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Design History: Victorian

‘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.


Victorian architecture is the revival and eclectic architecture, décor, and furnishings named for the 63-year reign of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901. It is characterised by rapid changes of style as a consequence of aesthetic controversy and technological innovations, and by the frequent presence of ostentatious ornament. Though no single style gained supremacy. The architectural profession is largely a Victorian creation, moving away from the developer and surveyor role common in the 18th century. In 1834 it saw the creation of the Institute of British Architects (RIBA from 1837)

During the early period we see Classical or Neoclassical and Italianate style buildings, usually with symmetrical columns influenced by ancient Greek and Roman architecture.

Witley Court and Gardens in Worcestershire considered a classic example of a great Victorian house in the Italianate style. Built in the 17th century and expanded in the early 19th century by John Nash.

Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, designed by Thomas Cubitt in 1845 as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s family home, reflecting their passions, tastes, and style.

The mid-period saw both the development of the Gothic Revival style, regarded as the national style with emphasis on the architectural crafts, and the building revolution, the expansion of railways made materials like slate readily distributed and a common feature, technical developments included iron-framed construction, and prefabricated plate glass, terracotta, and polished granite, including integral heating, prefabrication and standardisation.

The Natural History Museum by Alfred Water House built in 1880 and combined Gothic Revival and 12th-century Romanesque style with mechanized terracotta bricks and lavish terracotta tiles featuring relief sculptures of the natural world, which were used for the entire building.

The Palm House, Kew Gardens the first glasshouse built on this large scale by Richard Turner in 1844, using wrought iron rolling techniques from the ship building history, enabling the roof to span 15.2m between columns. The greenhouses at Kew Gardens gained iconic status as symbols of Victorian innovation.

Selwyn College, Old Court, Cambridge. Construction began in 1880 largely designed by Sir Arthur Blomfield in the Late Perpendicular Gothic Revival style, with pale yellow Ketton stone and local red brick.

In the late period we have classicism again with the Queen Anne Revival style designed elegantly but simply, and The Arts and Crafts movement, whose most famous proponent was William Morris, combining a strong interest in the Middle ages and the revival of traditional crafts, rejecting many technological innovations and opposed to mass production, though buildings were plain and unadorned, nonconforming to any traditional style.

39 Frognal, Hampstead, London by Richard Norman Shaw built in 1885 is a Grade II listed studio house in the Queen Anne Revival style, featuring a bay window, hanging fish-scale tiles, projecting gable, tall massive chimney and architrave doorway.

The Victorian era was considered the golden age of civic as well of church architecture, where local pride transformed towns and cities with new town halls, libraries, museums, concert halls and schools, built in Neoclassical, Italianate and Gothic revival styles. Examples include the Palace of Westminster, the Royal Albert Hall, St Pancras station and hotel, Manchester Town Hall, the John Rylands Library in Manchester, Victoria Law Courts in Birmingham, North of Scotland Bank in Aberdeen.

St Pancras Station & Hotel, London


Though many different styles are in included within Victorian architecture expanding through the Queen’s reign, it is during the late period that the elements we consider typical became popular. The following design features are typically incorporated in a Victorian building:

  • Asymmetry was now preferred as a reaction to the symmetry in Palladian and Georgian architecture

  • Materials used were terracotta tiles; multi-coloured brickwork – often red - and laid in patterns, possible thanks to the regularity that mechanized manufacturing made; slate roofs brought in mainly form Wales; cast iron, wrought iron (worked iron) mainly seen in railings; plate glass, stained glass with floral and geometric patterns typically fitted at the entrance; ornamental stonework; and polished granite

  • Decorating the roof of a house with a finial, designed to emphasize the apex of a gable, imitating the upward swoop or spire of a Gothic church

  • Dormers and gables, which were sometimes decorated with wooden trim. Pointed and projecting porches.

  • Cantered bay windows are seen from 1894, when an amendment to the building act decreed that windows no longer need be flush with the exterior wall, popular in houses.

  • Larger sash windows were possible due to the cheaper version of plate glass – sheet glass – being invented, making larger windows more affordable. The 8-over-8 version, of 4-paned across by 2 down, with larger sheets, can be seen by the 1870s

  • Arts and Crafts details, clarity of form and structure, variety of material – mixing timber and stonework, traditional construction and craftsmanship.

  • The cavity wall became a cost-effective way of insulating and protecting interiors from rain damage and damp, from the 1870s, becoming a standard feature later in the Edwardian period.

  • The interiors were often filled with decoration, dark fabrics of red and green, wide mantelpieces to accommodate an array of ornaments, cast iron baths and walls typically decorated not with paint but with floral wallpapers, a new invention, most influential were William Morris’ designs.

  • A bare room was considered to be in poor taste, so every surface was filled with objects that reflected the owner's interests and aspirations. The dining room was the second-most important room in the house. The sideboard was most often the focal point of the dining room and very ornately decorated.

Double fronted Victorian house

William Morris wallpaper pattern


During the 18th century, a few English architects emigrated to the colonies, but as the British Empire became firmly established during the 19th century, many architects emigrated at the start of their careers. Some chose the United States, and others went to Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Normally, they applied architectural styles that were fashionable when they left England. However, with improvement to transport and communications mid-century, access to publications kept architects informed about current fashion.

The names of architectural styles (as well as their adaptations) varied between countries. Many homes combined the elements of several different styles and are not easily distinguishable as one particular style or another.

In Australia, the Victorian period flourished and is generally classified as the years from 1840 to 1890. There were fifteen styles that predominated. Victorian Georgian; Victorian Regency; Egyptian; Academic Classical; Free Classical; Filigree; Mannerist; Second Empire; Italianate; Romanesque; Tudor; Academic Gothic; Free Gothic; Rustic Gothic; Carpenter Gothic. 1890-1915 was considered the Federation Period where we see Arts and crafts and Queen Anne Style.

In the United States, Victorian architecture is also classified by date, and describes the styles used between 1860 and 1900. In addition to characteristic Italianate and Gothic Revival, 6 of the most common are Second empire; Stick-Eastlake, Folk Victorian, Queen Anne Style, Richardsonian Romanesque and Shingle.

The old Sydney Post Office, Martin Place, Australia designed under the guidance of Colonial architect James Barney in 1866, has been described the finest example of the Victorian Italian Renascence Palazzo style.

Victorian houses on Steiner Street, Alamo Square Park, San Francisco, known as the Painted Ladies (repainted in the 1960s giving them their name) were built between 1892 and 1896 by developer Matthew Kavanaught.

Research by Celia Moreno Marcos, Interior Designer.



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