Gothic Wonder, Art Artifice and the Decorated Style
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Gothic Wonder, Art Artifice and the Decorated Style

Gothic Wonder, Art Artifice and the Decorated Style 1290-1350, Paul Binski (Yale University Press £40)

In 1817 the antiquarian Thomas Rickman set out to define three distinct periods of English Gothic architecture: Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular.

This beautiful and highly illustrated book focuses on the decorated Gothic style dominant in England from 1290 to 1350, a style perhaps overshadowed in literature at least by the Perpendicular style that gave us fan vaulting and King's College Chapel Cambridge.

Paul Binski amply demonstrates that the period 1290 to 1350 was one of seemingly endless architectural invention. It was the period that used the curvilinear line, imaginative vaulting and window tracery and gave us ogees and nodding ogees.

In architecture alone, this period produced the Eleanor crosses, astonishing vaulting in Norwich Wells and Exeter cathedrals, exquisite chapterhouses, the ornate Prior's doorway in Norwich cathedral, the pinnacles, gables and pierced work of Edward II's tomb in Gloucester and Exeter's virtuoso oak bishop's chair. Perhaps most spectacular and inventive of all in 1321 work began on the Lady Chapel at Ely with its extensive range of nodding ogee hooded chapter seats embellished with swaying figure forms and stories told across minutely decorated surfaces . Miraculously an arguably more inventive and impressive solution was found when the crossing tower of Ely cathedral collapsed in 1322 and a wooden octagon topped with a vaulted lantern were constructed over the same 30 years as Ely's Lady Chapel.

Binski argues that much of the inspiration for this work came from an extended royal workshop based in Westminster: architects, master builders carpenters, goldsmiths and other artists and craftsmen such as those working in textiles on the world renowned opus anglicorum embroidery. He demonstrates the considerable cross-fertilisation from one art form to another and from building to building. The similarity of the vault of Wells chapter house and the vaulting surrounding the Ely lantern are striking.

Further he argues that St Stephen's Chapel in the Palace of Westminster, built from 1290s by Michael of Canterbury and the royal workshop, was the source for many of the stylistic elements both of the Decorated and the Perpendicular styles, through a small number of practitioners and patrons. On the face of it, it seems extraordinary that one building, sadly now destroyed by fire, could produce the serpentine-like forms of the Decorated style and the rectangular forms of the perpendicular style, but it is a convincing argument.

Whether you accept his argument or not, Professor Binski of Cambridge University is immensely knowledgeable in the building, the architecture and all the decorative arts of the period and it is a joy to go on the journey with him. I loved following the development of work by families such the Ramseys in Norwich and Ely. I enjoyed having pointed out that the remarkable painted bosses that decorate the length of the nave vaults at Norwich Cathedral and its cloisters took over the figurative storytelling that was previously the preserve of capitals. It had also never occurred to me that the heart shape we see everywhere today in popular iconography is of course with its convex/concave curves and pointedness an invention of the Decorated period.

My only criticism is that in pursuing his stylistic arguments he perhaps overlooks creations that don't fit, such as the extraordinarily naturalistic carvings of at least 12 different types of leaves in and around the chapter house at Southwell.

But that's a minor gripe. What I particularly love about this book is that it demonstrates really forcefully the astonishing creativity, invention and ingenuity of all the Gothic periods of architecture and arts in England. It is one of the happy duties of the Cathedral and Church Buildings Division to encourage more people to find out about the wonders to be discovered not only in our heroic cathedral buildings and major churches but in many smaller parish churches the length and breadth of the land.

Janet GoughDirector, Cathedral and Church Buildings Division
Her forthcoming book on the Cathedrals of the Church of England will be published by Scala in June 2015

Binski 20-8-14