• 31 October 2014
  • 11:00 – 11:30 am
  • British Museum

The relative permanence of initial designs remains a fundamental assumption within the field of Gothic architectural scholarship.  Founded in a retrospectively-applied modernist conception of the architect and articulated by further presuppositions regarding the role of drawing in generating temporally transmissible designs, the model of Gothic creation involving initial preconception by a singular designer thenceforth constructed according to that unchanging established ordinatio is a recurrent feature of interpretation from the thirteenth century onwards.  Even in cases where projects continued across several generations of master masons, architectural historians in recent decades have often ascribed single points of invention for their underlying design.

Yet such an assumption has never been treated in the abstract or subjected to systematic study or comparison with the known details of architectural projects.   Underlying its application is the implicit rejection of a number of other possibilities for more partial, flexible and less immanent processes of design, both within the initial master mason's lifetime and beyond in the form of alterations by his successors.  More recent work on extant medieval drawings by Robert Bork has outlined the divorce between initial design and final appearance in continental examples at Strasbourg, Cologne and Freiburg cathedrals (c. 1284-1365, c. 1350-1411 and c. 1330 respectively), presenting a more iterative model of invention which is not immediately evident in the masonry of the final building.   Though certain elements, primarily structural and spatial, of a final design might well have been set out by an initial conception, other components of its formal appearance could be and were subject to later changes in a process of delayed design articulated in iterated stages of continuous revisions.

The aims of this paper are twofold.  Firstly it will elaborate on this process of iterative invention by outlining its historiographical presence and exploring the abstract possibilities outlined above.  Secondly, it aims to ground this more speculative aspect by addressing two concrete exemplars located within the British isles - St Stephen's Chapel, Westminster (1292-1363) and Norwich Cathedral Cloister (c. 1297-1430).  With both representing long, repeatedly disrupted construction sequences and dynastically inherited structures (equally in terms of the master masons and, at St Stephen's, its royal patrons) within an interconnected stylistic milieu, the two provide strong parallel cases for exploring the possibilities of continuity and change in architectural design.   By analysing the evidence for changes in formal appearance in relation to changes in master matron or patron, chronological displacement more generally, this paper will serve to demonstrate the implications of delayed design for the sequential process of inventing architecture in thirteenth and fourteenth century England. 

About the speaker

  • Head and shoulders portrait of James Hillson

    James Hillson is a Research Fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, specializing in Gothic architecture of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. He completed his PhD in 2015 at the University of York, working on St Stephen’s Chapel, Westminster (1227–1363) and the relationship between architecture and politics in royal patronage, and is currently embarking on a new project on international stylistic transmission.