Gothic Revival

Uncle Tom's Cabin
(J.H. Sears and Company, 1923)


Gothic was the major European style from about the 12th to the 15th century. This was the era of cathedrals like Notre Dame, Reims and Canterbury with their soaring vaulted ceilings, flying buttresses and beautiful stained glass. This architectural and decorative movement declined during the Renaissance era, but there were periodic renewals and revivals off and on in the centuries that followed. It was in the mid 18th to late 19th century that Gothic art received the greatest surge of attention in a more formal Gothic Revival. This revival made its strongest impact on architecture but also influenced decorative arts like bookbinding.

On a popular level, many people idealized the medieval period as a particularly spiritual and chivalrous era. During the 19th century, there was much discussion about the most morally and nationally appropriate style for contemporary buildings, particularly public ones such as churches and government structures. There were two main camps in this debate: the neoclassicists and the Gothic revivalists. The classical supporters thought their style represented mathematical and aesthetic perfection and the intellectual sophistication of the Greek philosophers, unlike the Dark Ages art of the Gothicists. On the other hand, Gothic revivalists argued that their style had its roots in Christianity and European history and was therefore a better style for religious and government buildings, in contrast to the pagan Greek art.

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Biblia Fr. Dette, 1877

There were several writers who advocated for the Gothic style and provided resources for designers. One of the earliest was Horace Walpole, an aristocratic connoisseur and collector who renovated his London home Strawberry Hill in Gothic Revival style in the mid-18th century. Eugene Emanual Viollet-le-Duc was the French advocate for the style in the 19th century. John Ruskin, one of the most important voices in 19th century art history, was also an ardent Gothicist for a period of time.

Probably the most vocal supporter of the style was Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. A British architect and writer, he published several books on the subject; the most well known is The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841). He argued that Gothic architecture was "the only correct expression of the faith, wants, styles and climate of our country." He designed a number of Gothic churches, though financial limitations usually prevented him from completely elaborating on his ideals.

His writings influenced many others, including American Richard Upjohn, who modeled Trinity Church of New York on Pugin's drawings in True Principles. Though most government buildings in the United States were designed in the neoclassical style, many churches in the 19th century were neo-Gothic because of its associations with Christian spirituality. Other well-known Gothic revival buildings are the British Parliament at Westminster and the Hungarian House of Parliament in Budapest.

The Role Call of Westminster Abbey
(The Macmillan Company, 1902)

Many bindings also incorporated gothic features, particularly for books with religious subject matter. The elements were primarily architectural in origin: stamping based on pointed arches, window tracery, crocket detailed lancets, quatrefoils and trefoils. A popular style in the 1830s and 40s for leather bound religious works was to emboss a picture of the entire facade of a gothic church on the cover (see From Gothic Windows to Peacocks for examples). Less elaborate versions were stamped like various types of cathedral windows, and this appeared more often in cloth bindings. Just as Gothic style building projects continued into the 20th century, so too did cover designers continue to incorporate these features, particularly for books that looked back to the age of the Gothic cathedral.

Autobiography of Peter Cartwright, The Backwoods Preacher
(Carlton and Porter, 1857)




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Wolf, Edwin. From Gothic Windows to Peacocks - American Embossed Leather Bindings 1825-1855. Philadelphia, Pa.: The Library Company of Philadelphia, 1990.


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