terms rather than faulting this style for non-adherence to Classical rules of design (Levine 1987, 190-213).

Over the course of the eighteenth century, print series and illustrated antiquarian works circulated a growing corpus of renditions of medieval architecture to increasingly diverse audiences. Long before the aesthetic of the picturesque came to be associated with Gilpin’s penchant for ivy-infested medieval ruins, the brothers Samuel and Nathaniel Buck published their influential plate series Collection of Engravings of Castles, and Abbeys in England (1726-42). Many plates produced by the Buck brothers foregrounded the aesthetic qualities (rather than architectural details) of ruined castles and ecclesiastical buildings, which they often portrayed from a distance, located in vividly realized landscapes, and overgrown with weeds. The Buck brothers were well-acquainted with members of the SAL. Drawings of the ruined Fountains Abbey, prepared by either Nathaniel or Samuel Buck, were engraved by George Vertue for Vetusta Monumenta in 1723 (1.9-1.12). The last third of the century saw the emergence of a burgeoning market in cheap, illustrated and often serialized antiquarian compendia of “picturesque” antiquities. These publishing ventures – for instance Francis Grose’s sixty-part series The Antiquities of England and Wales (1772-76) and Thomas Hearne and Thomas Byrne’s Antiquities of Great Britain (1775-86, reissued from 1807 onwards) – gave much room to attractive views of monastic and feudal ruins, which they supplemented with accessible letterpress commentary geared towards a non-specialist readership.

The plates that Fenn included in this class of antiquities open a window onto the activities and interests pursued by early champions of Gothic architectural history among the members of the SAL. Lethieullier, Lyttelton, and Jeremiah Milles (1714-84, president of the SAL 1769-84) were among the first generation of fellows with a keen interest in medieval architecture. It was on Lethieullier’s initiative that a set of eight engravings based on sixteenth-century drawings of castles under the jurisdiction of the Duchy of Lancaster was produced by Vertue between 1732 and 1735 (1.39, 1.40, 1.41, 1.42, 1.44, 1.46, 2.11 and 2.13). Lethieullier discovered these drawings while examining the records of the Duchy’s office. Some of these castles – including Pontefract, Lancaster, and Sandal, were associated with important events in England’s monarchical history. All of them had served as royalist strongholds during the Civil War and had been partly or entirely demolished after they fell to the parliamentarian forces. As a consequence, the Elizabethan drawings, originally commissioned as part of a 1560s survey of the Duchy’s properties and assets, furnished invaluable information on the style and design of these vanished castles, even if the perspectival oddities of the originals at times made it difficult to ascertain some architectural details.

Vertue embedded the castles in rolling landscapes, adding vegetation, cloudy skies, and staffage. In doing so, he followed the conventions of contemporary topographical engravings, which also inform the aesthetic of Vertue’s earlier architectural plates for Vetusta Monumenta, including the plates depicting Colchester Castle (1.35-36), the only castle published in the series prior to the Duchy set. Unlike the duchy castles, Colchester Castle was shown in its then-current state of ruination, just like the castles in the prints of the Buck brothers. By contrast, the duchy set combines the style of the Elizabethan source material (including the defective perspective of the original drawings) with the aesthetic conventions of early eighteenth-century topographical prints, sometimes to incongruous effect. These plates point to two very different ways in which engravings mediated antiquarian investments in medieval architecture. On the one hand, Vertue’s insertion of the castles into attractive and vividly realized landscapes appealed to the accepted aesthetic taste of this period, boosting the favor which antiquarian subjects might find with a broader public, including medieval architecture which was still widely reviled as “primitive” and “barbaric”. On the other hand, both the SAL’s decision to engrave these drawings and Vertue’s careful attention to the castles’ architectural idiosyncrasies attest to their value as archaeological record at a time when the historical development of Gothic architecture was still largely unknown. Indeed, Lethieullier and Lyttelton were among the early Gothic enthusiasts who were hoping to identify the rules and historical evolution of medieval architecture (Smiles 2004). Among other Gothic antiquities, Lethieullier used Tutbury Castle – the first castle of the set to be engraved – in order to sketch out a potential method for the comparative study and dating of Gothic architecture (see 1.39).

The SAL continued to commission engravings of earlier paintings and drawings when, beginning in 1750, they discussed the production of a plate set featuring Tudor palaces, some of which had been demolished in the seventeenth century. The palaces of Richmond Court and Nonsuch (2.23-24), Hampton Court (2.27), Placentia (2.25) were all engraved for Vetusta Monumenta from pre-existing pictorial renditions. Engravings of New Hall, also known as the palace of Beaulieu (2.41-42), and Savoy Hospital (2.5, 2.12 and 2.14) were based on contemporary drawings of the surviving buildings by Vertue. As was usual at the time, members of the SAL used the term ‘Gothic’ capaciously to refer to English cultural and architectural remains dating from the fifth to the sixteenth century. For instance, Richmond Court, built in the early fifteenth century, was praised for its “Gothic Magnificence” in the accompanying letterpress commentary in Vetusta Monumenta. We have already seen that the SAL’s decision to engrave the duchy castles was partly driven by their recognition of the usefulness of the visual record in piecing together a history of vernacular architectural styles. Similar motivations also played a role in the SAL’s interest in the Tudor palaces because taken together, the series delineates some of the changes that the Tudor Palace Style underwent in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Heightened investment in the precise documentation of architectural detail is also evident in the aforementioned plates of Savoy Hospital, for which Vertue was able to complete preparatory drawings in situ. These plates feature not only a perspective view of the Savoy from across the Thames (2.5), but also detailed engravings of the chapel and other buildings (2.12) as well as an annotated ground plan (2.14).

The SAL’s inclusion of the Tudor palaces, as well as the duchy castles, in Vetusta Monumenta also indicates that the elite history and fortunes of the English monarchy provided an important framework that oriented the society’s vision of the collective national past. Given that the SAL only received its royal charter in 1751, its members might also have viewed the Tudor palace series as a fitting means of flagging the society’s public mission. Other plates that formed part of Fenn’s category III were also associated with English monarchs: the gatehouses of Whitehall and King Street (1.17-19) were built for Henry VIII and part of the architectural ensemble of Whitehall Palace; Waltham Cross, engraved twice after drawings by William Stukeley (1.7) and Jacob Schnebbelie (3.16), was one of the twelve monuments that Edward I ordered to be built to commemorate Queen Eleanor in the late thirteenth century. Four market crosses (1.61, 1.64, 2.8 and 2.10) are the only medieval monuments included in Fenn’s class III that served as records of urban and commercial life rather than as material manifestations of monarchical legacies.

Despite the considerable efforts of later medievalists among the SAL, most notably Gough, a comprehensive, systematic history of Gothic architecture failed to materialize over the course of the eighteenth century. With a note of frustration, Gough wrote in Anecdotes of British Topography (1780):
One cannot regret the little regard hitherto paid to Gothic Architecture, of which so many beautiful models are daily crumbling to pieces before our eyes. England can boast specimens of all its stages from the simplest to the most improved. […] Had the remains of ancient buildings been more attended to, we should before now have seen a system of Gothic architecture in its various æreas: we should have had all its parts reduced to rules; their variations and their dates fixed together. (xxiii)
As Director of the SAL, Gough encouraged and collaborated with antiquaries and draughtsmen who shared his belief that a “system of Gothic architecture” could only be founded on the accurate, detailed visual record of the surviving architectural and sculptural features of medieval buildings. The architect and medievalist James Essex (1722-84), whose election to the SAL Gough had sponsored in 1772, spent many years researching his projected “History of Gothic Architecture”. While this manuscript was never published, Essex’s papers on related subjects were read during meetings of the SAL and published in Archaeologia (Cocke 2004). Gough worked closely with Schnebbelie (1760-92) and John Carter: both men produced drawings for Vetusta Monumenta as well as for Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments of Great Britain (1786-99), which set new standards in the precise recording of architectural and sculptural detail (Heringman 2013, 231-80; Reeve 2007; Nurse 2011). Fenn’s category III features plates based on drawings by Schnebbelie (3.16) and Carter (2.39-40, 3.25 and 3.40-44). Carter’s careful documentation of the remains of the ruined Hedington Castle exemplifies his style of work, which Matthew Reeve describes as “the first truly scientific and analytic approach to the study of medieval monuments” (Reeve 2007, 80). As plates 3.40-44 show, Carter supplemented perspective views with carefully measured ground plans, section views, and images of details relating to the design of columns, apertures, loopholes and windows (3.40-44). Carter was also a major contributor to the SAL’s Cathedrals series which marked a major leap in medievalist attempts to invest Gothic architectural and sculptural remains with the archaeological importance that previously had been reserved for Classical antiquity (Mordaunt Crook 2004).

Both Carter’s fraught relationship with the SAL and his substantial journalistic work on Gothic architecture for Gentleman’s Magazine illustrate wider trends in cultural attitudes to Gothic antiquities at the turn of the nineteenth century. Carter and Gough were at the center of an acrimonious debate among the members of the SAL about the status of historically inaccurate restorations and “improvements” to Gothic monuments. Gough and Carter resigned when the fashionable architect James Wyatt, responsible for the historically inauthentic restorations at the cathedrals of Durham and Salisbury, was made a fellow in 1797. As Noah Heringman notes, the clash between Carter and Wyatt is symptomatic not only for the conflicting agendas – such as scrupulous adherence to the historical record versus appreciation of the more fashionable neoclassical taste of the day – that were rubbing up against each other in the institutional context of the SAL. Carter’s retreat and Wyatt’s triumph also amount to the “symbolic displacement of the [autodidact] knowledge worker by the gentlemanly professional.” (Heringman 2013, 232).

Carter continued his crusade for the preservation and recognition of Gothic antiquities in the pages of Gentleman’s Magazine, to which he contributed circa 380 articles between 1797 and 1817 (Townshend 2014; Frew 1982). These pieces surveyed existing Gothic antiquities but they also discussed cultural representations of the nation’s Gothic past, such as the stage sets and costumes used in theatre productions that were set in the medieval period. Carter’s journalism contributed to the popularization of antiquarian approaches to the Gothic past: his writings educated general readers about medieval architecture, called on the public as “protectors of National Antiquities” to ensure that “improving” architects were checked (Carter 1802, 300), and intervened in debates about cultural reimaginings of the nation’s medieval past in the wider cultural domain.

Works Cited:

An Architect [John Carter]. 1802. “The Pursuits of Architectural Innovation, No. XLVII.” Gentleman’s Magazine 72: 300-303.

Cocke, T. H. 2004. “Essex, James (bap. 1722, d. 1784), architect and antiquary.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Crook, J. Mordaunt. 2004. “Carter, John (1745-1817), draughtsman and antiquary.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Evelyn, John. 1723. An Account of Architects and Architecture, Together, with an Historical, Etymological Explanation of Certain Terms. London.

Frew, J. M. 1982. “Gothic is English: John Carter and the Revival of the Gothic as England’s National Style.” The Art Bulletin 64, no.2: 315-19.

Heringman, Noah. 2013. Sciences of Antiquity: Romantic Antiquarianism, Natural History, and Knowledge Work. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Horsfall Turner, Olivia. 2011. “‘The Windows of this Church are of several Fashions’: Architectural Form and Historical Method in John Aubrey’s ‘Chronologica Architectonica.’ Architectural History 54: 171-93.

Levine, Joseph M. 1987. Humanism and History: Origins of Modern English Historiography. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Lindfield, Peter. 2014. “Serious Gothic and ‘doing the Ancient Buildings’: Batty Langley’s Ancient Architecture and ‘Principal Geometric Elevations.’” Architectural History 57: 141-73

North, Roger. 1991. Of Building: Roger North’s Writings on Architecture. Eds. Colvin, Howard M. and John Newman. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Nurse, Bernard. 2011. “John Carter, FSA (1748-1817): ‘The Ingenious, and Very Accurate Draughtsman.’” Antiquaries Journal 91: 211-52.

Reeve, Matthew M. 2021. Gothic Architecture and Sexuality in the Circle of Horace Walpole. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press.

----- 2007. “Schnebbelie, Draughtsman to the Society of Antiquaries (1760-92), and the Politics of Preservation in Late Eighteenth-Century England.” Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society 51: 69-86.

Smiles, Sam. 2004. “Data, Documentation and Display in Eighteenth-Century Investigations of Exeter Cathedral.” Art History 25, no. 4: 500-19.

Soo, Lydia M. 1998. Wren’s ‘Tracts’ on Architecture and Other Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sweet, Rosemary. 2004. Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain. London: Hambledon.

Townshend, Dale. ‘Architecture and the Romance of Gothic Remains: John Carter and the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1797-1817’, The Gothic and the Everyday: Living Gothic, ed. Lorna Piatti-Farnell and Maria Beville. London: Routledge: 2014. 173-94.

----- 2019. Gothic Antiquity: History, Romance, and the Architectural Imagination, 1760-1840. Oxford: Oxford University Press.