Total Artifice: Neo-Gothic Literary and Visual Art in Britain 1750-1789
Art is sometimes compared to language. In this dissertation I argue that we have lost the syntax of neo-Gothic art. The internal movement, direction, and coherence of eighteenth-century Gothic art is no longer visible; its aesthetic force is drained, deadened by the weight of nineteenth-century invented traditions which we have failed either to shed, or reinvent. My work salvages what it can from this zone of aesthetic experience. This is not just a matter of personal taste. I argue that the aesthetics of the early Gothic Revival were political, or ‘metapolitical’, in the sense developed by the Marxist philosopher of art Jacques Rancière. Both in the discourse surrounding neo-Gothic art, and in the art itself, attempts were made to reconfigure the world into zones of privacy and public display; sacred and profane spaces were created, a whole series of integuments whose boundaries were drawn and redrawn to exclude different kinds of person, based on their political, confessional, and classed identities. These attempts to reconfigure the world into discrete spheres of experience were not separate from politics more narrowly conceived. When artists mobilised Gothic motifs I demonstrate they often did so with a view to participate in the organized struggle to dominate the church and state as well as the other organs of civic-representative power. It is one task of this thesis to reveal how materially consequential such strategies could be. Yet this layer of factional politics was not identical to the metapolitical level. To grasp the full significance of the early Gothic Revival we therefore need to keep on bringing these two layers into view, without collapsing them into one another, or treating them as if they were only abstractly related. Total Artifice is my attempt to think beyond this rigid alternative. In my first chapter I argue that Horace Walpole’s neo-Gothic style was not, as many scholars have suggested, informed by Burke’s concept of the sublime. Rather, I demonstrate that Walpole was critical of what he saw as Burke’s exaltation of a kind of ‘holy terror’. Walpole, I argue, was a deistical freethinker. This aspect of his confessional identity has not yet been recognised, but it is vital. It is importantly bound up with his Gothicism on every level. This is why I break from much of the existing philosophical and literary-theoretical commentaries on Gothicism in suggesting that ‘transgression’ is not a particularly germane rubric under which to study these works. Walpole’s art is neither irrational, nor transgressive; rather, it pushes one particular kind of organizing logic—the ‘rococo Gothic’—to its furthest limits. The same is true in my later chapters, which focus on the luxurious, and punishingly refined neo-Gothic techniques of the architect Robert Adam, and the painter Benjamin West. Here I develop a broader, historical comparison. For both Adam and Walpole, I show that one resource for their thinking was precisely the marginality of the Gothic, in comparison to the classical. For them the Gothic was, precisely, non-classic. But from this initial conceptual opposition, they were able to generate a range of competing, and sometimes partly overlapping speculative analyses: Was the Gothic sub- or para-classical? was it emphatically anti-classical? Part of the seduction of these questions was their combined force to suspend the order of hierarchized distributions known simply as the Classic, or ‘Grand Style’. By contrast, in West’s paintings, the affinity between Gothicism and rococo, paraergonal, beauty is already in the process of being wrenched apart. That is why my chapter on West is the last in the dissertation. I show that he is both an heir to this whole neo-Gothic tradition, and, at the same time, that he attempts to thrust this tradition into the past.