Creating Space and Collection Display in British Gothic Revival Houses (1740–1860)

In a house affecting not only obsolete architecture, but pretending to an observance of the costume even in the furniture, the mixture of modern portraits, and French porcelaine, and Greek and Roman sculpture, may seem heterogeneous. In truth, I did not mean to make my house so Gothic as to exclude convenience, and modern refinements in luxury . . . Would our ancestors, before the reformation of architecture, not have deposited in their gloomy castles antique statues and fine pictures, beautiful vases and ornamental china, if they had possessed them?1

A farther view succeeded; that of exhibiting specimens of Gothic architecture, as collected from standards in cathedrals and chapel-tombs, and showing how they may be applied to chimney pieces, cielings [sic], windows, ballustrades, loggias, &c. The general disuse of Gothic architecture, and the decay and alterations so frequently made in churches, give prints a chance of being the sole preservatives of that style.2

With these lines from his Description of the Villa in Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole, famous writer and collector of the eighteenth century, reflected upon his pioneering house project between the 1750s and the 1780s and addressed essential issues concerning Gothic revival architecture, the furnishing of space, and collection display. His account sheds light on discourses about antiquarian accuracy, the authenticity of medieval architecture, and its adaptation to contemporary buildings and refurbishments, including the choice of models, the media of transfer, and materiality. The questions of appropriateness, decorum, and taste and the conflict between creative liberty and classical normative rules are reflected in the stylistic cross-over: the mixing of antique and modern furniture, ancient objects and chinoiserie, all embedded within a Gothic framework.

With the term ‘costume’, Walpole gives us an insight into his conception of space and interior design, indicating his belief that furnishings should be adaptable, and referential, capable of moulding a certain character. These qualities were intended to animate the space and so to provide intellectual and emotional stimulation, as Walpole relates in his correspondence: ‘I pass all my mornings in the thirteenth century, and my evenings with the century that is coming on.’3

At Strawberry Hill (built in the 1750s–1780s), Horace Walpole set new standards of Gothic revival architecture and interior display, particularly in evoking and re-enacting the medieval past. In his ‘castle’ or ‘abbey’, Walpole combined heraldry with family portraiture to imply ancient lineage and the holding of a venerable family seat, linking these with royal and national history. Heraldic motifs and family mottos became an indispensable element in Gothic revival houses, used either to reinforce or to fabricate an important family history and position.

Walpole also led the way with his antiquarian pursuits, modelling his interior on features from great ecclesiastical prototypes: the venerable tombs of kings and saints in old St Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral, and York Minster. In particular, the fan vaults in Strawberry Hill’s gallery, a copy of the side aisle of the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey, became one of the dominant features in Gothic revival houses, ennobling state rooms such as (entrance) halls, dining rooms, and long galleries. Walpole’s recreation of medieval space was pioneering in that he introduced cloisters and an armoury, which, in conjunction with the staircase, recall Gothic baronial halls and often formed the climax of other Gothic revival interiors. These types of spaces (halls and open galleries), the historicization of architecture, and the design of period rooms that interwove furniture, architectural elements, and artefacts for a journey into history, anticipated key features of purpose-made museum space.

Walpole’s use of aesthetic effects—shifts of light and shade, an air of solemnity and ‘gloomth’ (to borrow Walpole’s own term), which provided sensory stimulation to enhance the experience of the designed space and the objects in it—became prevalent in modern displays of art and historical artefacts. However, Walpole’s way of adapting medieval models as a pastiche on a diminutive scale and the use of ahistorical materials (plaster and papier-mâché) differs from the historicist approach of the nineteenth century, which sought to achieve a more comprehensive and authentic recreation of medieval space. Strawberry Hill rather represents a theatrical space which brought antiquarian knowledge to life through an evocative illusionism, and not by shunning the discontinuities and contradictions within the overall composition of the interior.

Dining room at Arbury Hall in the early twentieth century. Photograph in the public domain, printed in Country Life 33 (13 Sep 1913), p. 359.

Studying architectural space and collection display as related phenomena raises the question of how coexisting but seemingly divergent historical narratives and aesthetic norms can be interpreted. One of the most striking examples of visual divergence between architectural setting and displayed objects can be found in the dining room of Arbury Hall (c.1774). Here, Roger Newdigate, 5th Baronet of Harefield, an attested connoisseur of ancient art and expert in ancient history, presented his Grand Tour purchases: plaster casts of the ancient sculptures of the Medici collection, enshrined in canopied niches and Gothic plaster frames. Mounted high up on the walls, these casts were reinterpreted as representations of medieval saints, and at the same time the elaborate, delicate niches were treated as of equal value to the statues.

What we see here is a form of cultural appropriation in which medieval architecture was assigned the role of keeper of and successor to ancient heritage. This was most prominently represented in the Gothic architecture of educational institutions—first monasteries, and later university colleges. Similar ideas were at play when ancient sculptures were placed in newly built Gothic cloisters enclosed within country houses, as was done in Wilton House, designed by James Wyatt (1801–2), and Lowther Castle (Robert Smirke, 1806–14). At this point the cloister as a state room began to compete with the long gallery as the designated space for displaying sculptures.

During my research it also became clear that the mixture of classical and Gothic ornaments and structures in Gothic revival buildings was not just a phenomenon of the early eighteenth century, but rather continued into the first quarter of the nineteenth century for diverse reasons and purposes. In Great Britain, from the beginning of the eighteenth century, Gothic and classical were both styles which conveyed important information about education, status, identity, and political orientation. Harmonizing both styles and creating hybrid designs often followed the wish to blend British traditions and the canon of classical aesthetic models with modern tastes and comforts. As a consequence, it is necessary to take a much closer look at the dynamic between Gothic and classical revival styles and their fruitful stimulation and fusion. In the case of Alnwick Castle, Robert Adam’s fashionable designs, which featured Gothic and neoclassical elements, updated the medieval ruin and produced an interior that linked the old dwelling of the Duke of Northumberland’s honourable ancestors with the prestige and rank of a modern residence.

The recesses on the window side of the saloon at Alnwick Castle, nineteenth century, lithograph. Artwork in the public domain.

These and other research findings were obtained by studying the extensive material on country house interiors in several local archives and private collections during my two-month scholarship at the GHIL. I travelled up and down Great Britain, from Georgian seaside towns to the royal residences in Scotland. Often a logistical challenge but likewise rich in findings were my visits to the private archives of various country houses situated in the remote countryside, such as Eastnor Castle, Raby Castle, Belvoir Castle, and Alnwick Castle. I spent many days in the small study room of the Warwickshire County Record Office with its seemingly inexhaustible material on Arbury Hall. In Oxford, at the Bodleian Library, I consulted letters from the eccentric William Beckford on his famous house Fonthill Abbey; plans and designs for the Museum of Natural History at the latter’s archive; and a variety of neo-Gothic designs for Magdalen, Worcester, and University Colleges. I was a regular guest in the RIBA Architecture Study Room, the Prints and Drawings Study Room, and the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where I viewed the exceptional collections of architectural drawings, designs, and diaries by the leading architects of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A particularly memorable experience was my visit to the parliamentary archives, where I saw A. W. N. Pugin’s elaborate designs, as well as original refurbished spaces that are usually only accessible to MPs and parliamentary staff.

Using Strawberry Hill as a starting point for my postdoctoral project, I will study a wide range of Gothic revival domestic interiors, including designs, architectural drawings, historical views and descriptions, essays on art theory, and aesthetic and personal testimonials from letters, journals, diaries, and other descriptive works. In the process, I will pursue an interdisciplinary and multi-perspective approach in the fields of art and architectural history as well as museum studies, including theories of space and the methodological cluster of exhibition analysis.4 With this approach, I aim to uncover neo-Gothic concepts of space, the historiographic adaptation of medieval architecture, the diversity of Gothic and neoclassical designs, and their role as political and social signifiers. My project will analyse Gothic revival as an architectural framework for collection display for the first time, in order to understand the development of specific modes of presentation in the context of collection-related domestic architecture and the evolution of the modern collection space. My research aims to extend the understanding of the complex relations between space, interior, and collections within a Gothic revival setting. In the process, it will show how Gothic revival architecture and furnishing controls the display and perception of collections. Ultimately, the study seeks to shed light on the cultural significance of the creation of spaces which facilitated the perception and transfer of knowledge through collection items.


The featured image shows the armoury and staircase at Strawberry Hill after restoration. Photograph by Tony Hisgett via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under a CC BY 2.0 licence.



Cite this blog post
Daniela Roberts (2023, May 16). Creating Space and Collection Display in British Gothic Revival Houses (1740–1860). German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/p1r7

  1. Horace Walpole, A Description of the Villa of Horace Walpole […] Middlesex (Strawberry Hill, 1784), p. iii–iv. []
  2. Ibid. p. i. []
  3. Horace Walpole to John Chute, 1 Feb. 1759, in W. S. Lewis (ed.), The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, 48 vols. (New Haven, 1937–83), xxxv. 106. []
  4. Semiotics and symbolism: Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (London, 1976); Bill Hillier & Julienne Hanson, The Social Logic of Space (Cambridge, 1984). Performance theory: Marvin A. Carlson, Performance: A Critical Introduction (New York/London, 2004); Sally Banes & Andre Lepecki (eds.), The Senses in Performance (New York/London, 2007). Social aesthetics: Roberts A. Nisbet, Sociology as an Art Form (New York/London, 2017); Janet Wolff, The Social Production of Art (London, 1981); Wendy Griswold, Cultures and Societies in a Changing World (Los Angeles, 2012). Material cultures: George W. Stocking (ed.), Objects and Others: Essays on Museum and Material Culture (Madison [Wis.], 1985); Fred Myers (ed.), The Empire of Things: Regimes of Value and Material Culture (Santa Fe, 2001). Actor Network Theory: Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford, 1998); Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford, 2005). Social Systems Theory: Niklas Luhmann, Art as a Social System (Stanford, 2000). []

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Daniela Roberts

She is a research assistant at the Institute for Art History at Würzburg University, where she works on (music) iconography and emblems of the Renaissance, printmaking of the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, and the history of European landscape gardens and architecture/space concepts in England from 1750–1900. She also engages in cross-temporal studies of European frames and framing designs, particularly in a museum context.

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