The Garden Guide

Book: Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, 1803
Chapter: Chapter XIII. Ancient Mansions

Magdalen College Oxford, Repton's Red Book 5

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In Gothic, which is the style of architecture most congenial to the uses and to the character of a college, we are to study first, the general and leading principles, and afterwards that detail of which we can collect the best specimens from buildings of the date we mean to imitate. The leading principles of all Gothic buildings were these: 1. The uses of a building were considered before its ornaments. This principle is obvious in the staircases of towers, which were generally made in a turret at one corner, larger than the other three, and often carried up higher to give access to the roof of the building. Small turrets and pinnacles, or fineals, will be considered only as ornaments by the careless observer, but the mathematician discovers that such projections above the roof, form part of its construction; because they add weight and solidity to those abutments which support the Gothic arch. 2. The ornaments prevailed most where they would be most conspicuous. The richest ornaments of Gothic architecture are the turrets, pinnacles, or open battlements at the top of the building. These were seen from all parts, and in the beautiful tower at Magdalen, it may be observed, that the enrichment ceases below, where it would not be so much seen. The gates and entrances are highly ornamented, because they are immediately subject to the eye; but the walls are frequently without any decoration. This economy in ornaments is confirmed by the laws of nature. See page 260. 3. The several principal parts of the building were marked by some conspicuous and distinguishing character. As the chapel, the hall, the chapter-room, and the bishop's, abbot's, or president's habitation, &c. The dormitories were not less distinguished as a suite of similar apartments. But where, in conformity to the modern habits of symmetry, it is necessary to build two parts exactly similar, it is difficult for a stranger to distinguish their separate uses. 4. Some degree of symmetry, or correspondence of parts, was preserved, without actually confining the design to such regularity as involved unnecessary or useless buildings. This irregularity, which has been already noticed in speaking of the towers for staircases, is carried still farther in those projections, by which an apparent centre is marked: for if any ancient Gothic building be attentively examined, it will be found that the apparent centre is seldom in the middle. Thus in the beautiful cloister of Magdalen, the gateway is not in the centre of the west, nor the large window of the hall in the centre of the south side of the quadrangle; yet the general symmetry is not injured, and the dimensions are, perhaps, enlarged by this irregularity. 5. This degree of irregularity seems often to have been studied, in order to produce increased grandeur by an intricacy and variety of parts. A perfect correspondence of two sides assists the mind in grasping the whole of a design on viewing only one-half; it therefore, in fact, lessens the apparent magnitude, while the difficulty with which dissimilar parts are viewed at once, increases the apparent dimensions, provided the eye be not distracted by too much variety. The frequency of Gothic towers having been placed at a different angle with the walls of the chapel, must have been more than accident. The position of the tower at Magdalen, with respect to the chapel, is a circumstance of great beauty, when seen from the centre of the cloisters, because two sides are shewn in perspective. And, upon actual measurement, it will be discovered that few quadrangular areas are correctly at right angles. And, lastly, the effect of perspective, and of viewing the parts of a building in succession, was either studied, or chance has given it a degree of interest that makes it worthy to be studied; since every part of a building is best seen from certain points of view, and under certain relative circumstances of light, of aspect, of distance, or of comparative size. The great scale on which Gothic architecture was generally executed, is one source of the grand impression it makes on the mind, since the most correct model of a cathedral would convey no idea of its grandeur. The false Gothic attempts of our modern villas, offend as much by their littleness as by the general incorrectness of detail.