A spotter’s guide to Victorian architecture

Named for the 63-year reign of Queen Victoria, the era 1837 – 1901 inspired unprecedented social, intellectual and technological change.

The Industrial Revolution, though already well underway, saw major cities grow in response to the needs of the iron, cotton and wool industries. Transportation and availability of materials drastically improved with the introduction of the public railway, better roads and canals. Once exclusively a privilege of the rich, travel became more available to a wider section of society and design inspiration came from across the globe.

Manchester Town Hall with the town hall extension and St Peter's Square in the foreground
Manchester Town hall (right back) is regarded as one of the finest interpretations of Gothic revival architecture in the world (1868-1877) Grade I listed © Historic England

Across the period, no single style of architecture gained supremacy. A range of styles are strongly associated with the 19th century, such as Gothic Revival, Italianate and Neoclassicalism, but the architectural style that we may call Victorian came later in the monarch’s reign.

Here are 5 historic places that help to paint a picture of Victorian architectural innovation:

1. The Royal Exchange, London

Exterior of the Royal Exchange with war memorial in the foreground
The Royal Exchange, City of London © Historic England DP183282

Many large public commissions in the Victorian era were decided by competition, promoting public interest in architectural design and giving architects the chance to make their name- although some of the winning designs were so ostentatious that they never even got made.

The Royal Exchange in London is one such building. The winning design in a limited competition came from William Tite, who later became president of the RIBA. Tite’s winning design features an imposing eight-column entrance portico inspired by the Pantheon in Rome.

2. Brodsworth Hall, Doncaster, South Yorkshire

Exterior of Brodsworth Hall
Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire © Historic England K990937

Queen Victoria ascended to the throne just four years after the abolition of slavery. At this time, many wealthy land owners in Britain had been or were descendants of people who had benefited financially from the transatlantic slave trade.

Brodsworth Hall was built on the merchant activities of patriarch Peter Thellusson and plantation ownership in the Caribbean. His son Charles, who inherited the fortune, commissioned Brodsworth by London architect Philip Wilkinson in 1861. It is now one of the most complete surviving examples of a Victorian country house in England, designed in the Italianate style, now Grade I listed.

Exterior of Osborne House
Osborne House, Isle of Wight, Hampshire © Historic England DP167226

The Italianate style was first developed in Britain around 1802 by the architect John Nash (Buckingham Palace; Royal Pavilion, Brighton). Osborne House, the holiday home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert is another good example of this style.

3. County Arcade, Leeds, West Yorkshire

Entrance to arcade with closed iron gates and plate glass roof visible
County Arcade, Leeds (1904) © Historic England BL18252

In the early to mid-19th century, increased interest in leisure pursuits and better urban transportation saw more people hitting the high streets on an afternoon. Two key elements in architecture contributed to Victorian retail designs still enjoyed today: the availability of iron supports and plate glass windows.

Shopping arcades, like the five that survive in Leeds (built 1878 – 1900), relied on glazed roofs to let light into the pedestrian passageway. Leeds’ Grade II* listed County Arcade was designed by music-hall architect Frank Matcham and features a terracotta façade and central dome thought to have been inspired by Italy’s oldest active shopping Mall, the 1865 Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan.

4. Palm House, Kew Gardens, London

The imposing iron and glass structure of the palm house - archive image
The Palm House at Kew Gardens © Historic England aa98_05832

The great glasshouses of the mid-late 1880s have since gained iconic status as symbols of Victorian innovation. The Palm House at Kew (1844- 48) was the biggest greenhouse in the world when it was built borrowing techniques from the ship building industry. Wrought iron ribs support an arched metal frame and glass roof, housing a range of tropical plants – some brought back by Victorian explorers from their adventures to the tropics.

Decorative iron structure detail
Detail of the Temperayr House at Kew Gardens © Historic England

The nearby Temperate House in Kew is twice the size of the Palm House, and by the same designer Decimus Burton. It opened in 1863.

5. Natural History Museum, South Kensington, London

Exterior elevation of the Natural History Museum on a bright day
Exterior elevation of the Natural History Museum © Trustees of NHM, London 2019

It was Prince Albert’s idea to build a cultural centre for London, which began in 1859 with the Victoria & Albert Museum. The collective style for the group of buildings that emerged in South Kensington might best be called Mid-Victorian Eclecticism.

One of Britain’s best examples of Romanesque architecture, the Natural History Museum was designed by English architect Alfred Waterhouse (Manchester Town Hall; Prudential Building, Holborn), with intense backing from Richard Own – the English palaeontologist often credited with the discovery of the dinosaurs.

Built 1873 – 1880, the building makes extensive use of terracotta tiles – a material made commercially available for the first time thanks to steam power. Relief sculptures and illustrations of specimens decorate the grand entrance and glazed ceiling. Large open spaces were planned for displays of whales, dolphins and dinosaurs, with extinct species to the east and living species to the west as Darwin’s theory of evolution sought to draw links between the two.

Written by Marina Nenadic, Marketing Executive at Historic England

Further Reading:

6 responses to A spotter’s guide to Victorian architecture

  1. Baldy says:

    Reblogged this on Baldy Blog and commented:
    Each week, I’ll reblog content on a ‘Bald Spot’ blog tour. I hope you enjoy the above reblogged post as much as I did. Please follow the link, and leave a comment on the authors page in appreciation of their work.

    Reblogging is a convenient way to share what I’m reading and enjoying with my followers.

    First up is Heritage Calling, and a interesting guide to Victorian architecture.

  2. keithbracey says:

    You can find some stunning examples of Victorian architecture in Birmingham like the Birmingham and Midland Institute in Margaret Street and the Birmingham City University School of Art on the opposite corner of Cornwall Street/ Margaret Street

  3. tabythagirl says:

    I love the Natural History Museum in London, it is indeed a beautiful building and the Kew glasshouse is spectacular. I will have to add the others to our family’s “places to visit” list.

  4. VictorianHouseFan says:

    Now how about the ubiquitous Victorian terrace with its painstakingly made timber windows with handmade glass or decorative terracotta on frontages or roof ridges? Even those of us who love the grand Victorian masterpieces unthinkingly rip these from our own houses or slap plastic paint onto expensive stone, usually on the advice of lazy, ignorant builders.

  5. chris taylor says:

    We own a Victorian Grade 2 listed building, not as grand as the ones illustrated, but dearly cherished.

  6. Do enjoy seeing those great glass houses. This one is amazing. Thank you for an engaging and interesting photo/essay.

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