...c 1880-1918

This is the fourth in a series of pages outlining key stages in the story of architecture in England, with links to examples that have been featured in posts in the English Buildings blog. This page deals with developments that took place in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and especially with the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau, and various revivalist styles such as “Queen Anne” and Edwardian baroque. Because of the ways some of these styles developed, it’s worth reading this page in conjunction with the previous one, which covers architecture in the early- and mid-Victorian periods: some of the early-Victorian styles, from Gothic revival to industrial, continued into this period too.

Arts and crafts

The Victorians were deeply absorbed in tradition, and their researches into the way medieval builders worked to produce the original Gothic buildings led some Victorian architects, artists, and craftworkers to look for ways to embrace the traditional techniques of hand work used in the Middle Ages. The old crafts were seen as honest and natural. Employing the best craftsmen – carpenters, masons, and bricklayers, plasterers, painters, and carvers – was seen as the best way to produce good buildings. And these buildings, drawing on vernacular craft traditions, would be appropriate for their locality too. Even the smallest of buildings displayed these crafts at their best, with meticulous stonework complemented by the best of the woodworker's craft.

This movement was known as the Arts and Crafts movement. It was spearheaded by such people as William Morris – poet, polemicist, designer, socialist, businessman, founder of the SPAB – and by architects such as C F A Voysey, Baillie Scott, and E S Prior. They found the backing of groups and organizations such as the SPAB and the Art Workers’ Guild.

Their typical buildings are traditional-looking houses that draw on local vernacular architectural forms and in which facades are often picturesquely asymmetrical. Sweeping thatch or tiled roofs, leaded windows, and visible beams add to the effect. Pale, stucco-covered walls with bands of windows framed in stone are seen in some of Voysey's houses. Many Arts and Crafts houses have long low facades that seem to hug the ground, keeping them close to the earth from which they seem to emerge.

Arts and Crafts architecture also produced some notable country churches, including the one at Brockhampton, Herefordshire, by W R Lethaby, in which picturesque traditional details are combined with a concrete vault. Architects such as Detmar Blow and W D Caröe were also accomplished restorers of parish churches.

Although the Arts and Crafts was a movement that began with the skills of the country builder and craft worker, it also produced some memorable city buildings – there were even Arts and Crafts factories, such as the striking Spirella corset factory at Letchworth. Public houses were well suited to the picturesque qualities produced by Arts and Crafts architects, while architects such as Voysey, famous for country houses, succeeded in adapting the style to the town house. Town houses occasionally also provided a place for the architectural sculptor, as did the portals of public buildings such as London’s Bishopsgate Institute – a building that draws on a mixture of traditions – and the exteriors of shops, like one at Corsham, Wiltshire, with a carving of a beehive, symbolic of industry.

Free style, ‘Queen Anne’, and ‘banker’s baroque’

Another tendency in this period was a way of building that became known as ‘free style’, which featured a combination of Tudor or Jacobean details, such as mullioned windows, tall chimney stacks, and ball finials. When talented architects exploited this freedom, impressive and eye-catching buildings, like Bodmin's imposing public rooms, could result. A related style was referred to as ‘Queen Anne’. It was typified by sash windows, fine brickwork with stone dressings or plaster trimmings, curved ‘Dutch’ gables, and corner turrets. Both styles were popular in grand buildings such as country houses, and were also used by architects to give more utilitarian structures, such as factories, fire stations, power stations, or educational buildings, a touch of grandeur. They could also be used on a smaller scale to create something more homely, and the ancestors of many ‘mock-Tudor’ suburban houses built in the 1930s are Free style houses of the Edwardian period.

A lot of buildings in the classical style were still being constructed in this period, and classical details could be applied creatively to all kinds of buildings, country houses and their allied buildings in particular, but also industrial structures. But by the Edwardian period, classical buildings tended to be more showily decorative, to produce a style, favoured for commercial buildings and banks, that has been dubbed ‘Bankers’ baroque’, or to fuse ‘Queen Anne’ and classical in a way that produces the rich frontages of some late-Victorian pubs. Banks, while sometimes elaborately baroque in style, could sometimes adopt a more regular classical architecture, with features such as rustication, quoins, and elaborate doorways designed to give an impression of security and solidity.

Late-Victorian baroque is not limited to banks in big cities. Retail premises, office blocks, even the consulting rooms of a famous physician were candidates for an ornamental baroque style, sometime adorned with striking statuary.

The variations that late-Victorian and Edwardian builders played on Arts and Crafts, Queen Anne, classical, and other revivalist styles (which included things like a loose Tudor-Gothic revivalist style as well as Jacobean and Flemish Renaissance revivals along with the long-familiar classical and Gothic revivals) is manifold. This is seen at its best and most various in the work of Edwin Lutyens, whose country houses are among the most beautiful buildings of this or any time.

Art Nouveau

By the turn of the century, some architects were looking for an approach that left behind the contemporary habit of drawing on or elaborating on past styles. They wanted a way of designing buildings that was more up-to-date and sophisticated, and they found what they wanted in Art Nouveau, the style of architecture and the decorative arts that originated in France and Belgium towards the end of the 19th century.

The Art Nouveau style draws on a new decorative repertoire featuring flowers, leaves, motifs such as hearts. and a violently undulating, curving line known as the whiplash curve. Exaggeratedly curvaceous or unconventional letterforms were used for name plates and other signs, and the curves of the human body – especially the female body – are celebrated, particularly in portrayals that feature long, flowing hair, as in the decorative panels on London's former hospital for women and children. At their best, buildings that draw on the Art Nouveau style are not simply decorated with an overlay of flowers or curves, but have an inventive and unusual sense of overall design. The unusual but expressive arrangement of windows and other features in London’s Mary Ward House is a good example. So, in a more sober way, is the building by W R Lethaby in Birmingham’s Colmore Row. So too are the works of the great Scottish master, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose one English commission survives in Northampton.

But Art Nouveau is above all a style of decoration and it appears in most often in English architecture in such features as the decoratively tiled facades of shopping arcades, shops, pubs, cafés, and factories. Some bits of Art Nouveau lettering survive on otherwise unexceptional buildings, and the evoke very vividly the design ethos and atmosphere of the 1890s and early 1900s.

The decorative tradition

There is also a decorative tradition that, while neither Art Nouveau nor Queen Anne, draws on the influence of all the varied styles of the late-19th century, as well as utilizing the craft skills that the Arts and Crafts movement fostered. Such decoration manifests itself in the foliage-adorned lettering above shops and dairies, the teeming architectural sculpture that sometimes still survives on both commercial and public buildings, on unusual carved reliefs and mouldings, and in floral decoration around the doors or windows of upper-class houses. Theatres, many of which were built in this period, are often highly decorative buildings, their decoration often drawing on an eclectic mix of styles, from Renaissance to Art Nouveau. It can embrace elaborate painted facades or tiled shop fronts or simple industrial lettering. It can draw on materials such as terracotta and brick to produce sculptural effects. It can also take architecture in unusual direction, as in the tiled facades of a London Turkish bath, the dazzling black and white frontage of a former nurses’ home, or the mosaics advertising a firm of manufacturers. The many London Underground stations designed by Leslie Green (and those done in the same style by colleagues who continued the work after Green died) also stand in this tradition: their oxblood tiles, striking windows, and eye-grabbing signage are a notable example of the way architecture can create a corporate identity. This decoration is often highly creative and remains one of the most interesting architectural presences on our streets.

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Now click here for the story of English architecture from 1918 to c. 1955.