Supertext: The textbook that changed my life

November 28, 2003

My MA was cross-disciplinary: English literature and fine arts at the Barber and Shakespeare institutes at Birmingham University. It was 1976 - a dim time, when a curry was the only cultural excitement.

Initially, the course did not catch my imagination. One week it was Blake the plagiaristic illustrator and author of those tedious prophetic poems; the next would be Shelley's neo-Platonism and Canova's sculpture. It was Kenneth Clark's The Gothic Revival , in the John Murray paperback edition of 1974, that rescued me. The illustrations (though badly printed) were perfectly chosen, with their spindly elegance and romantic ruin, to send me out hunting down the places that inspired them: the Enville summerhouse gently decaying in midwinter Shropshire and Alderman Beckford's ruined cold bath in the tangled woods of Fonthill.

Ever since Clark's fast-moving, name-dropping, flagrantly superficial text, I have taught places first and books second, whether in my undergraduate courses or my MA in garden history. Study buildings, walk gardens, then chase up documents and you can be original; read books or stare into computers and, unless they direct you to go elsewhere, your writing and responses will be second hand.

Clark made me aware of the 18th century as an age of unreason, trapped in a tired classicism and foolish manners: the time when women hid their ankles and men showed their legs, and both sexes wore white wigs so as to look 70.

The second birth of Palladianism in 1715 survived for the next 50 years only on the life-support machine of Whig politics and unthinking conformity. Clark pointed to a new hero, the profoundly obscure Batty Langley, who gave England back its historic past by revamping classicism into sprightly medieval forms; it was Langley who gave us "Gothick".

All my own books have been suggested by Clark. Three biographies have been about perverse rebels: John Wood, the Druid fancier of Georgian Bath; Horace Walpole, the gay deceiver of 19th-century historians; and William Beckford, whose true love child was our present Palace of Westminster.

So I make my students tramp the streets of Bristol and Bath with me. We walk the arcadias of William Kent or Henry Hoare and scrounge entry into deliciously obscure country houses; they trace their own lost gardens and forgotten buildings; and we all end up wiser. In my subject, learning requires physical experience. Books are just the launch pad; mine was The Gothic Revival .

Timothy Mowl is reader in architectural and garden history, University of Bristol.

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