Victorians: Architecture

The architectural profession is largely a Victorian creation. In the 18th century it was common for architects to act as developers and surveyors too, but by the 1820s such roles were being devolved, leaving architects free to experiment with a profusion of styles.

Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, was built in the French style by the 2nd Earl de Grey in the 1830s

Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, was built in the French style by the 2nd Earl de Grey in the 1830s

A NEW PROFESSION

The identity of the profession was cemented by the creation in 1834 of the Institute of British Architects (from 1837 the Royal Institute of British Architects). Its first president was Earl de Grey, who had designed his own house in the 1830s at Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, in a French Baroque style. Such amateur architects had largely disappeared by the end of the century.

The designers of many of England’s 19th-century buildings were the largely anonymous in-house architects of building firms such as Thomas Cubitt. Cubitt himself built large parts of Belgravia and Pimlico in London, as well as Osborne House on the Isle of Wight for the royal family.

The Durbar Room at Osborne House, completed in 1892, was a tribute to Queen Victoria’s longstanding interest in India.

The Durbar Room at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, completed in 1892, reflected Queen Victoria’s longstanding interest in India. Designed by Rhai Bam Singh, one of India’s foremost architects, the room was inspired by the architectural traditions of north India, fusing Hindu and Islamic decorative features.

BUILDING REVOLUTION

Changes in the building world had just as much of an impact on the look of Victorian buildings as did the contribution of architects.

The arrival of the railways gave firms such as Cubitt a national reach and meant that, for example, Welsh slates largely replaced tiles in many parts of Britain. Other technical developments included iron-framed construction, plate glass, terracotta and polished granite, commercially available for the first time thanks to steam power.

Brodsworth Hall, Yorkshire (1863), built during the peak decade of country house construction, is just such a product of the railway age. It was completed within two years and entirely furnished by the London firm Lapworths, with Minton tiles and machine-made carpets.

CLASSICAL VERSUS GOTHIC

Most Victorian buildings were classical, although the style was used with greater flexibility and variety than ever before. It could encompass both the formal magnificence of such buildings as Witley Court, Worcestershire, and the picturesque Italian Renaissance of Osborne House.

In the middle of the century, however, classical styles were being fiercely challenged by the Gothic Revival.

This was promoted by its adherents for a number of reasons. It was regarded as the national style, which is why it was chosen for the design of the new Houses of Parliament after the old Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire in 1834. It symbolised the traditional identity of Christianity, and thus became the preferred style for Anglican churches.

It was also a style that encouraged architects to collaborate with artists and other designers to create sculpture, wall-paintings and stained glass. William Burges’s St Mary's, Studley Royal, North Yorkshire, is a magnificent demonstration of what such collaborations could achieve.

View of one of the rooms at Mount Grace Priory decorated in the Arts and Crafts style

The manor house (the former monastic guest house) at Mount Grace Priory was refitted in 1900 using techniques typical of the Arts and Crafts movement, which adapted medieval craftsmanship to meet 19th-century needs.

REVIVING CRAFTS

Partly because it had such unshakeable religious overtones, Gothic failed to become a universal style. Its emphasis on the architectural crafts had an important legacy, though, in the form of the Arts and Crafts movement, whose most famous proponent was William Morris, a trained architect.

Arts and Crafts combined a strong interest in the Middle Ages and the revival of traditional crafts with a rejection of many of the technological innovations that had made mid-Victorian architecture so distinctive. The impact of Arts and Crafts designers was felt largely in houses of modest size, such as the remodelled monastic guest house at Mount Grace Priory, North Yorkshire.

St Mary’s Church, Studley Royal, North Yorkshire, is one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture. It was designed in the 1870s by William Burges, who combined medieval Gothic elements from across Europe to produce a distinctly Victorian building.

St Mary’s Church at Studley Royal, North Yorkshire, is one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture in England. It was designed in the 1870s by William Burges, who combined medieval Gothic elements from across Europe to produce a distinctly Victorian building.

CIVIC PRIDE

Despite the international interest in the Arts and Crafts movement, it was just one strand in the varied architectural landscape of late Victorian England.

Across the country local pride transformed towns and cities with new town halls, libraries, museums, concert halls and schools, built in Gothic, neoclassical and Italianate styles. This was a golden age of civic as well as church architecture.

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