European Architecture Series
Victorian Architecture

Gothic Revivalism, Jacobethan Designs during the reign of Queen Victoria.

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Houses of Parliament, London.
An iconic example of Victorian
architecture known all over the world.
The Neo-Gothic Palace of Westminster
was designed by Sir Charles Barry
and August Pugin (completed 1870).

Victorian Architecture (1840-1900)


New Architects for a New Age
Monuments to Industrialism
The Gothic Ideal
Art Nouveau Designs
Related Articles

For a general guide to arts and crafts of the modern era,
please see: Modern Art (c.1870-1970).

Clifton Suspension Bridge (1864).
A masterpiece of Victorian engineering.
Designed by William Henry Barlow and
John Hawkshaw, following early plans
by the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
At high tide, the bridge is 240 feet
above the River Avon.


The Victorian era - defined by the lengthy reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) - is noted primarily for its architecture, its Romantic Pre-Raphaelite painting, and its ground-breaking photography, as well as its arts and crafts, while its sculpture remained rather lack-lustre. In terms of building designs, the most popular idiom in Victorian Britain was Gothic architecture which fully exploited new materials and was a perfect match for new building techniques which made use of an iron skeleton framework. Other styles included: Jacobethan (1830–70) - a mix of Renaissance, Elizabethan and Jacobean designs; Renaissance Revival (1840–90); Romanesque Revival; Classical Greek (1845–65); Second Empire (1855–80); Queen Anne Revival (1870–1910); British Arts and Crafts Design movement (1880–1910); and Art Nouveau (1890s). In domestic architecture, however, the nouveau riche bourgeoisie favoured practicality embellished with ornament - a pastiche of Gothic, Palladian, Tuscan, Renaissance, Queen Anne and Romanesque.


For a guide, see:
Architecture Glossary.


New Architects for a New Age

Victorian 19th century architecture was produced for a rapidly growing and an increasingly industrialized and urbanized population. These rapid social changes inevitably led to strains and upheavals in the structure of Britain's building industry. The large contractor and the specialized businessman-architect with his large team of assistants progressively took over from the independent master craftsman and the dilettante architect. Traditional ways of building with local materials began to disappear in the face of new machinery and newly invented materials - iron, plate glass, steel and concrete - which could be produced on a large scale and transported across the country by train and canal.

Social changes led to changes in the system of patronage. In Victoria's reign the middle classes acquired the power and the confidence to take the lead from the aristocracy as setters of fashion. They constituted a powerful body of patrons, not only as private individuals, but as members of the numerous building committees directing the construction of schools, offices, banks, hospitals, stations and other large schemes. With the help of guide books and improved transport, middle-class patrons and architects travelled extensively on the Continent, returning with albums crammed with sketches and later with photographs. Equipped also with an increasing number of books which provided scholarly information about previous styles - from Roman architecture and Gothic Cathedrals, to later Venetian Renaissance architecture - they felt amply qualified to experiment with a bewildering range of styles. Added to this, there were constant technical advances to be assimilated in such subjects as fire-proofing, sanitation and central heating.

If today Victorian architecture seems confusing in its sheer quantity and variety, to contemporaries it often seemed totally anarchic. There were two main paths which Victorians took in their attempts to restore a sense of order to the architectural scene.

The first took the form of a revolt against industrial society and an attempt to re-establish the workmanship and style of building found in medieval crafts. The leaders of this trend - each a writer as well as an artist - were Augustus Pugin (1812-52), John Ruskin (1819-1900) and William Morris (1834-96). These men thought that the soullessness, ruthlessness and shoddiness too often seen in industrialized mass production could be replaced by individual pride, social responsibility and high quality if only men would turn their backs on modern capitalism and return to the ideals of pre-industrial society.

The second path was to face squarely the explosion of knowledge and demand and try to find new means of injecting discipline into it. In 1834 the (later Royal) Institute of British Architects was set up as a means of establishing standards and thus defending the status of the new breed of professional architect against the jerrybuilders who threatened to exploit the building boom. In the succeeding years a spate of new architectural journals, beginning with the Builder in 1842, joined their voices to the RIBA's in the struggle for professionalism. And it was through the pages of these journals that an attempt was made to find a way out of the maze of period styles by asking the question: "what is the appropriate kind of architecture for us Englishmen of the nineteenth century?"

Monuments to Industrialism

At various points in the debate it was suggested that the new breakthroughs in engineering, which produced exciting shapes in glass, steel and iron, might provide the basis for a distinctly nineteenth century architecture. But in general, architects were so keen on defending the dignity of their new-found professional status that they maintained a rigid distinction between the 'artistic' sphere of architecture and the 'utilitarian' sphere of engineering.

It was, however, in functional building that some of the most spectacular designs of the age were produced. The names of Robert Stephenson (1803-59) and Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59) dominate innovations in bridge-building. For example, Stephenson's tubular Britannia Bridge across the Menai Strait and Brunei's Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol, are still impressive monuments to the Victorian railway age. Shells of iron and glass began to be used for exhibition halls and railway stations. Based on greenhouse construction, these buildings were frankly functional. The famous Crystal Palace, built by a former gardener, Joseph Paxton (1801-65) as a temporary hall for the Great Exhibition in 1851, unfortunately does not survive today, but many railway train sheds built by this method can still be seen, among them Newcastle Central (1846-55), King's Cross, London (1851-52) and Paddington, London (1852-54).

But the designs and materials enthusiastically received for utilitarian or temporary buildings were considered totally inappropriate for any building requiring 'artistic' or 'architectural' quality. When the same principles were applied to the design of South Kensington museum (1855-56), its iron naves were ridiculed and had eventually to be removed to Bethnal Green Museum in 1871.

At the beginning of Victoria's reign in 1837 new movements were afoot to give new life to church building after its decline during the eighteenth century. The Oxford Movement, beginning around 1833, and the Camden Society (later the Ecclesiological Society), founded at Cambridge University in 1839, injected a new desire for spirituality into the Anglican church. It was no doubt a little embarrassing for Anglicans that the man who found the right visual means of expressing this new spirituality was a convert to Catholicism - Augustus Pugin (1812-52).

The Gothic Ideal

Pugin's most influential book was probably "The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture" published in 1841. The principles that the structure of a building should not be concealed by its ornament, that it should be manifest in the external appearance of the building and that it should be adapted to the materials used, were not particularly original. What was revolutionary was Pugin's insistence that these were Christian principles, that the Gothic style of architecture (found in England from Westminster Abbey to the early 14th century) was the perfect embodiment of these principles and thus that English Pointed was the only possible style for a Christian Englishman to build in.

NOTE: The Gothic Revivalist style was especially favoured by Victorian architects for official or religious buildings. The Perpendicular style (corresponding to Flamboyant Gothic which flourished 1280-1500) was the initial preference. For more historical detail, see: English Gothic Architecture (1180-1520)

Pugin's ideas were widely adopted by Victorian architects, but in his own buildings, Pugin rarely achieved his ideal, usually because of lack of sufficient money. His church at Cheadle, Staffordshire (1846) remains the most complete expression of his aims.

Some architects, however, were unwilling to restrict themselves to the mere imitation of English Pointed Gothic, wanting instead to express the spirit of their own age in an original, Victorian Gothic style. In order to evolve this style they experimented with combining different materials, creating bold coloured patterns which they called constructional polychromy, and borrowing elements from Italian and French Gothic styles. The mid-century, as a result, saw the erection of some rather wild-looking buildings. But in the hands of masters like William Butterfield (1814-1900) and George Edmund Street (1824-81) the new eclecticism resulted in some marvellously vigorous yet tightly disciplined designs.

During the Victorian era a great deal of wealth from industry and commerce found its way into country estates, as more and more newly-rich entrepreneurs attained respectability by the age-old method of buying their way into the squirearchy. Some of the old landed families, too, found themselves with plenty of money to spare as the result of swelling ground rents from the towns, or the discovery of minerals on their estates.

Changing social requirements encouraged the landed classes to build. In Victorian times the pious and dutiful father figure succeeded the Regency buck as the 'beau ideal' of a gentleman. Encouraged by the climate of philanthropy, he saw his duty as being to build churches, parsonages, schools and model cottages on his estate, and to remodel or rebuild his country mansion, so that it might be fitting for his immensely dignified and formal life-style. The result was the typical large Victorian country house, a complicated machine run by an army of servants. The styles of these stately homes were various. By the 1850s, however, there was an increasing tendency to favour some form of Gothic, considered the native English style, and to drop 'foreign' classical styles.

NOTE: Architecture in France during the Victorian period was dominated by the Beaux-Arts style - a combination of Neo-Baroque and Neo-Renaissance, symbolizing the Belle Epoch. Town planning, like the redesign of Paris by Baron Haussmann (1809-91), was another priority. At the same time, distinguished architects like Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79) - famous for his love of medieval art and his restorations of Gothic and Romanesque buildings - argued for the safeguarding of important ancient monuments. Highlights of French designwork include: the Eiffel Tower (1887-89), designed by Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923), which was most unpopular when it first appeared; and the Statue of Liberty (1870-86), designed by Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904).

The 1860s saw a revolt against the Gothic school. Men like Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912) and Eden Nesfield (1835-88) looked about them and saw that country towns and villages were full of modest but attractive buildings of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which were just as indigenously English as Gothic buildings. So they began to build romantically rambling gabled houses decorated with tiles in what they called their Old English manner, and solid red brick houses with countrified classical details (white-painted sash windows and door surrounds) in what was their Queen Anne manner. These more comfortable and domestic houses suited clients for whom the extreme formality of mid-Victorian life was beginning to seem more than a little absurd.

By the end of Victoria's reign in 1901, changes had been wrought in the landscape which, to an early nineteenth century man, would have seemed incredible. London at night would be bright with the glitter produced by the novel combination of gas lighting and cheap plate glass; new public houses had been built, with great lamps, huge windows and inside a fairyland of cut, embossed and painted mirrors. From the convivial concerts formerly held in the back rooms of pubs had developed great palaces called Music Halls and Variety Theatres. The aristocratic clubland of eighteenth-century St James's had given way to Pall Mall, the clubland of the Victorian middle classes, with its comfortable male preserves contained in stately Italian Renaissance-style mansions. In the city of London, new Venetian Gothic palazzos and glass and iron halls had been erected, containing the offices, banks and commodity exchanges in which the middle classes amassed their wealth. However, unlike American cities like New York and Chicago, London had no recourse to the skyscraper architecture of the Chicago School (1880-1910).

Railway stations were now firmly established, but the ease of transport provided by trains had given rise to new suburbs, grim back-to-backs for the workers and grand villas in leafy streets for their masters. On the coast new Victorian resorts had grown up, with palatial hotels, promenades and piers complete with entertainment arcades.

Art Nouveau Designs

The Art Nouveau movement appeared in Britain as a coda to Victorian architecture, being most notably taken up in Glasgow by the architects A.H.Mackmurdo (1851-1942) and Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928). Mackintosh, one of the most influential precursors of 20th-century architecture, won the competition for extending the Glasgow School of Art (1898-1909). He also designed the Glasgow Herald Building (1893-95), and the Daily Record Building (1900). Another example of Victorian Art Nouveau is the Edward Everard building in Bristol (1900–01). However, British art nouveau designers were overshadowed by their Continental rivals, like Victor Horta (1861-1947), who designed the Hotel Tassel in Brussels (1893-4); and Hector Guimard (1867-1942), noted for his wonderful Art Nouveau entrances to the Paris Metro. (1899-1901).

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