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Reviewed by:
Terry Friedman. The Eighteenth-Century Church in Britain. Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. New Haven: Yale, 2011. Pp. xv + 790. $100. (CDROM).

Mr. Friedman’s lavishly illustrated text provides a comprehensive view of the trends and developments in church architecture in eighteenth-century Britain; the final chapter looks beyond Britain to ecclesiastical architecture in North America, the Caribbean, and India. The plates reproduce engravings, architects’ presentation drawings, paintings, models, and photographs, some, poignantly, of churches that were either demolished by parishes and municipalities or destroyed in the blitz. The CD-ROM contains a 400-page pdf file comprising 798 primary source documents related to the architectural activity recorded in the book. The glossary is much appreciated; the text, while often witty and engaging, is designed for architects and art historians, not the general reader.

The text persuasively counters the standard view that church building activity was very low. Some work has been masked by later “improvements” in the Victorian period, including the addition of organs and galleries, but Mr. Friedman is not a fan of nineteenth-century interventions that “swept away” older elements. The Victorians replaced eighteenth-century slender cast iron pillars with heavy stone in accord with their understanding of the “true” Gothic.

The image of the Victorian broom at work is especially applicable to eighteenth-century repairs and renovations of medieval church fabrics, including many of the great cathedrals. While most scholars of the eighteenth century know the story of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, destroyed in the Great Fire and rebuilt by Christopher Wren as one of Europe’s signature churches in the classical idiom, the extent to which other churches required restoration is not as widely recognized. Salisbury Cathedral, York Minster, and others were renovated in the period by architects who were as convinced as the Victorians that they understood the Gothic mode. Some of this work remains, for example, the marble floor in the Minster, laid by Lord Burlington and William Kent. While Wren has been considered completely opposed to the Gothic, his proposed restoration of St. Mary’s, Warwick, is pure Gothic with no classical elements. John Hawksmoor, Wren’s assistant at the time of the St. Mary’s renovation, and most famous for his work in the Fifty New Churches project in London, designed the Gothic façade for Westminster Abbey. Along with the history of church building, the text traces the rise of the professional architect.

Nonconformist buildings, which are particularly important in the neoclassical period, are included, with the useful information that the Toleration Act (1689) forbade Nonconformist churches to have steeples. Thus their “architectural modesty” reflects both their denominations’ resistance to display and political reality. Methodist meetinghouses adapted the octagonal structure as a “signature form.”

The text demonstrates that the history of church architecture is far from a sequential evolutionary pattern, with the Gothic taking [End Page 70] over when Classical and Palladian styles waned, and the neoclassical arriving at the end of the century. The interest in Gothic architecture dates from the early eighteenth century and continues through the classical and baroque periods, coming into full bloom in the last decades of the period, and thus coinciding with the rise of neoclassicism. The clean lines and absence of ornament of Palladianism, which appear to be reflections of aesthetic taste, had their roots in economic reality. Retrenchments caused by various wars including the Jacobite Rebellion (1745) and the War of Austrian Succession (1739–1748), made the simplicity of Palladianism both attractive and economical. Its justification, however, like the justification for all the other styles, lay in a belief that it most accurately reflected Christianity’s ancient roots, in this case the perfect simplicity of the earliest places of Christian worship.

Mr. Friedman also provides a glimpse into the decoration of the churches. While physical evidence has been lost, documentation suggests that the churches in the period were bright, with multicolored painted interiors, a dizzying array of scarlet and crimson velvet; gold fringes, damasks, and linens employed in altar and pulpit hangings and in upholstering chairs and cushions; and painted glass windows (the plates suggest how beautiful these windows are). Frederick, Prince of...


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