Architecture and the Victorians

The economic growth in the 19th century, allied to the expansion of trade and industry, led to an enormous increase in buildings in towns: hospitals, art galleries, Post Offices, banks, etc. The larger commissions were decided by public competition. In the case of neighbouring Birmingham, both the Town Hall and the Law Courts were the product of this system. During the 19th century architecture emerged as a recognised profession, relying on the services of a quantity surveyor to supply details and figures. The architect was paid on the basis of work done and not, as previously, on the profits of speculative building. The growing professionalism of architecture can be seen by the foundation of the Institute of British Architects in 1834, which became the regulatory body of the profession.

For most architects not of national standing, private practice was the norm. This meant in the main working in chambers with the help of a few assistants, a clerk and a pupil. Pupilage was also the most usual form of architectural education. For example in Charles Dickens’ novel Martin Chuzzlewit, the eponymous hero is apprenticed to the hypocritical and uxorious Pecksniff who takes the best work of his pupils and expropriates it as his own. In the 1850s William Morris was a pupil in the Oxford offices of G.E. Street.1

There were many excellent architects working in Wolverhampton in the 19th century and talented architects from outside also provided the town with some highly praiseworthy buildings. Among the former was Edward Banks, probably the foremost architect working in the town in his day. He has been credited with changing the face of Wolverhampton.

There was probably more disagreement about architectural styles and the purpose of architecture generally, in the 19th century than there is today where current architectural trends are aired and everyone is an expert. The term “Victorian architecture” is all embracing; covering many different styles and approaches. There are others better qualified and informed than we are to untangle this complex web and so in this section the aim is to try to simplify a complex subject by looking at the main 19th century styles, their supporters and opponents.

At the beginning of the century, the prevailing style was the classical, based on the buildings, particularly temples, of Greece and Rome. During the Renaissance, only the classical period was thought worthy of study, since the medieval period was regarded as barbaric. Classical architecture was introduced into Britain in the 16th century as a reaction against the then prevailing Gothic, a style whose 19 century revival was to do much to dent the classical style’s popularity. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, public buildings and country houses incorporated Classical features; largely copied, not from original Greek or Roman buildings, but from Italian architecture such as that of Palladio. Georgian townhouses, with columns and portico around the front door and symmetrically placed windows, adapted the style to the urban environment, as can be seen in the remaining houses in St. John's Square.

By the early 19th century the theory of Classical architecture had rigidified. There was a strict code of rules specifying which particular branch of the Classical: Doric, Ionic or Corinthian, should be used on a particular building and what decorative features could be used. Architects had little freedom to add their own “signature” to a building. It was against this background of weariness with the Classical on the part of many architects, and a renewed interest in the medieval period, that the Gothic revival was born.

It was to be one of the most important factors shaping the image of Victorian England. Its main proponent was Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852). There was however a long history of “Romantic” or “Gothic” buildings in England, such as Horace Walpole’s Gothic villa at Strawberry Hill. Pugin himself was hugely influential and poured out his ideas in a number of passionate books, such as “Contrasts” (1836) and “The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture) (1841). Pugin was the dedicated champion of the Gothic who related architecture to certain principals of religion and life. He believed that there should be one style, as there was one real faith and that good men should only build good buildings.

The adherents of the Gothic Revival held the view that religions had produced their own supreme architectural forms that best expressed their ethos and spirit. Thus Renaissance architecture, which sought its inspiration from the “heathen” temples of Rome, was dismissed as pagan. Only Gothic represented the full flowering of the Christian faith.

There was however a subversive element to the Gothic. In the 19th century the term “Goths” was used to describe the peoples whom we would call Angles, Saxons, Huns etc, moving across Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. The view developed that the end of imperial rule left these peoples; who were seen as imaginative, courageous and intrepid; free to develop in their own ways, no longer constrained by the inflexible ways of the Empire. Thus the movements of peoples, trading and raiding, sagas and architecture of the time we call “The Dark Ages” into the medieval period were seen as the admirable products of free people rather than the constrained and regimented classicism of the Roman Empire.

Hence Gothic architecture: the vernacular building style of the “Goths” (which developed differently across Europe: Hungarian Gothic is very different to that of Italy, which differs again from that of Germany or England). Pugin, Ruskin and Morris, whom we may call the apostles of the English Gothic ideal, looked back on an ideal medieval world where free craftsmen created beautiful buildings embellished with carvings and traceries of their own design, not part of some controlling architectural master plan. Ruskin’s schemes for rural crafts, Morris & Company’s stained glass, furniture and textiles, were attempts to recreate this past ideal in the 19th century.

Gothic architecture was also more practical; pitched roofs and thick stone walls being better suited to the north European climate than high ceilings, terraces and rotonde. Which of us hasn’t visited some stately Palladian National Trust property and felt that, while its echoing marble halls may be ideally suited to the light and warmth of Italy, they are dull and cold on a windswept English hillside!

Gothic was thought of as a national style. The French Revolution had released a burst of nationalism across Europe and countries so touched began to stress not just their political but also their cultural identity. There was also the feeling that Gothic art was the true expression of the Christian church, so that when Cardinal Newman rejected Pugin’s scheme for a medieval monastery with cloisters at the Birmingham oratory, Pugin condemned Newman and his brother priests as "Worse than socialists"! The Gothic style originally used in 19th century England was Perpendicular, mainly as many nationally important buildings such as St George’s Chapel, Windsor and Westminster Abbey were in this style.

Gothic was however only one style amongst many. Every style from every age and country was harnessed to provide examples.2 Some architects pleaded for a genuine “Victorian” style that would make use of new materials like iron and plate glass.

However, the Gothic style never entirely replaced the Classical. For example, although the British Museum was begun in 1823, its well-known Classical frontage was not added until 1842 when the Gothic Revival was at its height. Indeed, apart from Gothic zealots, like Pugin, many architects believed that the Gothic was basically church architecture and Classical should be used for public buildings. Victorian Classical buildings are notable for their increasingly elaborate decorations: swags, caryatids, friezes and so forth.

By the 1850s a number of architects had come to the view that styles from the past need not be used in a rigid way, but should be combined and adapted to suit the needs of the 19th century: neither Classical nor Gothic styles in their original forms made much provision for chimneys or office space!3 This led to the development of the “Free” or “Eclectic” style, whereby architects could pick and mix features from classical, Gothic, English and Scottish 16th century, or Italian and French Renaissance in any combination of building materials they chose. Some particularly exuberant buildings, such as the Birmingham Law Courts of 1887, illustrate the Free Style.

However, not all architects approved of this stylistic confusion. Some favoured a return to the Classical and styles related to it, such as Renaissance and Baroque, which became the prevalent styles of the Edwardian era. Others, like William Morris’ close friend Philip Webb, preferred the “Vernacular” style, which was believed to be a return to traditional English architecture. This could mean late medieval / early Tudor half-timbered buildings, such as Wightwick Manor, designed by the Liverpool architect Edward Ould (1887, enlarged 1893); or the “Queen Anne” style, a re-interpretation of English buildings of the 17th and 18th centuries. Vernacular buildings were characterised by their simplicity of style and practicality of layout, and were particularly popular for country houses.

All in all the hallmark of Victorian architecture was variety:

“They like imposing public architecture with “pretensions”, wanted it to demonstrate wealth, to abound in decoration, even in polychromatic effects, and to incorporate the elaborate symbolism of an age of free trade and material progress”.


1. The church of St Paul’s in Walsall was designed by G.E. Street with whom Morris was apprenticed. In the 1990s it suffered appalling institutionalised vandalism at the hands of the Church of England and Walsall Council who allowed it to happen.
2. Hence, the Gothic vandal George Gilbert Scott “restored” Lichfield Cathedral according to the same bizarre Gothic palimpsest, but his design for the Foreign Office was Italianate. However, his exuberant St. Pancras Hotel is an example of a public building in the Gothic style.
3. As Peter Ackroyd says of 19th century architecture: “The “mongrel” tendency is everywhere apparent in edifices which took traditional eclecticism to even greater levels”.
Ackroyd P., “Albion: The origins of the English Imagination”

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