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Design History: Georgian Architecture

‘Design History’ is our new blog series – sharing research staff at EWD have undertaken to inform our own projects and for the enjoyment of the world around us. We feel passionately that only by understanding our design heritage, can we successfully design for today. We have condensed our internal reports here and hope you find them enjoyable and informative.


Featured image: Senate House, Cambridge UK


Background

Georgian architecture - eponymously named for the first four British monarchs in the House of Hanover, George I, George II, George III and George IV - is the set of architectural styles between 1714 to 1830.


In the United States, the term "Georgian" is generally used to describe all buildings from the period, regardless of style; in Britain, it is generally restricted to buildings that are "architectural in intention", and have stylistic characteristics that are typical of the period.


In towns, which expanded greatly during the period, landowners turned into property developers, and rows of identical terraced houses became the norm. Even the wealthy were persuaded to live in these in town, especially if provided with a square of garden in front of the house. There was an enormous amount of building in the period, all over the English-speaking world, and the standards of construction were generally high.


The period saw the growth of a distinct and trained architectural profession. This contrasted with earlier styles, which were primarily disseminated among craftsmen through the direct experience of the apprenticeship system. But most buildings were still designed by builders and landlords together, and the widespread of Georgian architecture, and the Georgian styles of design more generally, came from dissemination through pattern books and inexpensive suites of engravings.


From the mid-18th century, Georgian styles were assimilated into an architectural vernacular that became part and parcel of the training of every architect, designer, builder, carpenter, mason, and plasterer, from Edinburgh to Maryland.


Characteristics

Georgian styles succeeded the English baroque of those such as Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, but influences continued to overlap until at least the early 1720s with a more restrained Georgian style. For example, the architect James Gibbs was a transitional figure, his earlier buildings are Baroque, reflecting the time he spent in Rome in the early 18th century, but he adjusted his style after 1720. Major architects to promote the change in direction from baroque included Colen Campbell, author of the influential Vitruvius Britannicus (1715–1725); Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington and his protégé William Kent, Isaac Ware, and Henry Flitcroft.


The Georgian style is mainly marked by symmetry, balance, and proportion based on the classical architecture of Greece and Rome, as revised in Renaissance architecture. Ornament is also normally in the classical tradition, but typically restrained, and sometimes almost completely absent on the exterior. Simple mathematical ratios were used to determine the height of a window in relation to its width or the shape of a room as a double cube.


Northington Grange, Hampshire, an early example of the Greek Revival style

Brick or stone was almost invariably used, with brick often disguised with stucco. Raked roofs were mostly covered in earthenware tiles until the development of the slate industry in Wales in the 1760s, which by the end of the century became the usual material for roofs.


The classic Georgian building is the Classical country house, standing alone in its own landscaped park. But this is also the period that saw the first steps towards a coherent approach to town planning. Houses were increasingly placed in grand landscaped settings, and large houses were generally made wide and relatively shallow, largely to look more impressive from a distance. The height was usually highest in the centre, and the Baroque emphasis on corner pavilions often found on the continent generally avoided. In grand houses, an entrance hall led to steps up to a piano nobile or mezzanine floor where the main reception rooms were. Typically the basement area or "rustic", with kitchens, offices and service areas, as well as male guests with muddy boots,came some way above ground, and was lit by windows that were high on the inside, but just above ground level outside. A single block was typical, with perhaps a small court for carriages at the front marked off by railings and a gate.


Windows in all types of buildings were large and regularly placed on a grid; this was partly to minimise the window tax, which was in force throughout the period in the United Kingdom. Some windows were subsequently bricked-in. Their height increasingly varied between the floors, and they increasingly began below waist-height in the main rooms, making a small balcony desirable. To open these large windows the sash window, already developed by the 1670s, became very widespread.


The roofline was generally clear of ornament except for a balustrade or the top of a pediment. Columns or pilasters, often topped by a pediment, were popular for ornament inside and out, and other ornament was generally geometrical or plant-based, rather than using the human figure.


Inside, the ornament was far more generous and could sometimes be overwhelming. The chimneypiece continued to be the usual main focus of rooms, and was now given a classical treatment, and increasingly topped by a painting or a mirror. Plasterwork ceilings, carved wood, and bold schemes of wall paint formed a backdrop to increasingly rich collections of furniture, paintings, porcelain, mirrors, and objets d'art of all kinds. Wood-panelling, very common since about 1500, fell from favour around the mid-century, and wallpaper included very expensive imports from China.


Grand Neoclassical interior by Robert Adam, Syon House, London

Examples

The archetypical Georgian church is St Martin-in-the-Fields in London (1720), by Gibbs, who boldly added to the classical temple façade at the west end a large steeple on top of a tower, set back slightly from the main frontage. This formula shocked purists and foreigners but became accepted and was very widely copied, at home and in the colonies.


St-Martin-in-the-Fields, London

An example of a typical Georgian country house would be Ditchley House in Oxfordshire, designed by James Gibbs and completed in 1722.


Ditchley House, Oxfordshire

Somerset House in London, designed by Sir Williams Chambers in 1776 for government offices, was as magnificent as any country house, though never quite finished, as funds ran out.


Somerset House, London

Georgian architecture was widely disseminated in the English colonies during the Georgian era. American buildings of the Georgian period were very often constructed of wood with clapboards; even columns were made of timber, framed up, and turned on an oversized lathe. At the start of the period, the difficulties of obtaining and transporting brick or stone made them a common alternative only in the larger cities, or where they were obtainable locally. Dartmouth College,Harvard University, and the College of William and Mary, offer leading examples of Georgian architecture in the Americas.



Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA

Famous examples of Georgian 'crescents' include the Bath Circus (completed in 1768) and Park Crescent in London, designed by John Nash, 1806–21.


Bath Circus

Research by Eve Waldron, Director.

References


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