Nineteenth-century History

Houses in Fin-de-Siècle Britain: Introduction to Styles of Architecture in Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain

Berkeley House Dining Room in 1900

Berkeley House Dining Room in 1900

The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of twentieth century saw the end of an era of house architecture, whose presence still dominates the British landscape, and the beginning of a new style of building which would simplify the æsthetics of houses into something much more practical and what would today be recognised more as ‘modern’. For most of the nineteenth century, domestic buildings were primarily built according to High Victorian styles and ideals which are important for the Fin-de-Siècle because they formed the foundation on which Late Victorian and Edwardian buildings were designed. These architectural techniques not only comprised æsthetics, but also building methods and floor plans.

Gothic Revival, which was a movement that sought to revive mediæval façades and forms, was the primary style in which public buildings and upper class homes were built, whilst simpler redbrick designs tended to be used for lower and middle class houses and commercial buildings. A fantastic example of Gothic Revival architecture is the Palace of Westminster in London which was built in the mid-nineteenth century. Many architectural feats and building methods were also realised during the nineteenth century which had hitherto been impossible. One example was mastering steel as a building material which meant that the Victorians were able to erect buildings spanning vast areas with very little in the way of structural support. These were generally robust buildings and many still stand today. High Victorian floor plans tended to vary as they still do today, but what makes the Victorians unique is that they mass produced houses on a scale never before achieved in Britain. That meant a single floor plan could have been used for hundreds and sometimes thousands of buildings — something never really done on such a large scale before. This was especially true of working and lower-middle class homes which evolved into the endless rows of terraced housing that still dominate many British cities today.

Architecture began to diverge from some of these tendencies in Fin-de-Siècle Britain, however, whilst at the same time building upon the lessons learned throughout the nineteenth century. Steel continued to be used to construct large buildings and some traces of Gothic Revival designs were still visible. Yet, over the course of the thirty-four years between 1880 and 1914, the façades slowly began to transform into something much simpler and more cost-effective. Arthur Beresford Pite, a well-known architect and professor of architecture at the Royal College of Arts in the Fin-de-Siècle, was only one of many architects to decry the Gothic Revival style by the turn of the century.1 He called it grotesque and out of date, much like modern architects would consider the ‘futuristic style’ of the nineteen-fifties and sixties to be ugly and old fashioned. Pite claimed that he was tired of the ‘idle borrowing from historic styles’ of which he thought that Gothic Revival was guilty.2

What is seen instead at the beginning of this time period is called the ‘Queen Anne‘ style which became a defining characteristic for architecture of Late Victorian Britain. This style grew out of a mixture of Gothic Revival and Classicism which was prevalent in the eighteenth century. Architects such as J. M. Bryson, Norman Shaw, William Morris, Philip Webb and J. J. Stevenson pioneered this style of architecture.3 The ‘Queen Anne’ style can be loosely defined as ‘a variety of freely mixed styles’ which ‘had both grown out of and rebelled against Gothicism in the 1870s.’4 Ironically, it has very little to do with the style prevalent during the actual reign of Queen Anne in the early eighteenth century. By its very nature, it is hectic and inconsistent, encompassing such a large variety of architectural elements as red brick with white stone quoins, mock-Tudor style buildings with timber and white stucco, as well as façades created with terracotta panelling. Buildings with a single tower in one of its corners were a common trend for larger buildings, including medium to large houses. The ‘Queen Anne’ style belonged to the beginning of the Fin-de-Siècle, but what followed was more of an undefined movement. Despite its popularity not only among architects, but also among the population as a whole, some architects such as Pite spoke out against it. In a presentation given in December 1900, Pite said that ‘this school had neither the intellectual apparatus of the older Classicism nor the passionate romantic loyalties of the Gothic Revival’.5 By the turn of the century, ‘Queen Anne’ had become outdated and what followed was a so-called renaissance of the English Renaissance.

Around 1900 architects began to design buildings to look more like they would have in Shakespeare’s time with Elizabethan and Jacobean styles began to once again take predominance in architecture.6 Thomas Graham Jackson, who designed Kirby Hall and the High Street front of Brazenose College, Oxford, was one of the leaders of this trend and one of the first to revive it. However, it was his near contemporary, Rowand Anderson who designed McEwen Hall, that really pioneered the style as he was not as restrained by the same Gothic Revival apprenticeship which Jackson was not able to overcome.7 Another great example of this type is Cragside in Northumberland which was designed by Norman Shaw.

Related to this neo-Renaissance style and occurring simultaneously throughout the period is what is known as ‘free classic’. Loosely based on French Renaissance architecture as opposed to English Renaissance, ‘free classic’ was to become the defining style of the period.8 It was based on the notion employed by many architects, including Norman Shaw who was one of the most prominent architects of the Fin-de-Siècle, that every building of architectural quality had to contain some form of ‘historical fancy-dress’.9 It is a very liberally defined category which includes everything from towers styled after French châteaus as seen in Shaw’s New Scotland Yard in Westminster to the more Gothic Revival style of E. W. Mountford’s Town Hall in Sheffield. ‘Free classic’ defines the period as it was an era of very diverse styles which varied widely based on each individual architect.

Whether architects in the Fin-de-Siècle could agree upon a single style or not, what was obvious even to them was that house architecture was changing. Neither the Classicism nor the Gothic Revival from the previous two centuries were the predominant style of design and yet the new styles had their roots in both. The goal of many architects during this period was to create a new national style of architecture which exhibited ‘Englishness’ whilst also not relying too heavily on previous styles. This resulted in a chaotic mix of styles and architectural experimentation which was only fitting for the Fin-de-Siècle. This series will examine middle-class houses during this time period, specifically looking at general tendencies in architecture, architectural features, façades, floor plans, as well as interior design in the homes of Fin-de-Siècle Britain.

This post is part of a multi-part series about the houses in Fin-de-Siècle Britain. See the rest of the series either on the Houses in Fin-de-Siècle Britain project page or in the category of the same name.


The full bibliography is located on the Houses in Fin-de-Siècle Britain project page.

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