Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A journey into the Gothic Revival

I have been waiting to visit Strawberry Hill and to see the Gothic influence ever since I learned about it during my sophomore year of high school.

Horace Walpole was born Horatio Walpole, the 4th Earl of Orford on September 24th 1717. He is partially responsible for the revival of gothic architecture that dominated Europe in the previous centuries. Horace Walpole was the first author to pen a text in what became known as the gothic style. His name is synonymous with Gothic literature thanks to his greatest work The Castle of Otranto. The Castle of Otranto laid the foundation of what the Gothic style should be for other authors that would follow. This would include famous authors such as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. It was Walpole’s home “Strawberry Hill” which provided him with the inspiration to write his first Gothic novel. “One night Walpole awoke from a dream and imagined he saw a giant armoured fist on the staircase and it was this that inspired the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto.” Horace Walpole was also an art historian, a politician, and an architect. His greatest creation in my opinion was the house that he had built in the old Gothic style, which he named Strawberry Hill.

Walpole constructed Strawberry Hill in several stages throughout his lifetime. Walpole did not have a finished design for his property and instead decided to add to the building as he saw fit. This would make construction for all involved an absolute nightmare, but allowed Walpole to make his dream a reality. It all began in 1747 when Walpole leased a five-acre plot of land in Twickenham, London. In 1748 Walpole purchased the house, which had originally been named “Chopped Straw Hill”. He had purchased the home with the intent of constructing a family castle. Walpole eventually expanded his land to a sum of forty-six acres. Walpole’s friend and amateur architect, John Chute, was trusted with developing the design of the exterior of the home. The exterior of the house featured a style that mixed Gothic designs with the castles of the day. This meant that the home would feature turrets and battlements while also containing arched windows with stained glass, similar to the cathedrals of the original Gothic Age. The interior of the home gained most of its character from Walpole’s extensive collection of antiquarian objects. This would include beautiful pieces of art, artifacts, and objects used for the construction of the house such as Robert Adam’s fireplace. The construction process of Strawberry Hill wasn’t smooth sailing to say the least.

It is a nightmare for anyone tasked with constructing a building to have to build the building in stages. Typically there is a complete blueprint, which allows workers to have a simple plan to follow, which allows for quick and easy construction of a building. While Walpole did have sketches and an overall idea of what he hoped to turn his home into, he did not have an actual blueprint thus complicating the entire construction process. By the end of the first stage of construction Walpole was well on his way to having completed “His little Gothic castle”.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Elgin Marbles


It's fun when our trips from different years and different countries begin to intersect.  Like when we visited Pergamon in Turkey one year, and more recently, Berlin, where a good chunk of the Pergamon artifacts had been set up on their museum island. Or when we visited the Tomb of Columbus in Seville, but found out that at least some part (parts?) of him still rest in the Dominican Republic. (Alas, I haven't been able to get there yet!)

 A few years ago, CC visited Athens, and of course, in Athens, climbed up the hill of the Parthenon.

To round out the tour, we also glimpsed the Acropolis Museum at the bottom of the hill, a modern structure with much interesting stuff, and a deliberate hole.  The Greeks are still more than a little eager to get back pieces of the Parthenon that are now in England, at the British Museum.  Specifically, the pieces that came to be called The Elgin Marbles.  No, not the marbles that Opie would play with back in Mayberry.  Rather the marble sculptures that once graced the Parthenon itself, before the centuries and various interested parties took parts home with them.

Here's how a Time magazine article spun it:
The Elgin Marbles receive their name from the British lord who craftily spirited them away from Greece. Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin and ambassador to the Ottoman Empire — occupiers of Greece in the early 19th century — grew to admire the Parthenon's extensive collection of ancient marble sculptures and began extracting and expatriating them to Britain in 1801. Lord Elgin claimed his imprimatur from an Ottoman sultan, who said he could remove anything from the Parthenon that did not interfere with the ancient citadel's walls. Despite objections that Lord Elgin had "ruined Athens" by the time his work was done in 1805, the British Government purchased the marbles from him in 1816. They've been housed at the British Museum ever since.
This isn't exactly a neutral piece, titled as it is, "Top 10 Plundered Artifacts."  A British paper, The Guardian, takes quite the opposite view, in "Parthenon Marbles: Greece's Claim is Nationalist Rhetoric that Deserves to Fail."  The British Museum gives a bit more history, which takes more account of the disregard that the Ottomans and many others had for all this 'pagan debris.'  

I'm not sure whether our frantic schedule on this current tour will let us see the Elgin Marbles (sadly, the one thing in London I actually want to see...), but they certainly play into the course material for our British Romanticism course (ARTS/ENGL).  Benjamin Robert Haydon, a "big picture" painter, become an enthusiastic champion of the Marbles, and introduced them to his friend, John Keats, the poet. 

Keats himself wrote about the Elgin Marbles, as in "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles":
My spirit is too weak—mortality
   Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
   And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
   Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep
   That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
   Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
   That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—
   A sun—a shadow of a magnitude. 
We are also reading Stan Plumly's The Immortal Evening  [see the NYTimes book review] , a book about a strange dinner party at Haydon's place, which included Keats, Wordsworth, and Charles Lamb, to unveil Haydon's current work, "Christ's Entry into Jerusalem."


The book itself is probably too detailed for our students' interest, but it gives a sense of the ordinary associations of these poets and painters and writers, who weren't at all legendary all by themselves in a lonely tower.  It's that London which I'd like to experience, the one that engaged and enlivened the arts, the one with quirky paths and surprising friends.


later, bob

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