The Built Environment

3d front cover of Domestic Architecture in England vol. 2 by John Henry ParkerWe are building up a nice collection of books about buildings (ho ho), and it’s interesting to note how, as the nineteenth century progressed, discerning travellers, at home and abroad, started focussing on the buildings they encountered, at least as much as on the art treasures they contained.

This is of course a bit of a generalisation – Thomas Pennant was describing the primitive ‘shielings’ of the Hebrides in the eighteenth century, and architects such as Chambers were looking back to Palladio and even Vitruvius for inspiration in designing what we think of as ‘Georgian’ buildings. But the antiquarian and exotic interest of the one and the classicising impulse of the other both ignore the sort of everyday vernacular which became increasingly a subject of study and which the founders of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings sought to save from demolition or modernisation.

Thomas Rickman (1776–1841) was an early enthusiast for the Gothic style, and published in 1817 an overview of medieval architecture, An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of English Architecture, from the Conquest to the Reformation, using almost 500 buildings across Britain as exemplars. His near contemporary, the connoisseur Thomas Hope (1769–1831) had a fondness for neoclassical design, but his two-volume Historical Essay on Architecture, published posthumously in 1835, traces the evolution of Western architecture since antiquity, citing examples drawn from buildings that he studied on journeys through Europe and beyond, especially in the countries bordering the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, Robert Willis (1800–75), professor of natural and experimental philosophy at Cambridge, published in 1835 his Remarks on the Architecture of the Middle Ages: Especially of Italy, the result of two years’ travel and study in France, Germany and Italy. And his Cambridge colleague, the polymath William Whewell, produced in 1830 Architectural Notes on German Churches
With Remarks on the Origin of Gothic Architecture, in which he examined the mechanical principles underlying Gothic building style.

The Oxford bookseller and publisher John Henry Parker (1806–84) was also a historian of architecture. In 1836, he published a two-volume Glossary of Terms Used in Grecian, Roman, Italian, and Gothic Architecture, of which we have reissued the third, 1840 edition, and in 1851, a volume on English domestic architecture from the Norman Conquest to 1300 by the antiquary Thomas Hudson Turner (1815–52). On Turner’s death he completed the second volume, on the fourteenth century, himself. Both volumes are highly illustrated with line drawings and plans, and describe the rooms (such as halls, kitchens and chambers) common to domestic buildings, of whatever size, and discussing their individual features and construction.

The architect George Street wrote two deeply influential works on European architecture: Brick and Marble in the Middle Ages (1855) and Some Account of Gothic Architecture in Spain (1865 – coming soon!). His own designs, with their eclectic borrowings from a variety of European traditions, but emphatically not from classicism, are regarded as quintessentially ‘High Victorian’, and his masterpiece is probably the Law Courts in the Strand, London.

Street and his contemporaries had moved away from the ‘pure’ Gothic espoused by Pugin, but he was also the link to a less grandiose style exemplified by his pupils: Philip Webb, who designed the Red House for William Morris – at the time another, and somewhat recalcitrant, pupil – and Norman Shaw. And of course all this is without mentioning the massive influence of Ruskin, whose Seven Lamps of Architecture and Stones of Venice told the mid-Victorians how to view and think about their buildings.

Ruskin and his fulminations about ‘restoration’ and ‘improvement’ not only saved dozens of buildings in Venice, but also led to the founding, on 22 March 1877, by William Morris and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Its members were deeply concerned (as the society’s website puts it) that ‘well-meaning architects were scraping away the historic fabric of too many buildings in their zealous “restorations”’.

It took a very long time, but the Society’s efforts, along with those of other pressure groups like the National Trust – to say nothing of the damage done by German bombing in the Second World War – eventually resulted in an official list of the 300 most significant ancient buildings, which should be preserved from either demolition or unsympathetic restoration. This original list was extended into the listed building system with which we are familiar today, and which has ensured that some at least of the buildings Thomas Turner and John Parker enthused about can still be seen today.


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