This is the third in a series of pages telling in brief the story of English architecture, illustrated with examples from this blog. The links below will take you to posts on the English Buildings blog that contain more information.
This page deals with the Georgian and Regency periods, essentially the years from 1700 to 1837, but the story of early-18th-century architecture is also touched on in the previous page, which covers the Tudor and Stuart periods.
In 1715 the Scottish architect Colen Campbell published the first volume of his influential book Vitruvius Britannicus. The book, and two other volumes that followed over the next decade, included a selection of meticulous engravings of buildings – mostly country houses such as Stourhead (illustration above) – from recent years, with an emphasis on those drawing inspiration from the Italian Renaissance. The book encouraged a many of the best architects of the early-18th century to draw on the work of the great Italian Palladio.
As a result, country houses in the years 1715–1760 become more Italian in look and atmosphere. Some houses, such as Lord Burlington’s Chiswick House and the similar Mereworth Castle, designed by Campbell, are based very closely on villas by Palladio. Others, such as the vast Holkham Hall in Norfolk, designed by Burlington’s protégé William Kent, are on an altogether bigger scale, but still Palladian.
The facades and plans of these houses are symmetrical, with windows ranged on either side of a columned portico with a triangular pediment. Their rooms are arranged in a hierarchy, with service rooms on the ground floor, principal rooms on the floor above, the level known to the Italians as the piano nobile. This distinction is often obvious from the outside, with the lower floor given rusticated masonry and small windows, to make it look like a mere base for the larger showier windows of the floor above. Small buildings relating to country houses were also given the Palladian treatment, as various lodges and gatehouses reveal.
The columned and rusticated style of Palladian architecture could give a grand appearance to smaller houses, such as the town house of Ralph Allen, tucked away in a side street in Bath. This is an example of great urban sophistication. But in a small town, the same kind of architecture could be interpreted in a more rustic fashion, to produce buildings like Parnella House in Devizes, or to lend gravitas to civic buildings, such as the Buttercross in Ludlow.
In the last few decades of the 18th century, a fashion grew up for houses that were still more overtly classical than Palladian villas and houses of Burlington, Campbell, and Kent. In part, this change was inspired by another book, The Antiquities of Athens, by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, again in several volumes, the first of which came out in 1762. Stuart and Revett surveyed the temples and monuments of ancient Athens, and included measured drawings in their book. Suddenly, architects had another, more ancient, classical source for their buildings and structures such as Stuart's own Tower of the Winds at Shugborough were based directly on buildings he had surveyed in Athens.
Country-house architects such as William Chambers and William Wilkins drew on Greek sources, and their houses, with their severe lines and ordered rows of columns, can look very like Greek temples. Other architects were inspired by archaeology in different ways. Robert Adam, for example, developed a style of decoration based on Etruscan art that was very popular in country house interiors in the late-18th century. This kind of decoration is even used on the exteriors of some of Adam’s London houses. Not all classical buildings drew directly on these kinds of archaeological sources, though. But the classical language in all its variations was the most popular for houses during the 18th century. A large order, a triangular pediment, a rusticated ground floor, and similar classical details provided architects and builders with a reliable vocabulary with which to produce well proportioned, satisfying results, as in a particularly fine house of 1766 in Derby.
The classicizing of buildings that took place in the 18th century was accompanied by a classicizing of the landscape. Landscape architects such as William Kent and Lancelot (‘Capability’) Brown remodelled the gardens of country houses so that they resembled a classical paradise or Arcadia, crossed with serpentine rivers and rills, punctuated with small pavilions, temples and statues, and culminating in vistas out to the open countryside. The landscape work of Kent survives in the wonderful landscape garden at Rousham in Oxfordshire, while a number of gardens by Brown, such as Croome (photograph above), are preserved.
The small house
Palladianism and Neoclassicism were styles seen at their most developed in grand country houses. But most people lived in more modest buildings – some in compact detached houses owing much to the tradition of Wren and Hawksmoor (a tradition kept alive in countless manors, rectories, and even farmhouses).
Individual houses of the Georgian period are still some of the most interesting and delightful buildings in English towns. They can play variations on simple arrangements of sash window, columned doorway, and pilaster, as at Alcester and Aylesbury. They can show resourceful use of brick and stone dressings, as at Worcester. They can make resourceful use of details such as pedimented door cases or small round windows (oeils de boeuf), as at Leominster. They can be faced with mathematical tiles to give the impression of brick, as in many houses at Lewes. They can be grandiose essays in stone, as in Ralph Allen’s town house in Bath. They can take the elements of Neoclassicism and adapt them to buildings such as lodges and gatehouses, as at Stoke Edith. And they can display hints of baroque taste, as in various houses in Blandford Forum (photograph above), the Old Greyhound Inn in the same town, and a small house in Lacock, Wiltshire, where Borromini-style capitals are used as wall oranments. The relatively restricted vocabulary of classicism – pilasters, columns, pediments, rustication, and so on – could be worked and reworked in a great variety of ways.
The terraced house
The 18th-century was also the great age of the English terraced house. The terraces of the 18th century, seen to perfection in cities such as Bath (photograph above) and London, exhibited the same hierarchy of room function and level as the country houses, but in a still more obvious way because terraced houses were tall. So a basement with service rooms was topped by two or three storeys of living rooms and bedrooms for the owner, and a top floor containing servants’ rooms. Most houses were asymmetrical, with the front door to one side.
The terrace formula worked with a range of house sizes, from tiny artisans’ dwellings to much taller, more spacious houses suitable for rich families. In London, building regulations even specified explicitly the range of sizes, which were referred to as houses of the first, second, third, or fourth rates. Outstanding examples of these tall, elegant town houses survive in London, Bath, Exeter, and elsewhere, and are one of the most typically English contributions to architecture and town planning.
The Georgian church
Georgian churches combined the architecture of the classical temple with the requirements of Christian worship. One of the most prominent church architects was James Gibbs, who designed London’s St Martin in the Fields. The way in which this church combines a classical entrance portico with a steeple rising directly above it, although rather incongruous, was copied by other architects. This pattern became a standard for the Georgian church, although small churches played more modest variations on it, as in the very correct Palladian church at Glynde, with its pediments, niches, and stone bellcote, and the more countrified example at Chiselhampton (photograph above).
Inside, Georgian churches were quite simply planned. In the 18th-century the emphasis was more on preaching, less on the sacraments, so chancels were small and naves were arranged so that the whole congregation could see and hear the preacher. So 18th-century naves took on simple, box-like proportions, and the dominant feature was usually the furniture: rows of box pews and large pulpits, the latter sometimes arranged on three levels accommodation a desk for the clerk, a lectern, and the pulpit itself. Occasionally, in smaller churches, the pews were arranged facing the central aisle, like a college chapel, as at Teigh in Rutland.
However, very brief histories of the arts are full of sweeping generalizations, and the two paragraphs above are a case in point. Along with these churches like classical temples, there were also Georgian churches being built in the old Gothic style of the Middle Ages, buildings constructed by masons trained in the old ways, their skills and sensibilities formed by previous generations. This phenomenon, known as the Gothic Survival, produced some complete churches and some notable additions to existing ones. These are buildings that look like medieval structures, but with subtle differences; they can fool observers, but delight them too.
So Gothic survived into the 18th century, especially in the countryside. But in the middle of the century something different happened. A number of fashionable architects and artists decided that this old countrified Gothic should be subjected to a civilizing or refining process and applied, in a new, more self-conscious form, to grander buildings. This self-conscious taking up of Gothic became known as the Gothic Revival. It came about largely as the result of the work of the collector and writer Horace Walpole, who decided in the 1740s to rebuild his house at Strawberry Hill, at Twickenham (illustration above) in Gothic form. Walpole, who designed the house himself in conjunction with a group of friends, created a new version of Gothic for the purpose. Highly ornate, eclectic in its sources, fanciful and filigree in its manner, Walpole’s Gothic was unlike the Gothic of the medieval churches (and also unlike the buildings of the Gothic survival), even though it drew on them for inspiration.
This fanciful Gothic, full of pinnacles, fan vaults, and Y-tracery windows, was copied by Walpole’s friends and then more widely. It became known sometimes as “Strawberry Hill Gothic”, sometimes simply as Gothick. It was used first in country houses and in garden buildings and follies, where its contrast to the prevailing classical style brought incident and variety to landscape gardens and country parks.
Georgian Gothick buildings also appear in the wider landscape. Sometimes they were eyecatchers, buildings created as outliers on a country estate, to enhance the view from the park, or, in the case of towers such as those at Broadway or Edge Hill also to provide a place from which to admire the view over a large area. The kind of castellated style seen at Edge Hill can occur in quite small buildings such as gates and lodges that were intended to make an eye-catching mark on the landscape. Other kinds of builders, such as the engineers who worked on the expanding canal network, also sometimes used Gothick to make their structures more ornamental. The little canal bridge at Drayton Bassett is a delightful example. Church builders also sometimes used the Gothick style, sometimes with surprisingly filigree results, as at the extraordinary little church at Shobdon and the Georgian-style furnishings (actually Regency in date) of the medieval church at Mildenhall.
The period known as the Regency is strictly defined as between 1811 and 1820, when George III was deemed to be unfit to rule through illness and when his son ruled in his stead as Prince Regent. But ‘Regency’ is also the term used to define the longer period, roughly 1795 to 1837, when the arts generally and Georgian architecture in particular took a series of new turns, setting it apart from the earlier Georgian era and the Victorian period to come.
One new development was a taste for exotic architecture, seen memorably in the nabob's house at Sezincote, and most famously exemplified in the mixture of Indian and Chinese styles used in the Prince Regent’s house by the sea, the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. Its onion domes and cusped Indian arches were part of a wider fashion, sometimes influential other country house architects, sometimes inspiring the builders of quite small cottages to ape the exotic style. Another aspect of the exotic taste was a fashion for Egyptian-style buildings, that showed itself sporadically in the Georgian and Regency periods. Few Egyptian-style house fronts or factories have survived, but a few grandees of the period elected to be buried in or under pyramids, and an example of one of these stands in the churchyard at Brightling, Sussex.
Many builders and architects, though, stuck to the classical style, but with added decoration. The developments surrounding Regent’s Park in London are classical terraces, but on a huge, palatial scale, with vast porticoes, sculptural frieze and large-scale lettering. The similar grand terraces along the Mall work in a similar way. John Nash, the architect of these decorative classical buildings, also produced the more sober, but beautiful Royal Opera Arcade in London, the first shopping arcade in Britain. Elsewhere, the houses might be on a smaller scale, but still subtly different from those of the earlier Georgian era, exhibiting a more decorative or more unbuttoned approach. Examples are the generous use of bow windows in the terraces at Brighton and other seaside towns, caprices such as the ammonite order used at Brighton and Lewes, and the caryatids of Cheltenham. Coade stone, an artificial srtone-like material that could be cast in intricate shapes, was used widely for exterior ornament. Everything from urns to lions was produced in Coade stone, and one shop in Bath bears a beautiful Coade stone royal arms.
Architects such as John Soane, master manipulator of interior space, designer of distinctive shallow-domed structures, and architect of striking neoclassical exteriors, flourished in this period too. The monumental side of Regency architecture, employing large empty niches, blank expanses of wall, and generous cornices, was developed by Soane and is also found in the work of his pupils, such as G A Underwood, architect of the Masonic Hall in Cheltenham, a small but imposing building.
Other traditions established in the Georgian period that continued into the Regency included the Gothick. Not only were fanciful Gothick houses still constructed, but some architects also experimented with Norman or Romanesque revival buildings in a much weightier style. The country house in the form of a Norman castle at Eastnor is a stunning example.
Another development that was very influential from the 1790s onwards was the movement known as the Picturesque. Followers of this movement aspired to make life imitate art by creating landscapes and building structures as if they were part of a well composed landscape painting. This meant abandoning the symmetry of Georgian architecture for a less formal, asymmetrical approach, so that classical villas might have off-centre towers or conservatories attached prominently at one end.
Picturesque architects also liked to build ideal or rustic cottages as landscape features. The term cottage ornée is used for these self-conscious cottages with thatched roofs, verandas, big chimneys, dovecotes, elaborate timber framing, and other decorative features. Such cottages – there are examples at Stanbridge (photograph above) and Whittonditch – were used to house estate workers or featured as lodges at the gates of bigger houses. This kind of architecture was built most often in rural settings, but in towns such as Ross-on-Wye, imitation medieval fortifications were built to improve the view of this picturesque town from the valley below. The building of eyecatchers, mentioned above in the text on Gothick, was also often related to this love of the picturesque.
If the decorative and picturesque sides of the regency sound frivolous, this was also the period when architecture began to respond on a larger scale to the demands of expanding industry and trade. Multi-storey brick mills, upscaling the architecture of older watermills, became common. And the idea of giving these buildings a framework of iron, to make construction easier and the make the structure fireproof, caught on in a big way. As Regency architects transformed resort towns like Cheltenham with terraces, villas, and shops, their engineering colleagues fashioned a similar transformation from the Cotswolds to northern England. Architecture would never be the same again.