Victorian Britain is a fascinating architectural period, which witnessed a revival of many older styles, culminating in the neo-Gothic style. Visit such masterpieces of the Gothic Revival as Manchester Town Hall, St. Pancras Station in London, and the Museum of Natural History. Then tour, Kensington, where the Royal Albert Hall commemorates Victoria’s husband.
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The Architectural Style of Victorian Britain
Architecturally, the Victorian era was diverse and exciting. New materials made new designs possible. Iron girders and plate glass created superb possibilities, buildings that were lighter and brighter than ever before. For example, the Palm House at Kew Gardens, designed by Decimus Burton and built by iron-founder Richard Turner in the 1840s, used iron and glass to create a tropical environment. The much larger Crystal Palace, built by Joseph Paxton to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, amazed visitors from all over the world.
Wildest of all the Victorian buildings I know of, incorporating five or six different major styles, is the Russell Hotel on Russell Square, London, built in 1898. It is now known as “The Principal: London.” Every inch of its façade is decorated right down to the details—the overall effect is thrilling and just a tiny bit comical.
Rise of the Gothic Revival Style
My own favorite style from the Victorian era is Gothic Revival. It’s so confident, so playful with design, decoration, and materials, and so satisfying to see and to occupy. Scattered 18th and early 19th century buildings had used gothic themes like pointed arches and battlements. One was Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham, the home of Horace Walpole, prime-minister’s son, writer, gossip, and art historian.
Three of the leading Protestant gothic revivalists were George Gilbert Scott, Alfred Waterhouse, and William Butterfield. The place to see Gilbert Scott’s work at its best is St. Pancras Station on Euston Road, London. The station is important for two reasons: the first is the delightfully elaborate and playful façade in polychromatic brick and the second reason is the great iron and glass arch to shelter the trains and passengers on the station.
Alfred Waterhouse’s greatest works are the Manchester Town Hall and the Kensington Museum of Natural History. Both are treasures and I’ll have more to say about them in future lectures. At Balliol College, Oxford, on a smaller scale, Waterhouse managed to convey the impression of everything soaring upward. When you visit Oxford, stop to admire the handsome Broad Street frontage that Waterhouse designed.
Oxford was also the site of several projects by William Butterfield, notably Keble College, half a mile outside the city’s center. Butterfield aimed not merely to duplicate medieval gothic effects but to carry on developing the style from the point where it had broken off in England with the Reformation.
Deane and Woodward made good use of iron and glass. The large central court is made of iron gothic arches, holding up a glass ceiling.
Famous Haunts of Darwin, Marx, Nightingale, and Chaplin
In one of the rooms on the middle level, a debate in 1860 showcased the growing dispute between evolution and the Bible after Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.
The detailed journals and letters that Darwin sent to Britain’s leading scientists, along with hundreds of specimens, made him a celebrity. The house, where he lived for the rest of his life, is now open to the public and run by English Heritage. The whole place is a time-capsule of his life and work.
While Darwin labored away at Down House, Karl Marx was laboring away back in London, in the great circular reading room of the British Museum. He too had a theory of constant transformation and constant predation, of a world in flux and conflict. Marx lived for many years at 28 Dean Street in Soho. He was desperately poor, surviving on handouts and irregular work for German and American newspapers. Although the rooms he occupied have long since been converted to other uses, you can sign up for a guided walk around Marx’s London, led by scholarly enthusiasts.
Another of the era’s intellectual giants was Florence Nightingale, who lived from 1820 to 1910. Florence Nightingale devoted her life to establishing nursing as a respectable profession for middle-class women, and to improving hospital conditions. A museum dedicated to her life and work is located at St. Thomas’s Hospital, just across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament. At the museum, you can see her medicine chest; the clothes she and other nurses wore; her pet owl, Athena; her journals and letters; and some of the era’s surgical instruments.
Nightingale was also important for improving medical care at England’s workhouses. The workhouses, which destitute people were forced to enter for aid, and which they hated, were severe. One of the best-surviving workhouses can be seen at Southwell in Nottinghamshire, a big, highly functional brick building with extensive grounds, in which the inmates grew their own food. It may sound odd to recommend a visit to the workhouse as part of your vacation, but you won’t regret it. Southwell Workhouse will give you valuable insight into the realities of Victorian life, acting as a kind of antidote to Downton Abbey nostalgia.
Another workhouse building at Lambeth in South London, built in the 1870s to house 820 inmates, has been converted into a Cinema Museum. Charlie Chaplin, in his autobiography, describes his miserable life at the Lambeth Workhouse in the 1890s, when he was six and seven years old, and the brutal corporal punishment meted out to the children for minor offenses.
Prince Albert and His Memorials
Let’s return to Victoria, and specifically to the great tragedy of her life—the premature death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. An area of Kensington in London was given over to commemorating him—it is nicknamed ‘”Albertopolis.” The two most striking buildings there are the Royal Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens.
The Hall was another innovative polychromatic brick building, designed by two officers from the Royal Engineers, and featuring an immense iron dome, unsupported by interior pillars. Anxiety about whether the dome would collapse when its temporary supports were removed, in 1870, led all but a handful of the workmen to leave the building. The design proved itself, however, and the roof stayed on.
At first, it had a reputation for excessive echo, which made it difficult for audiences to get a clear sense of the music they were hearing. For a century and a half, experiments with acoustic baffles have aimed to improve it. It is now the setting for the annual promenade concerts or “Proms,” 60 or 70 of which take place over eight weeks each summer.
The Albert Memorial, a few yards from the Albert Hall, is a gothic tower or “ciborium,” a kind of canopy covering a statue. All around the base of the memorial are statues and friezes representing the different parts of the world, the different arts, crafts, sciences, and virtues. It is one of those lovely public objects that you can enjoy looking at time after time, constantly coming upon new elements that you had missed on your previous visit, or which suddenly come back to life after cleaning and restoration.
Civic Buildings of Victorian Britain
In the years of Victoria’s reign, between 1837 and 1901, nearly all the big cities that had prospered with industrialization treated themselves to big, new civic buildings, competing with each other for the grandest structure and boldest design. Early on, the favored style was classical. Birmingham, for example, built a town hall in the 1830s that was modeled on the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum.
St. George’s Hall, Liverpool, built a few years later, was a combination concert venue and law court complex. The design competition was won by Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, a prodigy then aged only 25 who beat out all the more experienced architects of his era.
The town hall in Wolverhampton, which opened in 1871, was designed in the style of a French chateau. The town hall at Leicester was built in the Queen Anne Style a few years later, while civic planners in Glasgow decided on the Beaux Arts style, with elements of the Italian Renaissance. All these buildings are self-indulgent, designed to make a statement about the cities they represent.