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Katherine Wheeler, Victorian Perceptions of Renaissance Architecture

Farnham, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2014, 206 p., ISBN :978-1-4724-1882-1
Richard W. Hayes
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Katherine Wheeler, Victorian Perceptions of Renaissance Architecture, Farnham, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2014, 206 p., ISBN 978-1-4724-1882-1

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architecture, Renaissance
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1When most of us think of Victorian architecture it is most likely the pointed arches, polychrome brickwork, and traceried windows of the Gothic Revival that come to mind. A. W. N. Pugin and John Ruskin wrote books that became touchstones for the best and brightest designers in Britain for over thirty years. The Gothic Revival would go on to influence modernism, particularly through its social concern and commitment to craft and constructional probity. Katherine Wheeler proposes to complicate this understanding in her recent book, Victorian Perceptions of Renaissance Architecture, by showing how the gothic was occluded by a revived interest in the classical architecture of the Renaissance.

2Wheeler’s own perception of the Victorian era is a capacious one, extending well beyond the Edwardians into the second decade of the twentieth century. It is also, primarily, a textual one. She structures her argument by discussing six significant books in the course of five chapters. Chapter One introduces the themes to be considered by a critical view of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, published from 1851 to 1853. Chapter Two examines Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance of 1873 and John Addington Symonds’s Renaissance in Italy, published in seven volumes during the years 1875–1888. This is followed by an analysis of architect William J. Anderson’s The Architecture of the Renaissance in Italy of 1896, the first narrative history in English devoted solely to Renaissance architecture. Another book written by an architect follows: Reginald Blomfield’s A History of Renaissance Architecture in England, 1500–1800 (1897). Wheeler brings her argument to a conclusion through an extended discussion of Geoffrey Scott’s The Architecture of Humanism, published in 1914. These chapters limn an arc in which British architectural culture of the nineteenth century maintained its historicism but gradually shifted its allegiance from the gothic to the classical. The book’s final image is a photograph of Sir Edwin Lutyens’s British School in Rome, completed in 1915, a structure that both exemplifies Scott’s theories and demonstrates the return of Renaissance Rome as a wellspring of influence.

3In counterpoint to the primary analyses of the selected texts is a secondary discussion of changes in the architectural field itself throughout the later years of the nineteenth century. Wheeler presents a wealth of information on the rise of architecture as a profession, the changing definitions of the term ‘architect’, the shift from apprenticeship to formal education, and the adoption of standards, including examinations, for credentials. These are also ‘perceptions’, in this case mediated by the public at large, by rival groups within the building industry, by practitioners themselves, as individuals, and, as a group, once assembled into collective bodies such as the Royal Institute of British Architects, founded in 1834. Each chapter toggles between textual analysis and a consideration of these larger societal currents. In so doing, Wheeler crafts a richly detailed narrative. Whereas her discussions of the major texts tend to diligent summaries, the original archival material she has marshalled makes for a compelling history. In Wheeler’s view, as British architects redefined themselves as members of a modern, autonomous profession, issues of status and social anxiety came to the fore. This contributed to a desire on the part of practitioners to dissociate themselves from manual labourers and to see themselves as independent professionals. Consequently, Ruskin’s affectionate and reverent tribute to ‘the rough strength’ and ‘uncouth animation’ of the labourer on the building site seemed less attractive than aligning oneself with such scholarly-minded creative agents as Renaissance architects Filippo Brunelleschi and Baldassare Peruzzi.

  • 1 Gavin Stamp, ‘High Victorian Gothic and the Architecture of Normandy’, Journal of the Society of Ar (...)

4Wheeler’s interpretation here may underestimate, however, the extent to which the Gothic Revival was attractive to architects precisely because of the scholarship required to design in a gothic vein. It was an image of a medieval scholar-architect, after all, that Pugin placed on the title page of his 1841 True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture. Additionally, French gothicist Viollet-le-Duc offered a much-admired example of how to combine scholarship and intellectual labour with practice. The sketching tours of Normandy which numerous High Victorian architects undertook were conducted under the sign of design as scholarly research.1

5Wheeler’s chapter on William Anderson, a relatively obscure Scottish architect who died young, highlights the theme of the scholar-architect in a classical context. Anderson was a practitioner and educator who became director of the Glasgow School of Art in 1894. He had travelled in Italy after being awarded the first Alexander Thomson Travelling Studentship in 1887. During his travels, he was particularly attracted to Peruzzi’s designs, such as the Palazzo Massimi in Rome, measured drawings of which he published. Wheeler makes the important point that Anderson’s 1896 The Architecture of the Renaissance in Italy could only have been written in Scotland of that era. For, as Wheeler notes,

‘Scotland had not fully vilified the classical tradition, nor were its architects as steeped in the Gothic Revival as were those in London  . . . Anderson’s early receipt of the Alexander Thomson travelling scholarship, specifically for the study of classical architecture, only reinforced his classical tastes. In addition, much of the civic and commercial architecture in Glasgow built in Anderson’s formative years was classical in inspiration. More architects from Scotland than England studied at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris’ (94).

6Anderson’s advancement of the virtues of Renaissance architecture against specious condemnations originated in his own experiences and his specific milieu. As if anticipating Scott’s later critique of ‘the ethical fallacy’, Anderson wrote, ‘It is time to be rational, and to leave off such characterization of Renaissance architecture as a plague or a pestilence, a sham or a scenic affectation’ (78). Wheeler’s engaging discussion of Anderson both solidifies the thesis of her volume and brings to light a little-known figure worthy of study. It is the book’s best chapter since it exemplifies her major themes in a succinct and precise way.

  • 2 E. W. Godwin, ‘Friends in Council: No. 40, A Retrospect’, British Architect and Northern Engineer 1 (...)
  • 3 Aileen Reid, ‘“Theoria” in Practice: E. W. Godwin, Ruskin, and Art-Architecture’ in Rebecca Daniels (...)

7The chapter on the Aesthetic Movement, entitled ‘Embracing Decadence’, is less persuasive. In keeping with her narrative structure of moving from text to the profession, Wheeler’s treatment of Walter Pater implies that his writings led to a changed episteme that would eventually trickle down into architectural culture. To this end, Wheeler points out that the second edition of The Renaissance was reviewed in one architectural periodical, The Builder. Beyond this single review, however, little evidence is presented that the elaborately literary work of a diffident Oxford don exerted noticeable effect upon the profession. Pater’s idiosyncratic, impressionistic treatment of his subjects could in fact be said to thwart transitive effect. Architect E. W. Godwin, one of the leaders of the Aesthetic Movement, arrived at his working principle of ‘judicious eclecticism’ without reference to Pater.2 And as Aileen Reid has pointed out, Ruskin’s influence remained paramount on Godwin even at the height of the Aesthetic Movement.3 Architect Basil Champneys, a friend of Pater’s, might have been referenced to strengthen the chapter. Wheeler is clearly aware of the danger in overstating Pater’s impact and concludes her chapter on a prudent note by observing, ‘Pater paved the way to a new interpretation of the Renaissance as a state of mind rather than merely a style’ (64).

8These few reservations aside, Victorian Perceptions of Renaissance Architecture is a clearly written, well-constructed, and carefully researched book, enriched by its choice selection of illustrations, and convincing in its main conclusions. It merits a wide audience.

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1 Gavin Stamp, ‘High Victorian Gothic and the Architecture of Normandy’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 62 (June 2003), pp. 194-211.

2 E. W. Godwin, ‘Friends in Council: No. 40, A Retrospect’, British Architect and Northern Engineer 16 (30 December 1881), p. 655.

3 Aileen Reid, ‘“Theoria” in Practice: E. W. Godwin, Ruskin, and Art-Architecture’ in Rebecca Daniels & Geoff Brandwood (eds.), Ruskin & Architecture, Reading, Spire Books Ltd., 2003, pp. 277-317.

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Richard W. Hayes, « Katherine Wheeler, Victorian Perceptions of Renaissance Architecture », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 81 Printemps | 2015, mis en ligne le 06 septembre 2015, consulté le 22 novembre 2019. URL :

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Richard W. Hayes

Independent scholar, New York

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