[George P. Landow scanned Eastlake's text, converted it to html, and added photographs and other images. The decoraive tailpiece beneath the main text appears at the end of each of Eastlake's chapters.]
For upwards of a quarter of century the Battle of the Styles was carried on, and, if it has ceased at the present day to rage with its old violence, it is probably because the weapons used in that prolonged warfare have become blunted and worn out. Everything that could be said in favour or disparagement of Gothic has been said. Mutual concessions have since been made; old prejudices have disappeared; misunderstandings have been cleared up; but the event which first raised the controversy into national importance was undoubtedly the decision that Gothic should be adopted for the Palace of Westminster.
The first stone of the new building (after the river-wall and foundation had been completed) was laid, without ceremony, on April 27, 1840. [Eastlake's note: "Such is the date given in the 'Life of Sir Charles barry.' But according to the 'Civil Engineers and Architects' Journal' the first stone was laid on March 5, 1839. Possibly this was for some portion of the substructure.] The practical and constructive difficulties which Barry had to encounter at the outset of his work were great, but they sank into insignificance compared with the annoyances to which, in his professional capacity, he was subjected from a variety of causes — some no doubt inseparable from the external management of so great an undertaking, but others that might well have been avoided. These, however, were in time met, and in a great measure dispelled, by the tact and ability which formed part of Barry's character, and which contributed so largely to his success.
From the original design as submitted in competition, several important alterations were made. The Victoria Tower was reduced in the dimensions of its plan, but carried to a far greater height than had at first been intended. The roof of the House of Lords was raised. The Central Hall — in consequence of the conditions proposed by Reid, for a scheme of ventilation (afterwards abandoned) — was lowered. The House of Commons was again and again remodelled in the endeavour to effect a compromise between requirements based in turn upon considerations of convenience, acoustic principles, and architectural effect. The extraordinary increase which, during the progress of the building, occurred in the business of Parliamentary Committees, necessitated considerable modifications. All these facts ought to be remembered in estimating the effect of a design whose execution extended over a far longer period of time than was originally contemplated, and must have been subject to a number of internal influences, of which the public take small account, but which no architect would find it possible to disregard.
Much of the artistic criticism which was passed on Barry's design at first, and during the progress of the building, was undoubtedly just.
The strong tendency to long unbroken horizontal lines in composition, was the natural fault of an architect the bent of whose taste was confessedly in favour of the Italian School. "Tudor details on a classic body!" Pugin is said to have exclaimed to a friend as they passed down the river in a steamboat. And unfortunately the Tudor details were needlessly multiplied. There are general principles of taste which may be safely accepted independently of the question of style, and among these is that one which requires for elaborate ornament proportionate area of blank wall-space. Barry utterly ignored, and possibly disputed, this principle. As the eye wanders over every compartment of every front in this building, it seeks in vain for a quiet resting-place. Panels moulded and cusped — carved work in high and low ||relief — niches statued and canopied — pinnacles bossed and crocketed — spandrelled window-heads — battlemented parapets — fretted turrets, and enriched string-courses — succeed each other with the endless iteration of a recurring decimal. It is hardly too much to say that, if half the decorative features of this building had been omitted, its general effect would have been enhanced in a twofold degree. One of the peculiar failings exhibited by Gothic architects of the day seems to have been the incapacity to regulate the character of design by the scale on which it was to be applied. The extraordinary size of the Victoria Tower required in its general outline and surface decoration a very different treatment from that of the building which lay at its base. In this case, Barry contented himself with magnifying small features into large ones. The result has proved to be that while the tower individually loses in apparent grandeur by reason of its elaborated detail, when seen in connection with the main body of the building, it has the unfortunate effect of dwarfing the proportions of the latter by reason of its own overwhelming bulk.
In spite of these and other defects which critics have not failed to point out (without considering the long lapse of time that ensued between the first conception of Barry's design and the completion of his work), it must be admitted that, taken as a whole, the Palace of Westminster was eminently creditable to its author, and probably equal, if not superior, to any structure which might have been devised and carried out in the same style and under similar conditions by the most skilful of his competitors. Thirty years have made a vast difference in the professional study of Mediaeval Architecture, and in public appreciation of its merits. Qualities of design which were once considered essential to artistic grace are now ignored and even condemned, while the so-called faults which the last generation of architects strove to avoid have risen to the level of confessed excellence.
It is easy to say that if these Houses of Parliament had been begun in 1865 instead of 1835, a nobler type of Gothic would have been adopted in the design. Who knows how far the taste for Mediaeval Art might have been developed at all but for this timely patronage of the State? Is it not rather true that the decision of the Government as to the style of the new buildings gave an impulse to the Revival which could have been created in no other way — an impulse that has kept this country advanced before others; in the earnestness with which ancient types of national Architecture are studied and imitated by professional men? [Eastlake's note: "In the literature of the Gothic Revival we are, however, far behind the French. No work has been produced in England which can compare, in amount of research and usefulness, with Viollet-le-Duc's admirable 'Dictionnaire Raisonnée.']
In the department of Art Manufacture it would be impossible to overrate the influence brought to bear upon decorative sculpture, upon ceramic decoration, ornamental metal-work, and glass staining, by the encouragement given to those arts during the progress of the works at Westminster. In the design of such details Pugin's aid was, at the time, invaluable. It was frankly sought and freely rendered. a Hardman's painted windows and brass fittings, Minton's encaustic tiles, and Grace's mural decoration, bear evidence of his skill and industry. [Eastlake's note: "For the execution of the decorative sculpture, Mr. Thomas (acting of course under the direction of Sir Charles Barry) was alone responsible, and probably at the time no one was better qualified to undertake it."] They may be rivalled and surpassed in design and execution at the present day; but to Pugin, and to the architect who had the good sense to secure his services, we shall ever be indebted for the rapid advance made in these several departments of Art during the first half of the present century.
Nor must we overlook the important step gained in connection with this work by the appointment of a Fine Arts Commission in 1841. To assert that the statues and paintings which now decorate the Houses of Parliament are all that could be desired in point of style or execution, would be very far from the truth. But before they were undertaken, no public encouragement worth mentioning had for some time past been given either to painters or sculptors. They were now associated in the completion of a grand national work. The Pictorial Art Competition, and display of prize cartoons in Westminster Hall, had the effect of bringing under public notice the talents of many an artist who might otherwise have long remained in obscurity. The technical details of fresco painting, which for centuries had been forgotten in this country, received scientific attention; and if the issue has not been altogether satisfactory, it is from no want of pains or extent of research.
If it be argued that these results could have been equally attained by the adoption of any other style of architecture for the Houses of Parliament, the answer is that no other style would have served so well to preserve — at least in aim — the unities of a School of Art. Before the commencement of this work, many public buildings were erected in the pseudo-Greek and revived Italian fashion of the day, but the accessories with which they were invested had by long sufferance been allowed to remain deficient in the character and consonance of design.
The Classic Renaissance, even in its palmy days, had failed to inspire that sort of uniformity which should mark the return to a former style of art. Fashionable portrait-painters who in the seventeenth century had depicted their royal patron as a Roman warrior in a full-bottomed wig, were not more inconsistent than many a contemporary architect, who suffered the most incongruous modernisms to intrude in the interior and fittings of a palace which was professedly classic in taste.
In the Houses of Parliament it was Barry's endeavour to maintain, down to the minutest article of furniture, the proprieties of that style which the voice of the nation had selected for his design. How carefully and thoroughly he did this, the work itself testifies in every detail. It may not belong to the highest class of art. But, of its kind, it is genuine, well studied, and complete. [pp. 182-86]
Eastlake, Charles L. A History of the Gothic Revival. London: Longmans, Green; N.Y. Scribner, Welford, 1872. [Copy in Brown University's Rockefeller Library]
Last modified 16 February 2008