All posts by Jessica Aberle

Carter’s Ancient Buildings

John Carter. Specimens of Gothic Architecture and Ancient Buildings in England; comprised in one hundred and twenty views, drawn and engraved by John Carter. London: E. Jeffery and Son, 1824.

Continuing with my theme of tiny, pocket-sized books, I selected Carter’s Ancient Buildings in four volumes, which are 12cm x 9cm. John Carter (1748-1817) wrote extensively on the medieval buildings of England as an advocate for “Gothic” as the national style and the conservation of these monuments, primarily in Gentleman’s Magazine (J. Mordaunt Crook, ‘Carter, John (1748–1817)’). J. Mordaunt Crook writes of John Carter:

Carter’s contribution to the Gothic revival was neither academic, nor, strictly speaking, archaeological, nor even antiquarian. It was essentially inspirational…. In Carter’s career we sense a fundamental shift of taste: the birth pangs of Victorian Gothic; the changing sensibility of a whole generation focused through the eyes of one man- England’s first ‘architectural correspondent’. By the end of his life he had become almost a living document; a link between the world of Strawberry Hill and the world of A. W. Pugin. (J. Mordaunt Crook, John Carter and the Mind of the Gothic Revival, 59-62)

The volumes are arranged alphabetically by county, and one can imagine an antiquarian or enthusiast slipping the tiny volume into his pocket as his guide to English architecture. The northern regions of York, Durham, and Cumbria, however, are neglected. Carter documented a wide variety of buildings: cathedrals, chapels, castles, palaces, gates, kitchens, hospitals, barns, and monastic buildings. Each plate includes either a description of the work or a brief history of the site. Perhaps the most surprising inclusions, despite the “Ancient” in the title, are Stonehenge and Glastonbury Tor.

Crook, J. Mordaunt. John Carter and the Mind of the Gothic Revival. London: The Society of Antiquaries of London, 1995.

J. Mordaunt Crook, ‘Carter, John (1748–1817)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 30 Jan 2014].

The Observer’s Book of British Architecture

John Penoyre and Michael Ryan. The Observer’s Book of British Architecture, written and illustrated by John Penoyre and Michael Ryan, describing and indexing the development of building in Britain from Saxon times to the present day. Foreword by F. R. S. Yorke. London: Frederick Warne & Co. LTD., 1951. The Special Collections edition was gifted by Howard Meyer, FAIA.

Architecture implies building beautifully and well. Great architecture can be profoundly moving, can stir us more deeply than any other of the visual arts, for it is a three-dimensional art into which the beholder may enter and of which he may feel himself an integral part. Architecture is not an application of beautiful detail to a building; to aspire to the name of architecture the building itself must not only be well built but must truly fulfill its purpose and at the same time delight the beholder (pg 9).

The Observer’s Book of British Architecture was designed as an easily carried reference book on British architecture from the Saxon Period to the twentieth century. According to the authors: Primarily, this is a reference book, designed specifically to give the observer the information he wants in a form easily remembered (pg 9). In order to aid the observer, Penoyre and Ryan reduced the built environment to generalized forms, color coded the architectural periods, arranged the works chronologically, and added helpful diagrams that identify architectural terms or building techniques. They also included a Visual Index: Its purpose is to group together certain features (doors, columns, etc.) in such a way that the observer, when faced with a building for identification, may note for himself its peculiar elements, compare them to the their equivalents or approximate equivalents in the Visual Index, and then refer to the text as indicated (pg 10). The last section of the book is a place for the observer to  make notes; however, Mr. Meyer did not record any.

As the series is intended  for the layman, the authors have greatly simplified the complexity of the building tradition in Britain. F. R. S. Yorke notes in his foreword: In this stimulating and extraordinarily well-balanced book Penoyre and Ryan have traced quite clearly- so clearly that I found it possible to understand the text without the diagrams- the development of English architecture from Saxon times, and have provided just enough background that the observer needs to help him follow, without confusion or bogging down in unnecessary detail, the development of building, planning, and technique through the centuries; and that should help, too, to get rid of some of the misgivings he may have about the architecture of today (pg 5). Despite the sweeping statements and the simplification, the images make the guide a handy text for those who need a quick reference while traveling around Britain while the diagrams are quite helpful for those who have not had a survey course. Moreover, the illustrations are delightful with their bold color blocking.

For more information regarding the publisher Frederick Warne, please visit Penguin Books. For the Observer’s Pocket Series, there is a Collector’s Society.

Westminster Abbey & W. R. Lethaby

W. R. Lethaby. Westminster Abbey and the Antiquities of the Coronation. London: Duckworth, 1911.

W. R. Lethaby. Westminster Abbey & The King’s Craftsmen: A Study of Medieval Building. London: Duckwork, 1906.

While in Special Collections today, I came across a couple of works by W. R. Lethaby (1857-1931) on Westminster Abbey. His name always causes a moment of reflection.  I first discovered his writing in an undergraduate class on the Building of London, which examined the city from its ancient beginnings to the Great Fire of 1666.  While I had been dabbling in the medieval throughout my undergraduate career, this class firmly cemented my  academic studies within this period, though it was probably Beowulf and the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial that ensured I would not stray too far from the British Isles. Though Lethaby’s works have not played a role in my research, whenever I come across one of his works I am momentarily transported back to that class. I rediscovered Lethaby and others like him on the shelves of my graduate school library. They would pop up now and then, while I was searching for something else.  I could not help but pause, pull them off the shelf, and thumb through with a smile. I have always enjoyed the serendipity of finds while browsing the stacks.

In the Building of London, I also was introduced to the Westminster Retable. I often find it difficult to identify my favorite building, medieval or not; however, the Westminster Retable is perhaps one of my favorite art works from the Middle Ages. The central architectural frame contains Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John.  To the viewer’s left are scenes depicting the Miracles of Christ, and at the end is the figure of St. Peter with his key. The detail that I have found so captivating all these years is the tiny globe of the world held by Christ (a detail is linked here).  The abbey itself remains a touchstone within my research, though not the present incarnation but rather Edward the Confessor’s church, the first built in the Norman style in England.

Plan of the Confessor’s Church, c.1066 (From Westminster Abbey and the Antiquities of the Coronation)


The Glasgow School

Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Glasgow: Haus eines Kunstfreundes. Preface by Hermann Muthesius. Darmstadt: Alex Koch, [ca. 1902].

Some of my fondest memories of Scotland are my  MackintoshMacdonald days.  Whenever I am overseas on my research trips, I always set aside one day to visit their works and take high tea in The Willow Tea Rooms. I first discovered The Glasgow School as a graduate student living in Glasgow.  I wandered into The Hunterian Art Gallery at the University of Glasgow and was enchanted by The Mackintosh House. I was struck by the use of line, curve, light, and color. I loved the details of the rose, repetitive tiny squares, & distinctive lettering. The ephemeral figures were haunting. No space was left undesigned and everything felt designed for that space. A gesamtkunstwerk. Whenever I am asked what is a must see on a trip to Scotland, The Mackintosh House, The Glasgow School of Art, and The Willow Tea Rooms are always on the top of my recommendation list.

I was thus delighted today to come across by chance Mackintosh’s entry for the Haus eines Kunstfreundes competition of 1901 (though the 1991 reprint issued by The Fraser Press, Glasgow). It was a treat to study the drawings made by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh.

If it be folly to try and interpret art, by the inexpressive medium of words, this must be especially the case with an art of such elusive qualities as that of the young Scottish designers. It has been laughed at and ridiculed by many who could discover no sense in it; but when one considers that this is the normal reception which the world accords to all new and import an art movements, the circumstances may be regarded rather as a tribute to their power than the reverse. The comprehension of their style cannot be communicated by the medium of words….And thus it is that we find suddenly in this Glasgow school something like an excess of individuality, and almost oppressively rigid style.  Hermann Muthesius, “Mackintosh’s Art Principles,” 1902.


William Eden Nesfield

W. Eden Nesfield. Specimens of Medieaval Architecture, chiefly selected from examples of the 12th and 13th centuries in France & Italy. London: Day and Son, 1862.

Today  I discovered Specimens of Mediæval Architecture, chiefly selected from examples of the 12th and 13th centuries in France & Italy by W. Eden Nesfield (1835-1888). Nesfield was an Arts & Crafts architect, working in the revival styles of Old English and Queen Anne. Between 1866-1869, he shared an office with Richard  Norman Shaw. (Nina James-Fowler, “Nesfield, William Eden (1835-1888)”).  Specimens is a collection of plates based on drawings made while on tour in France and Italy- though the focus is squarely on French cathedrals. Nesfield writes:

In submitting this Work to the Public, I must observe, that it simply pretends to be a Collection of Sketches, made during a professional tour- My motive for its publication arose from the hope, that in conjunction with similar works, it might tend to stimulate the growing appreciation for the noble buildings of the Middle Ages, and of those grand principles which actuated their authors. In selecting subjects, from an almost inexhaustible variety of examples, in France and Italy, a preference as been given to those which illustrate the art of the 12th and 13th centuries – The truth, skill, and beauty exhibited throughout these great periods, can scarcely fail to attract admiration. My endeavor has been to faithfully represent the subjects as I saw them, avoiding, with a few exceptions, such as had been touched by restoration, a process which, as at present conducted in France, frequently tends to destroy the character of the old work. I much regret, that, through other pressing duties, I have been prevented from lithographing more than a limited number of plates myself, and have much pleasure in acknowledging the fidelity with which the drawings have been transferred to stone by Mr. Newman and other gentlemen. 

I had not come across the works of W. Eden Nesfield prior; however, I was intrigued by both his preface and title page. While not an expert in the Arts & Crafts, he felt akin to Ruskin and Morris to me.  According to Nina James-Fowler, “The Royal Institute of British Architects holds several of Nesfield’s early sketchbooks which reveal the influence of A. W. N. Pugin and Viollet-le-Duc, whose work he traced and sketched.” (James-Fowler, “Nesfield, William Eden (1835-1888)”).  In his sketches, Nesfield mixes measured details and drawings of the cathedrals and abbeys with depictions of folklife and the imagined medieval.

Nina James-Fowler, ‘Nesfield, William Eden (1835–1888)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008 [, accessed 12 Dec 2013]

The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland

David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross. The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland from the Earliest Christian Times to the Seventeenth Century. 3 vols. Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1896-1897.

The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland by the architects David MacGibbon(1831-1902) and Thomas Ross (1839-1930) was an extension of their work on the domestic architecture of Scotland. The authors sought to document all extant churches from the early medieval period through the Reformation and arranged the text chronologically. Each entry includes a basic description of the architectural fabric, often including measured drawings and occasionally an historical account associated with the churches. For anyone interested in early Scottish architecture, it is an excellent starting point.  Below are the drawings for the Chapel of St. Margaret, Castle Rock, Edinburgh.


Edinburgh: Old and New

Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh: Its History, its People, and its Places.  London:  Cassell & Co., 1883.

Knowing that my areas of interest lie outside the core collection of the Architecture and Planning Library, I was not sure what I would discover in Special Collections. I wandered the stacks looking for familiar titles and old friends. One of the title’s that piqued my interest was Old and New Edinburgh.  It is a three volume set that I had not previously come across in my studies.  To be fair, Edinburgh was the site in which my archival research took place but not included as a case study. Most of my time was spent at the National Library, the National Archives, the Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland, and the National Museum of Scotland.  I rarely took the bus into the city center, preferring to walk from my apartment. Walking let me explore the city and better understand it.

Upon my first trip to Edinburgh, I was struck by the very visible distinction between Old Town and New Town, which is now separated by Waverley Train Station and Princes Street.  Looking south from Princes Street is Old Town with Castle Rock, medieval churches, and winding streets.  Pieces of the twelfth century town still remain.  Within the castle grounds is small chapel with a chevron arch associated with Queen Margaret. East of the castle at the end of Canongate is Holy Rood Abbey founded by David I in 1128 as an Augustinian Priory.  The site is now part of Holyrood Palace, while the new Parliament  building across the street  offers even further contrast to the architecture of the old city.  North of Old Town lies the eighteenth-century New Town with its regularly planned streets and neoclassical architecture.

James Grant (1822-1887) writes of this contrast in Old and New Edinburgh:

In Edinburgh every step is historical; the memories of a remote and romantic past confront us at every turn and corner, and on every side arise the shades of the dead. Most marked, indeed, is the difference between the old and the new city- the former being so strikingly picturesque in its broken masses and the disorder of its architecture, and the latter so symmetrical and almost severe in the Grecian and Tuscan beauty of is streets and squares…

On one hand we have, almost unchanged in general aspect, yet changing in detail at the ruthless demands of improvement, the Edinburgh of the Middle Ages…her massive mansions of stone, weather-beaten, old, dark, and time-worn, teeming with historical recollections of many generations of men…

On the other hand, and all unlike the warrior city of the middle ages, beyond the deep ravine overlooked by Princes Street- the most beautiful of European terraces-and by that noble pinnacled cross which seems the very shrine of Scott, we have the modern Edinburgh of the days of peace and prosperity, with all its spacious squares and far-stretching streets, adorned by the statues of those great men who but lately trod them. And so the Past and Present stand face to face, by the valley where the old waters of the North Loch lay. (vol. one, 2)

To view a map of the current city with some of the historical sites identified, please follow this link.  I selected a few of the plates from Grant’s book to compare to the map of the city today as well as roughly corresponding photographs from my collection.