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On Nature and Nomenclature: William Whewell and the Production of Architectural Knowledge in Early Victorian Britain

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 April 2016


Art was the Mother of Science: the vigorous and comely Mother of a daughter of far loftier and serener beauty.

William Whewell, 1852

Much of what we take for granted as architectural knowledge today was legitimated and codified in the early nineteenth century. Especially in the case of medieval architecture, we are bound by 200-year-old assumptions about what holds value and what counts as fact. This article explores an important founder of empirical architectural history, William Whewell, and argues that he used the methods of early Victorian science to gain authority for the nascent study of medieval architecture. Using methods characteristic of the sociology of science, I will concentrate on the social production of knowledge, not the accuracy of the knowledge produced; therefore, the question of who was right, or who was right first, will be laid aside in favour of asking how architectural knowledge was legitimated in early Victorian Britain.

Research Article
Copyright © Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain 1997

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1 Whewell, William, Lectures on the Results of the Great Exhibition 0f 1851 (London: David Bogue, 1852), p. 8 Google Scholar.

2 Two recent books that exemplify this Whewell ‘revival’ are William Whewell: A Composite Portrait, ed. Fisch, Menachem and Schaffer, Simon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)Google Scholar and Yeo, Richard R., Defining Science: William Whewell. Natural Knowledge and the Public Debate in Early Victorian Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Additionally, all scholarship on Whewell is indebted to two nineteenth-century publications: Todhunter, Isaac, William Whewell, D.D., Master of Trinity College, Cambridge; an Account of his Literary and Scientific Correspondence (London: MacMillan, 1876)Google Scholar and Douglas, Janet Mary (‘Mrs Stair Douglas’) The Life and Selections from the Correspondence of William Whewell (London: C. K. Paul, 1881)Google Scholar. Franki, Paul, The Gothic: Literary Sources and Interpretations through Eight Centuries (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960)Google Scholar is still the best text for historiography of Gothic, , and Pevsner’s, Nikolaus Some Architectural Writers of the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972)Google Scholar remains a rich source of historical detail and intelligent commentary. For a concise historiography of architecture, see Watkin, David, The Rise of Architectural History (London: The Architectural Press, 1980.)Google Scholar More recently, Bizzarro’s, Tina Waldeneier Romanesque Architectural Criticism: A Pre-History (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992)Google Scholar makes a substantive contribution to this field. Eck, Caroline Van, in Organicism in the Nineteenth Century (Amsterdam: Arte and Natura Press, 1994)Google Scholar, discusses organicism from Alberti to about 1900, and offers a philosophically-grounded account of this complex subject.

3 For example, the Natural Sciences Tripos was not instituted at Cambridge until 1848.

4 Allen, David Elliston, The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History (London: Allen Lane, 1976), p. 65 Google Scholar. Much important work in natural history during this period was undertaken outside the universities altogether, by gentleman amateurs wealthy enough to fund their own research. See Porter, Roy, ‘Gentleman and Geology: The Emergence of a Scientific Career, 1660-1920’, The Historical Journal, 21, no. 4 (1978), pp. 809-36CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 The most extensive recent work on this subject is Brooke’s, John Hedley Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)Google Scholar.

6 Yeo, Defining Science, pp. 5, 24 . Whewell coined the term ‘scientist’ in 1833 but it was not widely used in Britain until the end of the century; ‘man of science’ was more common.

7 Pevsner, Some Architectural Writers of the Nineteenth Century, pp. 45-61.

8 Frankl, The Gothic: Literary Sources, pp. 491-539.

9 Frankl, pp. 514ff. Boisserée’s major work on Cologne Cathedral was tided Geschichte und Beschreibung des Doms zu Köln, and was published over the period 1823 to 1831; Moller’s, major work was translated in 1824 as An Essay on the Origin and Progress of Gothic Architecture traced in and deduced from the Ancient Edifices of Germany with references to those of England, etc. from the Eighth to the Sixteenth Centuries (London: Priestley and Weale, 1824.)Google Scholar

10 Frankl, The Gothic: Literary Sources, p. 496. On Britton, see also Crook, J. Mordaunt, ‘John Britton and the Genesis of the Gothic Revival’, in Concerning Architecture: Essays on Architectural Writers and Writing Presented to Nikolaus Pevsner, ed. Summerson, John (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1968), pp. 98119 Google Scholar.

11 Frankl, p. 501. Saunders, George, ‘Observations on the Origin of Gothic Architecture’, Archaeologia or Miscellaneous Tracts relating to Antiquity, published by the Society of Antiquaries of London, vol. XVII (London, 1814), pp. 129 Google Scholar, pls I-IV.

12 Gunn was the first to use the word in print, but Gerville the first to do so in private correspondence. For the subtleties of the coining and meaning of the term, see Bizzarro, Romanesque Architectural Criticism, pp. 132-49; also Frankl, p. 508. Franki evaluates all of these early writers on architecture by judging how well they understood tectonics; an analysis of this modernist bias is beyond the scope of this article, but it is interesting to note that Saunders, not Gunn, fairs well by Frankl’s value system.

13 Letter, Whewell to Dawson Turner, 23 July 1834, Whewell Papers, O.4.13/ 20, Trinity College Library, Cambridge (hereafter cited as Whewell Papers).

14 Willis and Whewell did not always agree in their conclusions about Gothic architecture, but, as Harvey Becher has suggested, it is more important that they did agree on method. Harvey W. Becher, ‘William Whewell’s Odyssey: From Mathematics to Moral Philosophy’, in Fisch and Schaffer (eds) [n. 2], pp. 1-29 (p. 6). For more on Willis, see Pevsner, Some Architectural Writers, pp. 52-61, as well as Pevsner, , Robert Willis (Northampton, MA: Smith College, 1970)Google Scholar.

15 Letter, Rickman to Whewell, 12 March 1830, Whewell Papers, R.6.1130.

16 David Watkin explains Willis’s debt to Whewell in the introduction to a reprinted edition of Willis, and Clark, , Architectural History of the University of Cambridge (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988)Google Scholar.

17 Hall’s Essay was first published in 1797 in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

18 Recently Simon Schama has compared Hall’s approach to that of the German Romantics, concluding that Hall’s was a ‘clumsy exercise in botanical utilitarianism’. Schama, Simon, Landscape and Memory (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), p. 236 Google Scholar.

19 Willis later claimed that Hall made a contribution to architecture knowledge by ‘pointing out the regular subordination of mouldings in tracery’, but observed that his essay was ‘unfortunately shorn of its utility by the accompanying hypothesis of its derivation from basket work which I doubt has deterred many from giving it the attention it deserves.’ Willis, Robert, Remarks on the Architecture of the Middle Ages, Especially of Italy (Cambridge: Pitt Press, 1835), p. 57 Google Scholar.

20 June 1835, Letter, Edmund Sharpe to William Whewell, Whewell Papers, R.6.1111. On a more positive note, Sharpe considered the founding of the Societé Française pour la Conservation et Description des Monuments Historiques to be a forward step. At the time these letters were written, Whewell and Rickman were acting as mentors to Sharpe, but he later came into his own, writing several significant tracts on medieval architecture, including an early study of the Cistercian Order.

21 Letter, Sharpe to Whewell, Dec. 1833, Whewell Papers, R.6.117.

22 Notes taken while preparing the book are in the Whewell Papers, R.6.1170-75.

23 Whewell, William, Architectural Notes on German Churches. A New Edition to which now is added Notes written during an architectural tour in Picardy and Normandy (Cambridge: Pitt Press, 1835), p. 10 Google Scholar.

24 Whewell, German Churches, p. 9.

25 For more on this problem in the philosophy of science, see Menachem Fisch, ‘A Philosopher’s Coming of Age: A Study of Erotetic Intellectual History’, in Fisch and Schaffer, pp. 31-66.

26 Fisch, ‘A Philosopher’s Coming of Age’, p. 54. Fisch reprints a chart recorded by Whewell in a notebook from 1831. The chart contrasts the experimental and observational sciences; under observational science, Whewell noted the following hierarchy of activities: 1) common observation and collection of instances, 2) classification and nomenclature, 3) systematic observation, and, eventually, 4) discovery of the causes of laws. These steps might also apply to ‘architectural science’ as he saw it.

27 Whewell, , German Churches (1842 edn.), p. 14 Google Scholar.

28 Whewell, , German Churches (1842), p. 15 Google Scholar.

29 Whewell, , German Churches (1842), p. 19 Google Scholar. Whewell was incorrect in his assumption of a German origin for pointed arches over irregular spaces. According to Frankl, in 1809 Whittington had already published the date of St Denis at 1144, thus recognizing the rebuilt choir as the earliest use of the pointed arch for vaulting; this might have changed Whewell’s thesis about German churches, but apparendy Whittington was little known, and he is not cited by Whewell.(Pointed arches in the nave vault at Durham were in place by 1133.)

30 Whewell, Lectures on the Results of the Great Exhibition, p. 7.

31 Simon Schaffer, ‘The History and Geography of the Intellectual World: Whewell’s Politics of Language’, in Fisch and Schaffer, pp. 201-31 (p. 226).

32 Schaffer, ‘Whewell’s Politics of Language’, p. 229.

33 Whewell, , German Churches (1842), p. 41 Google Scholar.

34 Ibid., p. xiv.

35 Rjckman, Thomas, An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of English Architecture, from the Conquest to the Reformation; with notices of Eight Hundred English Buildings: Preceded by A Sketch of the Grecian and Roman Orders, 2nd edn (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown: [1817] ), p. 37 Google Scholar.

36 ‘The first of these styles. [Norman] is found prevailing all over Europe, and is plainly a debased imitation of Roman art, whence we may, in this wider view of it, term it Romanesque.’ Whewell, , German Churches (1842), p. 232 Google Scholar. Whewell also rejected Hope’s term ‘Lombard’, saying ‘the term Romanesque is now so generally understood, and, on the whole, so unobjectionable, that we should certainly lose in attempting to displace it by another’ (Whewell (1842), p. 16). In 1838, Britton, John noted Whewell’s acceptance of the term ‘Romanesque’ in his Dictionary of the Architecture and Archaeology of the Middle Ages, including Words used by Ancient and Modern Authors in Treating of Architectural and other Antiquities (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1838), p. 199 Google Scholar. See also Bizzarro, pp. 132ff.

37 In Romanesque Architectural Criticism, Bizzarro addresses the important historiographical issue of how the words we use to describe art cannot be separated from later comprehension of that art. In her introduction, she writes: ‘The naming of a style, which requires a certain critical, historical, and psychological distancing from the material, influences all subsequentunderstanding of that style’ (p. 1).

38 In the case of French architecture, Whewell claimed that Early English and Decorated corresponded well, but that Perpendicular did not exist outside England, and that the French term ‘Flamboyant’ should be used for the late styles, which were ‘more florid, more complex, and more feeble than the preceding style’ ( Whewell, , German Churches (1842), p. 233 Google Scholar).

39 Whewell, , German Churches (1842), p. 41 Google Scholar.

40 Schaffer, ‘Whewell’s Politics of Language’, p. 216.

41 Perry Williams, ‘Passing on the Torch: Whewell’s Philosophy and the Principles of English University Education’, in Fisch and Schaffer, pp. 117-47 (P. 136).

42 Ibid., p. 119.

43 The Whewell Papers at Trinity College Library do contain some modest study notes with simple sketches. One is an extremely concise summary of Rickman’s taxonomy: it is a square sheet, folded in half, on the front of which are Usted ‘Norman’ and ‘Early English’, with diagrammatic sketches and the dates, and on the back are similar line drawings for ‘Decorated’ and ‘Perpendicular’ (Whewell Papers, R.6.1160).

44 Whewell, , German Churches (1842), p. 41 Google Scholar.

45 Letter, Sharpe to Rickman, then forwarded to Whewell, May 1834, Whewell Papers, R.6.118.

46 Van Eck mentions Whewell only once, calling him a philosopher of science who contributed to the discourse on the relationship between nature and architecture (Van Eck, p. 187).

47 As Alberti wrote: ‘Beauty is a form of sympathy and consonance of the parts within a body, according to definite number, oudine, and position, as dictated by concinnitas, the absolute and fundamental rule in Nature’. Alberti, , De Re Aedificatoria, IX. 5, ed. Rykwert, Joseph, Leach, Neil, and Tavernor, Robert (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1988), p. 303 Google Scholar.

48 Whewell, William, ‘Of Certain Analogies Between Architecture and the Other Fine Arts’, Royal Institute of British Architects, Sessional Papers (1862-63), PP. 175-85Google Scholar (p. 177).

49 Later in the century palaeontologists discounted Cuvier’s abstract idea of the correlation of forms, claiming that skeletons were best reconstructed by comparing bone fragments to the morphology and known behaviour of living animals; scientists like T. H. Huxley, in opposition to Cuvier and Owen, emphasized that fragments could not be examined out of context, or, to put it another way, the context had to be larger than one organism.

50 Rupke, Nicolaas, Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), pp. 124-26Google Scholar. Scholars have more recently demythologized Owen’s discovery, by pointing out that the naval surgeon who sent Owen the original fragment suggested that it had come from a flightless bird. For the purposes of this article, however, the salient fact is that Owen’s prediction of the moa was, in its time, seen to be proof of Cuvierian functionalism.

51 Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène-Emmanuel, The Foundations of Architecture Selections from the Dictionnaire raisonné, introduction by Bergdoll, Barry (New York: George Braziller, 1990), p. 19 Google Scholar.

52 Yeo, Defining Science, p. 8.

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