Imitating the great: gothic in Winchester

THE CITY OF WINCHESTER has one of the longest gothic cathedrals in the continent of Europe. Built from 1091 onwards under the auspices of Bishop Walkelin, a relative of William the Conqueror, the bulk of the gothic part of the edifice was erected in the 14th century in the Perpendicular style of gothic. What was created, is exceedingly beautiful and gives a great sense of space. It is a masterpiece of gothic stone masonry. The cathedral stands not far from another large building, also built in a style of gothic inspired by what was achieved during mediaeval times.

This near neighbour is far younger than the cathedral. It is the 19th century Winchester Guildhall, which was constructed between 1871 and 1873. It stands on the site of St Marys Abbey, which was taken over by Henry VIII in the late 1530s during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The remains of the abbey, which was known as ‘Nunnaminster’, persisted until the 17th century, after which they were removed. Today, some excavated remnants can be seen behind the Guildhall.

Guildhall, Winchester

The Guildhall was built in the gothic revival style to the designs of the architects Albert William Jeffery (1840-1915) and William Skiller (1838-1901), who also submitted a design for a town hall for Hastings in Sussex. Tragically, Skiller committed suicide in 1901 (http://hastingschronicle.net/archives/architect-hangs-himself/). The Guildhall was later extended by J. B. Colson (1820-1895), who was the surveyor of Winchester Cathedral.  The original building is rich is features borrowed from mediaeval gothic, but it is topped by roofing styles that remind the viewer of French ‘chateaux’. One source summarises the Guildhall’s appearance as:

“ Gothic, symmetrical, with a middle tower and this as well as the angle pavilions provided with French pavilion roofs”; and as having a “deeply vaulted porch” at the entrance — for all this part “[t]he style is Second Pointed,” while Colson’s long extension is “much plainer”” (https://victorianweb.org/art/architecture/winchester/1.html).

Without doubt, the cathedral is a far finer building than the Guildhall, but both are impressive in their own ways. The cathedral’s integrity depends on its gothic features that have both structural and aesthetic functions, whereas in the case of the Guildhall these features have a greater decorative than structural purposes.

The Guildhall is an example of so-called ‘gothic revival, which lovers of London’s St Pancras Station and Bombay’s Victoria Terminus (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus) will appreciate’. Years ago, I read “The Gothic Revival: An Essay in the History of Taste”, written by the art historian Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) in 1928. One thing that impressed me was, if I recall correctly, that the author queried whether the gothic style of architecture ever really died out in England, as it did elsewhere in Europe. Clark suggested that the gothic style continued to be used. In other words, what is described as ‘gothic revival’ is simply a continuation of the early use of this style. It is my impression that by the 19th century, when, for example, the Winchester Guildhall was built, architects were often simply borrowing features of earlier gothic buildings, as, for example Winchester Cathedral, and applying them often more mechanically than artistically. Often when the gothic style was being used structurally, as is the case in many churches built during the Victorian era, it tends to be imitative rather than creative, as is the case in the great mediaeval cathedrals and other churches. There are a few exceptions, where the 19th century architect manages to use the gothic style both structurally and artistically, as for example in the Church of St Augustine in London’s Kilburn.   Be that as it might be, The Guildhall does not lack in good aesthetic features and adds positively to the rich tapestry of the architectural scene in the historic centre of the city. I recommend visitors to Winchester not to concentrate all their time at the Cathedral but to spare some to view the Guildhall before seeing the other sights of the city.

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