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The Pre-Raphaelites and mid-Victorian art

Video transcript

I'm with alou Lapine an architectural historian from the Courtauld Institute and were in central London looking at All Saints Church Margaret Street and I thought we would explore this building as a way of understanding high Victorian Gothic architecture standing in the courtyard the spire as you look up is incredibly tall one of the tallest in London and it was built from a group of Church of England people who were trying to restore a sense of spiritual pride for the entire nation it's so close to us even when this building was first conceived of in the late 1840s this area of central London was very built up and so William Butterfield the architect had to think very strategically about how he would include a courtyard space a full church with a grand nave and a large sanctuary and everything required for this wonderful manifestation of the medieval world brought into modern London in this really teeny tiny confined area so the exterior of the church these different colored bricks is lovely deep red and then these lines of black brick offset with this limestone this is something called structural polychromy that means the polychrome a this decoration is not on the surface but is actually the materials that are supporting the building itself being outside in this confined riotously decorative courtyard is foreshadowing because we know that when we get into the church the colors will be even more bold even more intense and the materials will be even more diverse this reminds me of the Cathedral in Siena there's this alternating horizontal bands and in the early 1850s when this building was being designed there was an incredibly important critic and writer who was working on making medieval Italy important for Victorian architects presuming you're speaking about Ruskin a critic who spent a few years focusing on architecture and was responsible for laying down a series of ideas about what true architecture should be that the Gothic Revival stood eighth in England had really missed the point absolutely what he believes is that in order to build honestly and to build sensitively for a new age you have to look back to the past and instead of looking back to England's past specifically he looks back to continental Europe both in terms of materials and techniques and in terms of a sense of medieval piety so there was a sense that there was a kind of authentic life that had been lost in our new industrial culture certainly and Ruskin was also a major critic of industrialization but it's one thing to have a theorist a critic developing these ideas it's another thing to have them made real to find somebody who's willing to put up the money to find people who want to worship in that kind of environment so what's happening in England that allows for this to actually come to fruition in the 1830s something called the Oxford movement begins unimaginative ly enough in Oxford with a small group of academics who are convinced that the Church of England really needs to be revisited and may look two times before the Reformation so looking back to Catholic traditions and even earlier to the church fathers who are in the first centuries of Christianity and it starts off as a very intellectual movement it's about theology but then later in the 1830s a group of men in Cambridge begin to think about how art and architecture of the Middle Ages can help to promote that earlier Oxford vision so it comes out of those tube universities and eventually that group in Cambridge become the ecclesiological Society and their ideological sponsors of this building like a.j Beresford hope who's also a politician and who's a very important writer and thinker in his own right who puts up the money to create All Saints Margaret Street behind us all right well let's go in and take a look we've walked into the church it's a beautiful quiet dark space I'm seeing inlaid stone and tile so how is image and ritual related this building is certainly about the word and it's about Scripture but it's also about the East End of the building it's about the sanctuary so it's much more focused on what happens on the high altar on the bread and the wine and on what's called the revelation of Christ to humanity so it's about meeting God in a much more multi-sensory full-body way and that's so much of the reason why the visual is so important and telling stories is so important in this building the Eucharist does seem like the perfect fulcrum of these ideas the spiritual made physical this is a kind of sensory kaleidoscope the ornament and the pattern is most concentrated at the east end of the church where the altar is and also a low but very heavy stone screen which has be inspired by John Ruskin's ideas in the stones of Venice which seems in one way to separate the congregation from all of the special things that are happening in the sanctuary where the bread and wine will be broken and then distributed but it also highlights it that screen reminds me of Santa Sabina in Rome that really old Basilica church because Santa Sabina is such an early example of Christian architecture it is a real source of inspiration for Victorian architects as you were mentioning authenticity before and what this building is trying to do is genuinely capture all the generations of Christian history right from the first century as we approached the East End of the church the light came in through this clear story and the sanctuary is now much brighter instead of having big windows on the ground floor they're actually up above the main arcades on either side so we have a sense of light descending from above with all of the kind of divine symbolism that comes along with that it's a very typical way of introducing light in a medieval building so what we can see on the east wall is the life of Christ very historicized like the building itself this is clearly a kind of Victorian conception of 14th century Italian art in the 1840s when this building was conceived William Dyce a very famous Victorian painter was invited by the patron and by Butterfield the architect to paint saints and the life of Christ on the east wall this deteriorated and soon John Ninian Comper repainted dices work in his own style compr loved early Italian Renaissance painting I want to go back to the artist dice for a moment I'm thinking about some of dices landscape paintings like peckwell bay for example which shows his family picking up perhaps shells and a kind of interest in the natural world in Natural Science and you have to think of him in this context painting the spiritual there lies an interesting tension in the 19th century between the development of Darwinian thinking geologic time and then here spiritual understanding spiritual time actually there was a much more integrated way of thinking about God and science in the mid Victorian period in this church there's stone that was chosen that actually includes fossils yes in that screen that we were talking about before the step that everyone would have to step on to in order to get into the sanctuary and in order to participate in that giving of the bread and the wine and we can also see it in the topmost element of the screen and so the passage of geological time is present even in this most holy threshold of the building the other place where we can see it is at the font the baptismal font there is something that is awesome and overwhelming when one thinks about the time that this stone represents and you see the creatures that are embedded within it the mathematical precision of science and spirituality of the infinite come together in the mid 19th century Victorians were struggling with what the discoveries that they were making really might mean you