Big Ben’s Ancestors: John Britton and Gothic Revival Architecture

 

Making History Public

A View of Westminster Palace from the River Thames, Chronological  History and Graphic Illustrations of Christian Architecture in England by John Britton, NA5461. B74 General, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Big Ben dominates London’s skyline as part of the most monumental and recognizable building in Britain. Surrounding the famous clock tower, Westminster Palace immediately evokes Britain’s ancient majesty. However, the structure is just over 150 years old. Erected in the middle of the 19th century, the building utilizes the Gothic Revival style, a nationalist architectural mode that gained popularity through architectural historian John Britton’s series Architectural Antiquities of Great Britain – especially the final volume, a commercial success, A Chronological History and Graphic Illustrations of Christian Architecture in England (1835).

As the Grand Tour lost its prestige and British nationalism intensified, the English turned away from continental travel and began to visit monuments within the British Isles that reflected their native heritage. Publishers capitalized on this new fad by commissioning series of books, such as Britton’s Architectural Antiquities of Great Britain, that detailed the various wonders that Great Britain had to offer.

lincoln-cathedral

Lincoln Cathedral, Chronological History and Graphic Illustrations of Christian Architecture in England: Embracing a Critical Inquiry into the Rise, Progress, and Perfection of This Species of Architecture, by John Britton, NA5461. B74 General, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Britton believed that the churches he examined in his works merited notice because they “shew the power and influence of religion on mankind [and] tend likewise  to indicate the march of civilization … and to exemplify many of the customs, manners and pursuits of the people.” By including detailed and nuanced histories surrounding the buildings, Britton was able to link the glories of English history to the physical structures, causing the buildings themselves to become symbols of English pride. Britton monumentalized Christian architecture and emphasized its historical significance. In the process, he promoted the new Gothic Revival style as a return to English heritage and succeeded in permanently associating the style with Britain’s strength, power and longevity – an assertion of national pride.

Works Consulted:

John Britton. Chronological History and Graphic Illustrations of Christian Architecture in England: Embracing a Critical Inquiry into the Rise, Progress, and Perfection of This Species of Architecture. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1826.

  • Madeleine Spencer BC 2016, Fall 2015 Making History Public Student

The images and content in this blog post are from the exhibit Historical Monuments, Monumental Histories, which is now on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South.    This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Dana Sajdi’s Fall 2015 Making History Public class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries.

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