Hugh Honour is a romantic, a tremendous admirer of (and authority on) the Gothic style, but there is a residual classical sense of comfort about him so that he lives not on the damp clay fields of his native Kent, but in Italy among olive trees and vines.
With spring here, however, the Gothic juices begin to flow and, as Chaucer pointed out at some length, people are on fire to go see a Gothic church.
Honour himself, who is writing a book about the romantic styles in art generally (which will appear in perhaps 18 months) does not apologize for Gothic extravagance, such as you may see at the Washington Cathedral, where he conducted a little tour on Saturday.
Like most admirers of the Gothic, he calls it rational, fresh, natural and innocent.
"Look at the North Porch," he said, as the 40 tourists, most of them people who conduct tours for the general public at the church, smiled contentedly at it.
"The Gothic architect does not impose himself on the landscape," Honour said, oblivious to the fact that the cathedral tower is the highest structure in Washington, "and see how it settles into its site. See how the architect has made use of this slope."
It is true, a classical person might say, that the architect had sense enough not to expect the North Transept and Porch to sit up in air, and wisely continued its foundations down to the sloping earth beneath it.
Honour led the flock to the crypt beneath the great tower, starting in the Joseph of Arimathea Chapel, where the great feature is the structural support of the tower itself - four immense circular masonry piers able and willing to bear all the soaring tons above.
As he indicated, there is no nonsense or frippery here - it is a grand chapel to be buried from - and no where else in the church is there such a sense of solidity, an effect emphasized by the sober semi-circular stone arches. This room was meant to bear the weight of the world, or at least to support the giddy tower, and it has the usual dignity of stone at work.
Honour pointed out the lack of ornament in the stone - no gargoyles or termite-type tracery here - and said it was a bit forbidding or overwhelming or threatening in its massivensss.
The nearby Romanesque Chapel of the Resurrection is relatively festive with its mosaics, but Honour pointed out its sober round arches, its moderation and relative sobriety.
Somewhat more giddy, the Bethlehem Chapel (sexy enough for marriages) drew increased approval.
Here the columns are slender, the vaults airier, the arches pointed and, for the first time on the tour, the glass windows are conspicuous. They are colored somewhat like the bottom of the North Sea, in grayed white and dull soft greens and subdued purple, and many admire them including Honour, who grew up in England where the lights is so soft and dim that brilliant pure colors look garish.
Proceeding to the crossing upstairs, where the long nave meets the choir, Honour said the Gothic style, for all its insistence on high drama, nevertheless was exceptionally practical in providing spaces of all sizes, and he indicated a tiny chapel where even one person could feel cozy and secure while remaining quite aware of the enormous spaces of the church all around him. He led the group into the Lady Chapel, good for perhaps 300 people, but also complete in itself.
Along the way, the tourists ("many of you know more about the cathedral than I do," Honour said) kept up an obligato of small cavils ("I had always called this chapel Norman," said a woman, and Honour let her keep on calling it Norman, though he preferred the term Romanesque) and comments:
"Now what was it you said, exactly, about the variations in the triforium galleries?" asked a fellow.
"The reredos, of course, strongly suggests the one at Winchester," said a buff, and everyone said why yes, it was very like Winchester, come to think of it.
The little group turned it face the big circle of colored glass, in an abstract nebula of color, in the western wall.
"Marvelously successful," Honour said. Penny pinchers rejoiced at the recollection that a $15,000 gift some decades ago sufficed to pay for all of it.
Here on this level of the main church, the glass colors were pure and brilliant, blue like gentians and skies, scarlet like rose, and there was some danger the group might start to dance up and down, exhilarated.
"Oh, let's march down the nave," cried a woman who said there was nothing finer in the world to do than proceed through that wonderful space.
"Oh, yes, that is always a satisfying thing to do," said Honour.
The choir, looking baik, was lost in a half-light, with little clumps of saphires here and there in the stone exuberance of the window easings.
Honour figured he did not have to say much more on behalf of Gothic style. Stone on stone said it.
True, this soaring business of the Gothic often get out of hand with optimistic architects, like the one at Beauvais, where the whole vault of the choir fell in.
"Too beautiful to stand," people used to say, and sure enough the whole roof collapsed in 1337.
And in the winter, as any classical person fond of heated rooms might point out, there is no way to heat 100-foot ceilings.
But when the flowers start up and the mockingbirds start gurgling (all over the gardens outside the church) then you have to concede Honour's point - the blood does race a little at the daring of the vaults and the blazing of the coors in the dark stone spaces.
The pipe organ started growling, dark and ominous, building first to a commanding roar and at last to a triumph where the threats meant nothing and the pain, if that is what the growls were, turned into glory.
Honour wore dark gray and a white shirt and a dark boue tie. He could have been an usher.
Where, you might have wondered, were any signs of his passion for the Gothic and the romantic? No gaudy cuff links, no palm trees on his shirt, no socks like rainbows.
He looked about the church, down the length of its hall; and others peered up at the triforium (where the fellows with the trumpets and harps are supposed to sit) and higher yet to the clerestory, where the prophets can all look down. Over all the soft light of the west rose, the playground for the suns and stars.
"It was something new," Honour said of the Gothic. Nothing remotely like seals in their ainbows, and the classics.
He and his flock of tourists basked like seals in their rainbows, and the vaults soared all the way up to darkness and the half-lit ribs shone down.