National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 25, 1975

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Modern Gothic in Canada

by R. H. Hubbard

Résumé en français

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For those whose memory goes back forty years or more, it is a curious sensation to see artists and their works from the earlier years of the century grouping themselves into movements in the history of art. The most obvious example is the Group of Seven, though it of course was a conscious "movement" from the start. But the architectural styles of the period, which the public was less aware of than those in painting, are now also being identified by that new breed of scholar, the architectural historian. Thus, for instance, the "Château Style" now stands out clearly in our minds and takes its place beside the older styles of colonial French and English Canada and the various revivals of the nineteenth century.

One style that has so far escaped attention is the Modern Gothic. This oversight is surprising in view of the considerable appeal Modern Gothic had for Canadians, and the successful treatment it received from architects in the first half of the century. It was going full tilt in my youth, and I can remember revelling in the "Collegiate Gothic" of the new McMaster University as in the somewhat earlier examples of the same style at the University of Toronto.

Nowadays, Modern Gothic is dismissed as yet another evidence of Anglo-Canadian unwillingness to admit the passing of the Victorian age. (1) But this stricture obscures the difference between Victorian and Modern Gothic, the former a product of the Romantic movement in the nineteenth century, the latter a part of the repertory of eclectic architects in the Beaux-Arts tradition. It also overlooks the simultaneous appearance and similar character of Modern Gothic in England, the United States, and Canada.

A full account of Modern Gothic in Canada would require more documentation of buildings and their designers than is presently available. The purpose of this preliminary essay is to survey a hitherto neglected style in terms of some of its salient examples. These examples are presented in the general context of English and American work of the same period, along with some estimate of their quality and distinctiveness - all in the interests of stimulating further study.

In England, Victorian Gothic ran its full course in the nineteenth century, if the Gothic trimmings on eighteenth-century buildings and certain transitional work at the end of the nineteenth are excluded. By the 1840s a picturesque version of Perpendicular Gothic had come into use, and this style received its greatest application in Barry's and Pugin's Houses of Parliament in London (1836 fr.). From the 1850s to the 1870s, under the influence of the Cambridge Ecclesiologists, High Victorian Gothic held sway. Its scholarly architects - Scott, Butterfield, Pearson, Street, Bodley, Sedding, and the rest - were responsible for a large number of important buildings, including some original masterpieces. They fixed upon the "First Pointed" (Early English) and "Second Pointed" (Decorated) as the purest and most suitable styles for churches. Ruskin complicated the issue with his passion for "truth" in the handling of materials and his preference for the polychrome Venetian Gothic.

Though the Gothic Revival had first appeared at Notre-Dame in Montreal in 1826, it put forth its showiest bloom in 1859. The Houses of Parliament in Ottawa by Thomas Fuller and Augustus Laver were indeed one of the most striking and inventive monuments anywhere of Victorian Gothic. They and the many churches dotting the country from east to west all derived from the Gothic Revival in England. But by the adaptations their designers made to the Canadian environment, they bid fair to win the status of a national style in the Confederation period.

The Gothic Revival also flourished in the United States, despite the place of honour accorded to that country's official style, the Classical Revival. Canada had close connections with American Gothic, chiefly by contributing to the United States such architects as Frank Wills, Fuller, and Laver. But by the 1880s the tables were turned when Canada welcomed both the Romanesque of H. H. Richardson of Boston and the Beaux-Arts style emanating from Paris by way of New York. Yet the Gothic survived in the work of such transitional figures as Henry Vaughan, a pupil of Bodley and the first architect of Washington Cathedral.

In England a greater continuum was assured by the survival of several Victorian firms like those of Barry and the Scotts. The latter were an especially durable family, beginning early in the nineteenth century with Sir George Gilbert Scott (represented in Canada by the cathedral at St John's, Newfoundland, 1846 ff.) and ending with the death of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in 1960. "Late Gothic" in England produced a number of notable church architects from the turn of the century on - E. S. Prior, Sir Walter Tapper, Henry Wilson, Sir Ninian Comper, Sir Giles Scott, and Edward Maufe - and monuments on the scale of Scott's Liverpool and Maufe's Guilford cathedrals.

The English influence on Modern Gothic in Canada was strong in terms of the periodic emigration of English architects to Canada and of study trips by Canadians to London, but weak in terms of actual works by English architects. It began impressively enough in 1891 when a competition, adjudicated by Sir Arthur Blomfield, was held for the cathedral at Victoria, British Columbia (2) (fig. I). This was a project important enough for several English designers to enter and to arouse the interest of Ralph Adams Cram, who published two of the submissions, one by Wilson and the other anonymous. The competition was won by a young Scot, John Charles Malcolm Keith (3) (1858-1940), who was trained in England and who had emigrated to California before settling in Victoria in 1891. The actual building of the cathedral was long delayed. After 1914, the English architect W. D. Caröe, a pupil of Pearson, was appointed consultant, but construction did not take place until 1926-1928. Even so, the building remains unfinished, lacking its choir and central tower. But the nave with its flying buttresses, the massive west towers (of 1954), and the monumental portals enclosed in a great arch like Peterborough's, proclaim its ambitious scale. The cathedral is as impressive inside with its massive piers and stone vaults. The period of Gothic chosen was Early English, which carried with it a Victorian air; yet the handling was freer and simpler than was usual with the Victorians.

After their initial Canadian appearance in Newfoundland, the Scott family waited nearly a century for their second and third entrances, in the final act of the Gothic. Sir George Gilbert's grandson Adrian Gilbert Scott (1882-1963) is chiefly known for the rebuilding of the House of Commons in London after the blitz; but in 1937 he had designed a remarkable building in Canada. St James's, Vancouver(4) (fig. 2), is a centrally planned church with an octagonal tower over the crossing. With its lancet windows and plain walls it is a radical simplification of the Gothic along the lines of North German brick churches, but with some help from the currently fashionable Art Déco. The latter is evident on the entrance and on the crests of the walls. With one or two exceptions, this extreme form of Gothic was never accepted, and St James's remains a sport among Canadian churches.

Next PageSir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960)

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