Feeling Gothic: Affect and Aesthetics in Ruskin’s Architectural Theory

Timothy Chandler

painting of cathedral's rests

Ruskin and feeling: Affective aesthetics, historical feeling

In his reappraisal of John Ruskin’s work, The Sympathy of Things (2011, revised 2016), Lars Spuybroek has argued for an aesthetics that is not only ecological (i.e., relational) but also affective, centred on feeling: ‘all relations between things are felt relations’.[1] Certainly, as a way of relating to and representing the world, feeling is a fundamental part of Ruskin’s aesthetics, both in general and with respect to specific artists, artworks or movements, playing a role on the side of both artistic creation (poiesis) and appreciation (aisthesis). Feeling provides, for example, the foundation for the theory of the pathetic fallacy in Modern Painters 3 (1856), but it also conditions aesthetic experience more generally, as in Ruskin’s second Edinburgh lecture of 1853, in which he writes of a ‘romantic feeling’—‘the instinctive delight in, and admiration for, sublimity, beauty, and virtue’—that is ‘the truest part of your being … even truer than your consciences’.[2] In the realm of architecture—the focus of both Spuybroek’s book and this chapter—feeling distinguishes not only the good from the bad but also different styles from each other.[3] While Ruskin is no hedonist, it is nevertheless the case that the questions ‘What was the artist feeling?’ and even the more Paterian ‘How does it make me feel?’ are central questions of aesthetics.

The importance to Ruskin’s thinking of a morally bounded affective faculty has long been recognised. Moreover, as Spuybroek shows, it helps explain some of the resonances of Ruskin’s work with current trends in aesthetic and cultural theory.[4] This chapter aims to contribute to the elaboration of the role of feeling in Ruskin’s aesthetics and to further the case for its relevance to problems in contemporary art and society. Unlike previous studies in this area, however, it treats a specific feeling rather than the general role of feeling and emotion. The feeling in question I call Gothic feeling. This chapter focuses on Ruskin’s works of architectural history and theory published between 1849 and 1855, in particular The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851–3). In the sections that follow, I look first at how Ruskin characterises the experience of Gothic architecture in atmospheric terms, and I compare this with representations of Melrose Abbey by Walter Scott, J. M. W. Turner, and Ruskin himself. I then turn to ‘The Nature of Gothic’, wherein Ruskin theorises an architectural style in terms of an affective condition that takes artistic form in the grotesque, defined by Ruskin as ‘playing with terror’. In the final section of the chapter, I consider Ruskin’s Gothic feeling alongside recent work in feminist and queer theory that explores feelings normally considered unpleasant. Feeling Gothic thus takes on contemporary relevance as a potential basis for social critique, a reinvention of the role it played for Ruskin and his foremost disciple William Morris.

My title, ‘Feeling Gothic’, is inspired by two similar titles from literary criticism that seek to define an affective relationship with the past. In an essay entitled ‘Feeling Classical’ (2005), James Porter undertakes a phenomenology of classicism, which before all else, in Porter’s analysis, seeks to instil ‘the feeling of proximity to and identity with what is classical’, that is, with ‘the products of culture that are felt to be exemplary and of the first order’, and which does so by ‘cultivating a pleasurable form of attachment to history rather than to literature per se’.[5] Manifestly ideological, classicism—which begins in antiquity—thereby produces a certain kind of subject, one who feels classical and who has a correspondingly classical habitus. While its particulars differ, the Gothic feeling that I locate in Ruskin shares several features with the classical feeling that is Porter’s theoretical object: a feeling of both affinity with and alienation from a past that never actually was, a feeling that is regressive but nevertheless affirmative, a feeling associated with the aesthetic experience of a particular set of works of art. In contrast to the pleasures of Porter’s classical feeling, Heather Love’s Feeling Backward (2007) examines ‘a tradition of queer experience and representation’ with respect to a past that many today would rather forget.[6] Ambivalent or negative feelings such as shame, resentment, withdrawal, and loneliness, which characterise much queer self-representation of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, are among those that comprise Love’s archive of backward feelings. Love’s texts, which range from Walter Pater’s art criticism to the novels of Radcliffe Hall, stand as reminders of a past at odds with the affirmative, twenty-first-century discourse of queer liberation, a past that seems to have its back to the future. Similarly, to feel Gothic with Ruskin, as we shall see, involves negative emotions such as sadness, fear, and anger as much as positive ones such as happiness and delight. It requires confronting the horrors that an aesthetic and feeling such as classicism seeks to elide. While Porter’s classical feeling accompanies an affirmative act of identification with a heavily stylised past, and Love’s ugly feelings accompany a seemingly irresolvable alienation from a past that is only ever fleetingly gleaned, both authors explore a relation to history that is simultaneously aesthetic and affective—much like Ruskin. Moreover, both Porter and Love cite Raymond Williams’s concept of ‘structure of feeling’ as a major influence on their thinking. Williams’s concept provides both authors with a way to talk about the unarticulated, uninstitutionalised, yet material and social aspects of historical and aesthetic experience.[7] Because, at least in his architectural writings of the early 1850s, Ruskin tends to discuss feeling in social rather than psychological terms, structure of feeling is also a helpful way of thinking about his Gothic aesthetic. When, for example, Ruskin writes of ‘Gothic feeling’ or ‘Renaissance feeling’ as emergent tendencies in architecture, he is describing precisely a structure of feeling as Williams theorises it. While ‘feeling Gothic’ here denotes a feeling with its own specificity, that feeling is also, like those of Porter’s ‘Feeling Classical’ and Love’s Feeling Backward, a relation to an aesthetically mediated past that depends upon an affective response.


Sentimental admiration

So, what does Gothic feel like? Ruskin gives us a sense of its vernacular form in the preface to the second edition (1855) of The Seven Lamps of Architecture, which provides an analysis of emotional responses to architecture. Ruskin identifies four such responses: (1) sentimental admiration, (2) proud admiration, (3) workmanly admiration, (4) artistical and rational admiration. The fourth response is celebrated as by far the best, and the second and third are dismissed as uncritical and vain. Interestingly, the first response, sentimental admiration, though insufficiently critical, is not entirely valueless, finding ‘its highest manifestation in the great mind of Scott’.[8] Ruskin illustrates this response with a pastiche: ‘The kind of feeling which most travellers experience on first entering a cathedral by torchlight, and hearing a chant from concealed choristers; or in visiting a ruined abbey by moonlight, or any building with which interesting associations are connected, at any time when they can hardly see it’.[9] The ironic tone here is disparaging. To be sure, by the time the preface was written—fifty years after the publication of Scott’s popular The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), to whose famous description of the ruins of Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders Ruskin alludes—such forms of Gothic Romanticism had long felt hackneyed. Indeed, Ruskin could be parodying the very text he praises:

If thou would’st view fair Melrose aright,
Go visit it by the pale moonlight;
For the gay beams of lightsome day
Gild, but to flout, the ruins grey.
Where the broken arches are black in night,
And each shafted oriel glimmers white;
When the cold light’s uncertain shower
Streams on the ruin’d central tower;
When buttress and buttress, alternately,
Seem fram’d of ebon and ivory;
When silver edges the imagery,
And the scrolls that teach thee to live and die;
When distant Tweed is heard to rave
And the owlet to hoot o’er the dead man’s grave
Then go—but go alone the while—
Then view St. David’s ruin’d pile;
And, home returning, soothly swear,
Was never scene so sad and fair![10]

After Scott, what could be more Gothic than, in Ruskin’s words, ‘visiting a ruined abbey by moonlight’?[11] That Ruskin admired Scott’s poetry and novels is well known: in Modern Painters 3 he singles Scott out as the most representative poet of modernity and his letters from Scotland, which he visited many times throughout his life, often reference Scott’s work.[12] In his Edinburgh lecture on Turner, Ruskin praises Scott’s representations of Melrose Abbey as ‘exactly expressing that degree of feeling with which most men in this century can sympathise’.[13] In a lecture delivered in 1869, he deems them ‘faultless and intensely perceptive’, because they capture the buildings’ characteristic structural feature (‘interweaving’) along with their spiritual character and their sadness.[14] In all this, notice, feeling is central. Ruskin’s appraisal of Scott’s Melrose actually endorses its reliance on sentimental admiration.

The intertextuality of Ruskin’s and Scott’s texts is not accidental: Ruskin theorises, as a phenomenon of contemporary popular aesthetics, precisely the aesthetic atmosphere conjured by Scott’s poem. In contrast to the three other forms of emotional response to architecture, and especially to the ‘artistical and rational admiration’ that Ruskin values most highly, sentimental admiration comes close to universality. Being ‘excitable in nearly all persons’, it is almost a kind of sensus communis in its instinctiveness and its commonality across classes.[15] That the kind of feeling we are talking about here circulates socially rather than being an individual psychological response is confirmed in Ruskin’s comments on Scott’s ability to express a ‘feeling with which most men in this century can sympathise’. The Lay of the Last Minstrel not only gives us instructions on the best time to visit Gothic ruins, but it also tells us how to feel when we do so: ‘And, home returning, soothly swear, / Was never scene so sad and fair!’ Ruskin reproduces this when he writes that Scott’s poem ‘will make memorable to you the sadness, the foreboding of death, and the feverish and unconsoling superstition which haunted, as they vanished, the last of the Gothic spires’.[16] This last reading of Scott gives us the most comprehensive enumeration yet of the affective qualities that make up the experience here under consideration: sadness, foreboding, haunting. These name three different forms of temporal relation—retrospection, prolepsis, vestigial persistence—to the same bad object, namely, as both Ruskin and Scott imply, death—individual and collective—whose signs are read not only in the decay of the abbey and its derelict tombs, but also in its surviving ornamentation: ‘the scrolls that teach thee to live and die’. Key to each of these affective forms of temporal relation is an element of aesthetic obscurity. As Ruskin writes, if you want to feel sentimental admiration, you should visit a building at a time when you ‘can hardly see it’, or, in Scott’s verse, ‘Where the broken arches are black in night’. Daylight allows us to forget death, but it is through relation to death, as we shall see in the next section, that we begin to feel Gothic.[17]

J. M. W. Turner, Melrose Abbey (c.1822). Watercolour on paper
Fig. 4.1. J. M. W. Turner, Melrose Abbey (c.1822). Watercolour on paper, 19.7 × 13.5 cm. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown MA. Photo: The Clark Art Institute.

This very passage from The Lay of the Last Minstrel was illustrated by Turner in one of a series of watercolours commissioned by Walter Fawkes in the early 1820s (Fig. 4.1).[18] I do not know if Ruskin was familiar with this picture, but it nevertheless instantiates the Gothic feeling that he writes about with respect to Scott. Turner reminds us that what the moonlight reveals is just as important as what the night obscures. While the shadows are deep, hiding parts of the structure, the scene is dramatically backlit, with the light from the rising moon flooding through the enormous, glassless east window and outlining the details of its well-preserved tracery. This is how Gothic window tracery—and, indeed, all Gothic interiors—are meant to be experienced: illuminated from the outside. Accordingly, in order for a Gothic ruin to excite sentimental admiration, opened up to the elements as it is, it is best experienced by moonlight: ‘For the gay beams of lightsome day / Gild, but to flout, the ruins grey’. By night, amidst the gloom of the abbey, Turner’s moonlight illuminates two things in particular. The lone male figure standing in the ruined choir, a typical instance of Romantic sublimity, represents the reader who has followed Scott’s instructions to the letter and thus dramatises the reading experience itself: experienced alone but shared by thousands.[19] Moreover, the inscription of two lines from The Lay of the Last Minstrel in the foreground, though conventional in an illustration such as this, incorporates Scott’s poem into the very rubble of the abbey. In telling us how and when to experience Melrose, the Lay has made it what it is. And it can do this, as Ruskin so astutely observes, through a common Gothic feeling.

While, as I have already noted, Ruskin seems to be denigrating, in his description of sentimental admiration, exactly the kind of popular Romanticism that Scott and Turner dish up in their portrayals of Melrose by moonlight, it is also the case that Ruskin was himself a master of such representation. While he does not condescend to moonlight, his architectural studies are usually partial and unfinished, and it is not uncommon that his drawings of buildings stage a dramatic encounter that rests at least partly on the distortion of perspective and the obscurity of details. Just so, for example, in his 1848 depiction of Mont Saint-Michel, in which the object of representation seems to be more a sublime effect than any particulars.[20] More germane to my discussion here is Ruskin’s own early drawing of Melrose Abbey, undertaken on a family tour of Scotland in the summer of 1838 (Fig. 4.2). Ruskin’s pencil study of the early-fifteenth-century south transept’s exterior differs markedly from Turner’s dramatic watercolour, and yet its apparent verisimilitude is deceptive. Ruskin exaggerates the vertical dimension (the perspective on the bellcote is particularly forced) and renders ornament with greater emphasis, though not necessarily precision, than he does structural lines. Ruskin would later express dissatisfaction with the slapdash approach of his early ‘Proutesque’ drawings and, in a passage excised from Praeterita, recalls having drawn the outlines in situ and squiggled the ornament in later.[21] When we compare the drawing with nineteenth-century photographs of this view of the abbey, we also notice that Ruskin has cleared the foreground of its many weathered gravestones, most of which would have been of modern date (part of the abbey was in use as a parish church from the early-seventeenth century until the early-nineteenth century).[22] Instead, we have the Arcadian additions of a large, elaborate Romanesque tomb and a single gravestone ornamented with skull-and-crossbones. The point is not to upbraid the nineteen-year-old Ruskin for the accuracy or liberty of his draughtsmanship but rather to draw attention to the techniques by which Gothic feeling is heightened: here, in particular, the exaggeration of verticality and ornamentation, and the addition of a memento mori that directs interpretation towards mortality and historical loss.[23]

John Ruskin, The South Transept
Fig. 4.2. John Ruskin, The South Transept, Melrose (1838). Pencil on paper, 50.5 × 35.5 cm. The Ruskin—Library, Museum and Research Centre, University of Lancaster, Bailrigg. Photo: Google Arts and Culture.

Ruskin’s enlistment of sentimental admiration persists beyond his juvenilia. In The Stones of Venice, for example, Ruskin narrates an architectural encounter much like those he describes in the preface to The Seven Lamps. His wonderfully evocative description of entering St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, though admittedly depicting a Byzantine rather than Gothic building, is complete with flickering torchlight and shadowy recesses:

Through the heavy door … let us enter the church itself. It is lost in still deeper twilight, to which the eye must be accustomed for some moments before the form of the building can be traced; and then there opens before us a vast cave, hewn out into the form of a Cross, and divided into shadowy aisles by many pillars. Round the domes of its roof the light enters only through narrow apertures like large stars; and here and there a ray or two from some far-away casement wanders into the darkness, and casts a narrow phosphoric stream upon the waves of marble that heave and fall in a thousand colours along the floor. What else there is of light is from torches, or silver lamps, burning ceaselessly in the recesses of the chapels; the roof sheeted with gold, and the polished walls covered with alabaster, give back at every curve and angle some feeble gleaming to the flames; and the glories round the heads of the sculptured saints flash out upon us as we pass them, and sink again into the gloom.[24]

Revealing how easily the atmospheric apparatus can cross the boundary of temperance, Ruskin also describes disapprovingly the more theatrical installations of the Catholic St Mark’s, intended, as he suggests, to heighten the affective response of worshippers:

Darkness and mystery; confused recesses of building; artificial light employed in small quantity, but maintained with a constancy which seems to give it a kind of sacredness; preciousness of material easily comprehended by the vulgar eye; close air loaded with a sweet and peculiar odour associated only with religious services, solemn music, and tangible idols or images having popular legends attached to them,—these, the stage properties of superstition, which have been from the beginning of the world, and must be to the end of it, employed by all nations, whether openly savage or nominally civilized, to produce a false awe in minds incapable of apprehending the true nature of the Deity, are assembled in St Mark’s to a degree, as far as I know, unexampled in any other European church.[25]

Faced with such self-ironising passages, we see the pervasiveness of Ruskin’s ambivalence regarding affective responses to architecture. But in spite of this ambivalence—despite his celebration of Scott and Turner, and his insistence on the importance of feeling, despite his disparagement of a fitted-out St Mark’s, and his sneering characterisation of sentimental admiration—Ruskin knows very well how ecclesiastical architecture, and, in particular, Gothic churches, whether intact or ruined, are often experienced. Specifically, such experience is marked neither by an expansion nor a refinement of perception, which we would associate with the sublime or the beautiful respectively, but by its restriction and obfuscation. What is more, the atmosphere of such buildings—consisting in obscurity, darkness, and partiality, along with the affective correlatives of sadness, haunting and foreboding—is not left aside in Ruskin’s sustained theorisation of Gothic in The Stones of Venice but indeed recurs there as one of its key elements.


Grotesque experience

In ‘The Nature of Gothic’, Ruskin gives more consideration to the creator of Gothic architecture than he does either to the buildings themselves or to the experience of those who inhabit or use them. In contrast to the sentimental admirer of tourist Gothic that we encountered in the previous section, the feeling subject of the most famous chapter of The Stones of Venice is that of Gothic poiesis rather than Gothic aisthesis. Accordingly, this section will at first focus on the experience of the one who makes Gothic architecture rather than its beholder. However, in the analysis of this figure, Ruskin provides description of a kind of Gothic feeling that he can fully endorse, and one that the viewer of Gothic—that is to say, us—has the possibility of sharing. As we shall see, the aesthetic category of the grotesque is the element that bridges poiesis and aisthesis. Moreover, Ruskin’s deferral of its discussion from the second to the third volume of The Stones of Venice performs an ambivalence that, I suggest, is central to the grotesque as an aesthetic category.

Though Ruskin’s medieval stonemason is one of the most familiar figures from his work, I invite you to reacquaint yourself with him here from the perspective of Gothic feeling. Let us first quickly situate him in Ruskin’s analytic of the Gothic. Recall that, in The Stones of Venice, Gothic architecture is defined twice: according to its aesthetic form (what Ruskin calls ‘external or material form’) and according to its affective character (variously called ‘internal elements’, ‘mental power or expression’, ‘moral elements’).[26] Ruskin treats the form succinctly, providing a gloss towards the end of the chapter: ‘Foliated architecture, which uses the pointed arch for the roof proper, and the gable for the roof-mask’.[27] Much more important is expression, for which Ruskin lists six elements, qualified as attributes of either the Gothic object (the building) or the Gothic subject (the builder), which are reproduced here in Table 1.[28]


Table 1. The internal elements of Gothic architecture

Order of importance Of the building Of the builder
1. Savageness Savageness or Rudeness
2. Changefulness or Variety Love of Change
3. Naturalism Love of Nature
4. Grotesqueness Disturbed Imagination
5. Rigidity Obstinacy
6. Redundance Generosity


A savage lover of variety and nature, with a wild imagination, independent and generous, one is tempted to read this portrait as yet another instance of the public self-fashioning that culminated in Praeterita.[29] In any case, we are now well aware that Ruskin’s medieval craftsman is an ahistorical fantasy based on racialised environmental determinism.[30] This becomes even clearer when one of the more evocative descriptions of Gothic man is added to Ruskin’s keywords:

But not with less reverence let us stand by him, when, with rough strength and hurried stroke, he smites an uncouth animation out of the rocks which he has torn from among the moss of the moorland, and heaves into the darkened air the pile of iron buttress and rugged wall, instinct with work of an imagination as wild and wayward as the northern sea; creatures of ungainly shape and rigid limb, but full of wolfish life; fierce as the winds that beat, and changeful as the clouds that shade them.[31]

The person here imagined is so thoroughly conditioned by his environment as to be almost indistinguishable from it. Human affect attains its shape and expression through nature: ‘fierce as the winds that beat’. One supposes there was a piquancy for Ruskin’s middle-class readers in such a hypermasculine, northern primitivism, a piquancy that many now, I would think, register with distaste. Nevertheless, Ruskin reproduces here once again the perceptual obscurity—in this piece of impressionistic prose, the outlines are indistinct—and atmospheric darkness that characterise his earlier descriptions of medieval architecture, only now they are the qualities of an entire lifeworld and its enmeshed subject. Even so, it is still difficult to say what it feels like to occupy the subject position of the Gothic artist as envisioned by Ruskin. Though, in one of his most anti-Arnoldian arguments, Ruskin emphasises savageness as the sign of the individuality, freedom, and imperfection of the Christian soul, this preeminent characteristic of Gothic architecture provides the occasion for a critique of industrial capitalism (the critique that was so important to Morris) that focuses on the material rather than affective or aesthetic conditions of artistic labour.[32] Yet the ecology of the internal elements of Gothic architecture means that material conditions are not unrelated to affective ones. We learn more about affective conditions, and therefore what Gothic subjectivity feels like, in the third volume of The Stones of Venice, in the sometimes-overlooked discussion of the grotesque—the fourth internal element of Gothic—that Ruskin defers from ‘The Nature of Gothic’.

In the chapter entitled ‘Grotesque Renaissance’, Ruskin echoes earlier definitions of the grotesque as a kind of ridiculous or failed sublime.[33] The grotesque combines the ‘ludicrous’ with the ‘fearful’.[34] Much like Gothic, the grotesque can only take imperfect form, perfection being a quality proper to the beautiful and the sublime, but not to the grotesque. This is true not only for the work of art but also for the imagination as a faculty of representation. When truth is represented clearly in the imagination, the representation is sublime, but when it is distorted, it is grotesque: ‘if the mind be imperfect and ill trained’—as is the case with most of us—‘the vision is seen as in a broken mirror, with strange distortions and discrepancies, all the passions of the heart breathing upon it in cross ripples, till hardly a trace of it remains unbroken’.[35] So, while the images of dreams, superstition, and myth are all categorically grotesque, it is ultimately a question of how one sees the world rather than what one imagines. Ruskin is quite explicit on this point: ‘It is not as the creating, but as the seeing man, that we are here contemplating the master of the true grotesque’.[36] The surprise here is that the grotesque is, despite all its distortions, a form of naturalistic representation true to experience, ‘a terribleness taken from the life; a spectre which the workman indeed saw’.[37] The question of the legitimacy of the grotesque—whether it is ‘true’ and ‘noble’ (i.e., Gothic) or ‘false’ and ‘ignoble’ (i.e., neoclassical)—comes down to feeling. The creator of the true grotesque feels the terror of experience even while jesting with it: ‘the dreadfulness of the universe around him weighs upon his heart’.[38] The mind ‘plays with terror’.[39] By contrast, the creator of the false grotesque plays cynically, without reference to experience, obscured or otherwise, and ‘feels and understands nothing’.[40] Taken from life, the true grotesque is the imperfect representation of an experience that was itself obscure. Its pleasure arises from the wilful play of a disturbed imagination with this obscure, partial perception of something terrible, which will be, according to Ruskin, either death or sin. Neither a pure positive pleasure nor the negative pleasure of relief (as Edmund Burke defines the beautiful and the sublime, respectively), the grotesque is an essentially ambivalent aesthetic category—but its ambivalence is one that Ruskin affirms.

In focusing on the lived experience of the worker, Ruskin conflates poiesis and aisthesis; this conflation is important. Isobel Armstrong has noted the key position occupied by grotesqueness in Ruskin’s theory of the Gothic, as it moves his medieval stonemason from the realm of fantasy into the nineteenth century. In Armstrong’s reading, grotesqueness does nothing less than provide the conditions of possibility for a truly democratic art; in other words, it makes working-class art possible by giving form to the experience of the oppressed.[41] From this perspective, the Gothic Revival was as much a political failure as an aesthetic one.[42] Lucy Hartley, by contrast, has shown how important the aesthetic category of the grotesque is for Ruskin as a test of moral and critical judgement.[43] One reason why the grotesque poses such a significant problem for Ruskin is because it is an aesthetic category that crosses and obscures the boundary, so important to nineteenth-century aestheticians, between the Gothic and the classical. The grotesque also provides the bridge between Gothic poiesis and Gothic aisthesis, and this is where its importance for the present chapter lies. With the grotesque we discover that the Gothic subject is not just the one who makes Gothic art but also one who experiences the world as Gothic, one who has seen the spectre of death and played with fear. Despite Ruskin’s radical call in the ‘The Nature of Gothic’ for the material and spiritual liberation of the nineteenth-century worker, his class prejudice (and probably also his racism) prevents him from prescribing savageness—the most important element of Gothic according to The Stones of Venice 2—as a necessary precondition for the appreciation of Gothic in addition to its production; this moral element of Gothic remains on the side of poiesis. By contrast, the grotesque provides the occasion for testing not only the feeling of the Gothic craftsman but also that of the critic, or, as the case may be, the tourist. The universality of the fear of death and the pleasure of play means that the grotesque, when carefully managed, provides the place for affective identification with Gothic. We may well love nature and change, and enjoy seeing these expressed in art, but it is only through the grotesque that the other elements of Gothic are related to our emotional life. It allows us to identify with our ugly feelings and perhaps even enjoy them.


Feeling Gothic now

As we have encountered it in Ruskin, feeling Gothic is an aesthetic state in so much as it occurs in relation to certain kinds of artworks—Gothic architecture and ornament or representations thereof—and involves both perception and imagination in an atmosphere of obscurity (the shadows and half-light of the Gothic interior or the moonlit ruin). It is affective in so much as it arises from a certain affective condition—fear in a state of free play—that infuses the ambient space of subject and object with feelings of sadness, foreboding and haunting, and that is susceptible to articulation as an emotional response to the perceived presence of death or sin. The aesthetic-affective condition of feeling Gothic is, therefore, dependent on an experience of the grotesque—the occasion for playing with terror—rather than the beautiful or the sublime. The grotesque thereby provides a theoretical foundation for the experience of Gothic architecture that Ruskin records throughout his writings and pictures: it underpins both the sentimental admiration of The Seven Lamps of Architecture and the evocations of medieval buildings and their creation in The Stones of Venice. As a way of relating to the past, feeling Gothic is not necessarily just another species of retrograde nostalgia or escapist fantasy, as Armstrong makes clear. Indeed, one of the implicit goals of The Stones of Venice is the redemption of Gothic feeling from these very fields in which it nevertheless undeniably traffics. Hence we see why Ruskin can be so scathing of sentimental admiration: it fails to acknowledge the politics of ruins, which result no less from the loss of the truth on which they were built than from the fact of physical destruction.[44]

As we have seen, Ruskin’s concern in ‘The Nature of Gothic’ includes not only architecture per se, but also the ‘grey, shadowy, many-pinnacled image of the Gothic spirit within us’.[45] Indeed, as the metaphorical language indicates, his point is that the two are inseparable. Given the transhistorical nature of this ‘Gothic spirit’ (it can be shared by both moderns and medievals alike) and the contemporary urgency with which Ruskin discusses Gothic creativity, it is worth asking, I think, what feeling Gothic would mean for us today. The Gothic Romanticism that we encounter in Scott and Turner remains as commonplace as it was in Ruskin’s time, Gothic ruins are as popular with tourists as ever, and a century of cinema has consolidated further the associations between medieval architecture, the fantastical, the sensations of obscurity, terror, haunting, foreboding, and the experience of death and sin.[46] For now, I suggest, we should look beyond such self-evident aesthetic sites of Gothic feeling, since they only address those aspects of it about which Ruskin was ambivalent and only from the side of aesthetic consumption. If we broaden our scope, as Armstrong does in her reading of The Stones of Venice, to consider the conditions under which such feeling might now be experienced, and if we go further than Armstrong and re-historicise Gothic feeling in the present moment, we will be able to appreciate how serious Ruskin is in his depictions of the medieval worker and moreover to locate Gothic feeling in our own lives. Just as Armstrong reads Ruskin’s theory of the grotesque as a way for oppressed classes to give aesthetic form to their experience, thus giving it value as an aesthetic category beyond its historically specific forms (classical, Gothic, Renaissance, and so on), so we may envisage feeling Gothic as a kind of dwelling in the negative that affords its own particular pleasures and possibilities, and that is not limited to a specific architectural form.

Such a Gothic feeling resonates with a major current in twenty-first-century cultural criticism, and particularly in feminist and queer theory, exploring feelings that are normatively negative, such as rage, sadness, grief, and so on. We have already encountered some of this work in Heather Love’s Feeling Backward, which calls upon us to recognise historical legacies that seem not to fit with the ideas we might have about ourselves and our societies. Additionally, in work such as Ann Cvetkovich’s on depression, Sianne Ngai’s on ugly feelings, Lauren Berlant’s on cruel optimism, and Sara Ahmed’s on the figure of the killjoy, certain modes of feeling bad are presented not simply as natural responses to the events of one’s life or broader social conditions, but rather as the affective states that characterise the experience of living under capitalism and patriarchy in the twenty-first century: a social rather than a psychological response to history.[47] Such analyses align with Ruskin’s, as both Morris’s revolutionary vision of Gothic and Armstrong’s political reading of the grotesque would already suggest. Nevertheless, while Ruskin’s social exploration of Gothic and the grotesque resonates with contemporary concerns, it is worth heeding Love’s work and remembering also that many of his ideas have been alienated from us by history. The resonance with cultural theory, for example, extends only over that which is affective in aesthetics and does not account for the ornamental form that remains crucial to Ruskin’s discussion of Gothic. Moreover, while feeling is the fiery star around which Ruskin’s aesthetics and politics turn, it is for him part of a much greater universe of Christian morality that probably has a more limited currency now and so is of proportionally less interest to contemporary cultural critics such as those I have just cited. While other aspects of Ruskin’s time, such as its post-Romantic cultural historicism and its industrial capitalism, have continued to evolve, we can still identify with respect to them a continuity of concerns in secular society that is not matched when we come up against Ruskin’s moralising. And yet, feeling Gothic is a structure of feeling—in the full cultural, political, and historical senses intended by Williams—that conditions many cultural phenomena in contemporary Western societies. In order to formulate a general theory of feeling Gothic, rather than a Ruskinian one, other, more recent, resources than Ruskin would be required, including, I should think, the cinematic genre of horror, along with the persistent pastime of Gothic tourism (both of which are nevertheless related to cultural phenomena with roots in the eighteenth century and familiar to Ruskin). Although I believe there might be some value in such a general theory of feeling Gothic, it is beyond the scope of this chapter.

Nevertheless, I will say this much. It is often observed—correctly—that none of the major social, political, and environmental problems that so exercised Ruskin has been effectively solved. Ruskin’s critique of capitalism, first worked out in ‘The Nature of Gothic’, boils down to a critique of alienation that resonates still, despite the enormous transformations to the economy that have taken place over the last century and a half, and those on the cusp of which we undoubtedly stand. It resonates now even amongst ‘brain-workers’ (as Ruskin would say) such as academics. Indeed, the feeling of precarity that has followed the casualisation of labour and the erosion of the welfare state is familiar to many who work in universities today. While I think it is a good thing that we would no longer sign up to the medievalism of Scott, Thomas Carlyle, or Ruskin with quite the same enthusiasm as so many of their nineteenth-century readers, I still find Ruskin’s theory of Gothic to be a forceful revelation of the politics of aesthetic experience. Not in light but in the obscurity of the imagination is the meaning of our experience of history revealed, our proximity to death and to whatever it is that has replaced sin as the moral abstraction of hatred in the world. If it sometimes feels like we are standing among ruins, then this may very well be an occasion for feeling Gothic.



I am very grateful to the editors for their helpful advice on the draft. This research was partially supported by a Stones of Venice Grant from The Ruskin—Library, Museum and Research Centre, University of Lancaster.


[1] Lars Spuybroek, The Sympathy of Things: Ruskin and the Ecology of Design [2011] (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 197.
[2] Ruskin, 12.54 (Lectures on Architecture and Painting, 1853).
[3] So, in The Stones of Venice (1851–3), the importance of feeling is both aesthetic—‘And now observe how often a fault in feeling induces also a fault in style’ (Ruskin, 11.104)—and historical: ‘When the Gothic feeling began more decidedly to establish itself…’ (Ruskin, 10.309); ‘the first appearance of the Renaissance feeling had the appearance of a healthy movement’ (Ruskin, 11.15).
[4] In addition to Spuybroek, studies of Ruskin’s use of emotion and feeling include: George Landow’s discussion of the pathetic fallacy, The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971); Dinah Birch’s essay on the importance of feeling in Ruskin’s works of political economy, ‘“What is Value?”: Victorian Economies of Feeling’, Carlyle Studies Annual 28 (2012): pp. 31–48; Anne-Marie Millim’s work on Ruskin’s attempts to manage emotion through his diaries, The Victorian Diary: Authorship and Emotional Labour (London: Routledge, 2013); and Katherine Wheeler’s essay on Ruskin’s reception in the architectural profession, which attests to the early recognition of the importance of emotion in his work, ‘“They Cannot Choose but Look”: Ruskin and Emotional Architecture’, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 23 (2016), accessed 27 July 2020, doi: 10.16995/ntn.768. A particularly intriguing early discussion of Ruskin’s emotional style may be found in the Austrian physician and cultural critic Max Nordau’s widely read polemic Degeneration (1892; English translation, 1895). In his chapter on the Pre-Raphaelites, Nordau diagnoses Ruskin in psychiatric terms: ‘Into the service of utterly delirious thoughts he brings the wild obstinacy of a deranged fanatic and the deep sentiment of Morel’s “emotional” type’, Max Nordau, Entartung, (ed.) Karin Tebben (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), p. 86; my translation; Nordau is referring to Bénédict Morel’s 1866 essay ‘Du délire émotif’.
[5] James I. Porter, ‘Feeling Classical: Classicism and Ancient Literary Criticism’, in James I. Porter (ed.), Classical Pasts: The Classical Traditions of Greece and Rome (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 308, 307, 334.
[6] Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 4.
[7] See Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 128–35.
[8] Ruskin, 8.8 (The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849).
[9] Ruskin, 8.7–8.
[10] Walter Scott, ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’, in The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott, Bart. (Edinburgh: Robert Cadell, 1841), p. 14.
[11] Ruskin notes the popularity of the Melrose ruins for readers of Scott in his second Oxford Museum letter, 16.230 (The Oxford Museum, 1858–9). This popularity is generally regarded as a direct outcome of the Lay’s success, as Ruskin implies. Queen Victoria herself visited Melrose along with several other locations associated with Scott in the summer of 1867. A discussion of Scott’s influence on tourism is provided in Nicola J. Watson, ‘Holiday Excursions to Scott Country’, in Benjamin Colbert (ed.), Travel Writing and Tourism in Britain and Ireland (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2012), pp. 132–46; and Alastair Durie, ‘“Scotland is Scott-Land”: Scott and the Development of Tourism’, in Murray Pittock (ed.), The Reception of Sir Walter Scott in Europe (London: Continuum, 2006), pp. 313–22. Broader discussion of the development of Gothic tourism out of picturesque aesthetics is provided in Dale Townshend, ‘Ruins, Romance and the Rise of Gothic Tourism: The Case of Netley Abbey, 1750–1830’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 37 (2014): pp. 377–94. On Ruskin’s own ambivalent role in the development of cultural tourism, see Keith Hanley and John K. Walton, Constructing Cultural Tourism: John Ruskin and the Tourist Gaze (Bristol: Channel View, 2010).
[12] Ruskin, 5.335–38 (Modern Painters 3, 1856).
[13] Ruskin, 12.121 (Lectures on Architecture and Painting, 1853), Ruskin’s italics.
[14] Ruskin, 19.261 (‘The Flamboyant Architecture of the Valley of the Somme’, 1869).
[15] Ruskin, 8.8 (The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849).
[16] Ruskin, 19.261 (‘The Flamboyant Architecture of the Valley of the Somme’, 1869).
[17] The importance of shadows and obscurity in the experience of architecture, and especially Gothic architecture, has been explored by several writers, including Stephen Kite, Shadow-Makers: A Cultural History of Shadows in Architecture (London: Bloomsbury, 2017); Gernot Böhme, Architektur und Atmosphäre (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2013); and Jonathan Hill, The Architecture of Ruins: Designs of the Past, Present and Future (London: Routledge, 2019).
[18] Andrew Wilton, The Life and Work of J. M. W. Turner (London: Academy Editions, 1979), p. 425, no. 1056. This is not the same picture as Turner’s watercolour of 1831, representing the Abbey viewed from across the River Tweed, commissioned by Robert Cadell for an edition of Scott’s Poetical Works, and known to Ruskin (see 3.551, Modern Painters 1, 1843). Turner produced many illustrations for Scott’s work at several points in his career. These are discussed in Gerald E. Finley, ‘J. M. W. Turner and Sir Walter Scott: Iconography of a Tour’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 35 (1972): pp. 359–85; and the online resource edited by David Blayney Brown, J. M. W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, 2012, accessed 27 July 2020, https://www.tate.org.uk/about-us/projects/jmw-turner-sketchbooks-drawings-watercolours.
[19] In his introduction to the 1830 edition of The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Scott claims that the book sold upwards of thirty thousand copies (Scott, Poetical Works, p. 6). Such a figure was unprecedented for a book of poetry.
[20] Robert Hewison (ed.), Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites (London: Tate Gallery, 2000), p. 158, no. 139. The picture can be viewed online at Wikimedia Commons, accessed 29 October 2020, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/La_Merveille_Mont_St_Michel_Ruskin.jpg.
[21] Ruskin, 35.622–3. On the development of Ruskin’s drawing in the 1830s, including his use of exaggerated perspective and the influence of Prout and Turner, see the first two chapters of Paul H. Walton, The Drawings of John Ruskin (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972).
[22] See, for example, two photographs from the 1860s, both available online: George Washington Wilson’s Melrose Abbey, from the South West, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, no. PGP 71.65, accessed 29 October 2020, https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/95326; and William Donaldson Clark’s General view from south west, Melrose Abbey, Canmore, no. DP 149757, accessed 29 October 2020, https://canmore.org.uk/collection/1323137. For a brief history of Melrose Abbey, see David Robinson (ed.), The Cistercian Abbeys of Britain: Far from the Concourse of Men (London: Batsford, 1998), pp. 144–8.
[23] Ruskin will later claim that Christian architecture is essentially the architecture of the tomb, Ruskin, 23.25 (Val D’Arno, 1873).
[24] Ruskin, 10.88 (The Stones of Venice 2, 1853). The difference between Gothic and Byzantine is not, however, an important one for Ruskin: ‘I use the word Gothic in the most extended sense as broadly opposed to classical’, Ruskin, 8.229 (The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849).
[25] Ruskin, 10.90.
[26] Ruskin, 10.183.
[27] Ruskin, 10.260.
[28] Ruskin, 10.184.
[29] Francis O’Gorman explains the theory of the Gothic in relation to events in Ruskin’s personal life, ‘Ruskin’s Aesthetic of Failure in The Stones of Venice’, Review of English Studies 55 (2004): pp. 374–91. Analysis of the relationship of the six internal elements of Gothic architecture in The Stones of Venice is provided in chapter seven of Patrick Conner’s Savage Ruskin (London: Macmillan, 1979) and more recently in Spuybroek’s The Sympathy of Things.
[30] The classic study is that of John Unrau, ‘Ruskin, the Workman and the Savageness of Gothic’, in Robert Hewison (ed.), New Approaches to Ruskin: Thirteen Essays (London: Routledge, 1981), pp. 33–50; see also Daryl Ogden, ‘The Architecture of Empire: “Oriental” Gothic and the Problem of British Identity in Ruskin’s Venice’, Victorian Literature and Culture 25 (1997): pp. 109–20.
[31] Ruskin, 10.187–8 (The Stones of Venice 2, 1853).
[32] See, for example, William Morris, ‘Preface to The Nature of Gothic by John Ruskin’, in William Morris, News from Nowhere and Other Writings, (ed.) Clive Wilmer (London: Penguin, 1993), pp. 365–9.
[33] Burke and Kant define the grotesque in exactly these terms: Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful [1757], (ed.) Adam Phillips (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 59; Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime [1764], (trans.) John T. Goldthwait (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), p. 55.
[34] Ruskin, 11.151 (The Stones of Venice 3, 1853).
[35] Ruskin, 11.179.
[36] Ruskin, 11.169.
[37] Ruskin, 11.169. Lindsay Smith has made the compelling case that it is this grotesque combination of obscurity and naturalism that links Ruskin’s enthusiasm for and writings on Turner and Gothic, Victorian Photography, Painting and Poetry: The Enigma of Visibility in Ruskin, Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), chapter 2.
[38] Ruskin, 11.169.
[39] Ruskin, 11.166.
[40] Ruskin, 11.167. Ruskin illustrates the difference between the two forms of the grotesque with an engraving of two griffins: Noble and Ignoble Grotesque, Ruskin, 11, Plate 3, facing 11.150.
[41] Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 231–5.
[42] While Ruskin is often thought of as an advocate of the Gothic Revival, he was largely disappointed with its outcomes because they imitated only the outward form of Gothic. Such misgivings are expressed already in Seven Lamps (1849): ‘The stirring which has taken place in our architectural aims and interests within these few years, is thought by many to be full of promise: I trust it is, but it has a sickly look to me. I cannot tell whether it be indeed a springing of seed or a shaking among bones; and I do not think the time will be lost which I ask the reader to spend in the inquiry, how far all that we have hitherto ascertained or conjectured to be best in principle, may be formally practised without the spirit or the vitality which alone could give it influence, value, or delightfulness’. Ruskin, 8.194.
[43] Lucy Hartley, ‘“Griffinism, Grace and All”: The Riddle of the Grotesque in John Ruskin’s Modern Painters’, in Colin Trodd, Paul Barlow, and David Amigoni (eds.), Victorian Culture and the Idea of the Grotesque (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999), pp. 81–95.
[44] Ruskin’s theory of the ruin: ‘It was not the robber, not the fanatic, not the blasphemer, who sealed the destruction that they had wrought; the war, the wrath, the terror, might have worked their worst, and the strong walls would have risen, and the slight pillars would have started again, from under the hand of the destroyer. But they could not rise out of the ruins of their own violated truth’. Ruskin, 8.99 (The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849).
[45] Ruskin, 10.182 (The Stones of Venice 2, 1853).
[46] On tourism see Emma McEvoy, Gothic Tourism (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2016). The prominence of the grotesque in the art and popular culture of the late-twentieth century is documented and historicised, for example, in a book accompanying an exhibition at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston: Christoph Grunenberg (ed.), Gothic: Transmutations of Horror in Late Twentieth Century Art (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1997). More recently, the contributions in Glennis Byron and Dale Townshend (eds.), The Gothic World (London: Routledge, 2013), provide a comprehensive overview of the currency of Gothic in popular culture from the eighteenth century to the present.
[47] Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2012); Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2005); Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2017).