London is the setting for many a quality (and not so quality) period television dramas. We've had Dickensian on BBC One, Year of the Rabbit on Channel 4 and, most recently, Belgravia on ITV – among many, many others. Even considering the mysterious lack of manure on the streets, the Victorian and Georgian settings often leave much to be desired.
Take Dickensian, for example. When Charles wrote, though Queen Vic was on the throne, most of London — think of those bow fronted shops glazed with little bulls-eye glass panes — was still Georgian. The pinnacle of Victorian architecture, the building of St Pancras Station, came just when Dickens had stopped writing.
As far as televisual faux pas go, mismatched architecture might fly under the radar. Yet there are a few simple tricks to tell which era London's more commonly-seen buildings are from. Allow us.
Georgian Architecture in London (1714-1837)
The most famous Georgian house in London is probably 10 Downing Street. Shoddily built on boggy ground, Downing Street bears the name of the rapacious developer who first built the terraced houses for sale. Although the familiar façade is Georgian, the structure is really Stuart from 1684. It was once thought that the terrace was built of black brick, but it just turned out to be very dirty. When the bricks were cleaned the transformation was such a shock that it was decided to paint them black again. Preserving heritage is a strange business!
No. 10 has the signature semi-circular ‘fan light’ of Georgian houses – a window resembling an open fan above the door. As time went on these became ever more intricate. A typical piece of Georgian ironwork in front of No. 10 is the arched lantern holder over the front steps. Other metal mod cons appearing at this time included scrapers to take the horse shit from your shoes and (lacking at No.10) conical link extinguishers for when you returned home with only a burning torch for illumination. No mobiles back then.
Wrought iron with lots of curlicues tied together (made by blacksmiths with hammers) are a feature of earlier houses or higher income. Later railings, with moulded leaves and flower heads, used cast iron.
In Georgian times there was a further development added to the window code which helps us date our buildings. Sash windows involve a boxed-in mechanism of ropes and pulleys. The wooden casing to hide this contraption was flammable, so a Building Act in 1774 specified that in new buildings the box must be concealed behind masonry.
Georgian homes in London range from early brick examples in Spitalfields (such as the oft-photographed terraces of Princelet Street), often occupied by silk weavers, to the 1820s white stucco Regency terraces around Regent’s Park. Stucco was a form of plaster, the Georgian equivalent of pebbledash. It was not only used to mask cheap brickwork underneath but might even deceive a few into believing it was expensive stone, especially if fake joint lines were inscribed. Regency Architecture, like that around Regent’s Park, is of that time when George III was too mad to rule.
The 18th century saw a fashion for having a man-made grotto in the garden. Few examples remain, but that sensibility manifested in a revived taste for rusticated stonework. Although since ancient times, homes could be built perfectly square by master builders, their customers have always liked a bit of shabby-chic with artfully roughened or ‘rusticated’ stone. ‘Vermiculate rustication’ is a particular style where you have an impractical dirt-catching texture incised which, as the name implies, resembles underground worm trails.
Foreign visits under the Stuarts grew into Grand Tours to the Mediterranean under the Georges. Some of those who had plenty of land and could build for themselves, were drawn to the Palladian style (named after Venetian architect Andrea Palladio) with its columns and cupolas, inspired by ancient Rome. Chiswick House is a fine example from 1729 and Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner was started by Robert Adam in 1771. The fashion continued for a century, though veering increasingly towards the ancient Greek, the final result being designs such as the British Museum (built 1823-52) and National Gallery (1838).
Victorian Architecture in London (1837-1901)
Even the more spacious Georgian homes were simple and boxy in appearance. Modest Victorian houses, apart from the basic worker’s terrace house, grew more complicated with features such as porches and bay windows.
The window code we discussed in an earlier instalment of this series, Medieval vs Tudor, helps us too with the Victorians. Rolled plate glass appeared just before Victoria’s reign, making sash window panes much larger. It made possible all those vast station roofs and covered markets in London. The abolition of Window Tax in 1851 came just in time for the Great Exhibition to be held in a ‘Crystal’ Palace in Hyde Park. More on that here.
Victorian bricks are larger and more regular than handmade ones from earlier times. An expanding population created a market for different design elements which you could now choose from catalogues. New railways created more opportunities for sourcing materials from afar, such as roof slates (which don’t grow in London).
The Victorians had their own distinctive decorative elements which can distinguish a Victorian house from a Georgian one. These include stained glass panes in the windows, ornamented ridge tiles on the roof, shapely wooden barge boards beside the roof and the odd finial.
The Victorian population explosion demanded new, refurbished or enlarged churches at this time. It appealed to the moralising Victorian mind that their ecclesiastical designs harked back to medieval times when God appeared more central to daily life.
This mock medieval style, which was also applied to town halls, railway stations, universities, museums and notably the new Houses of Parliament, became known as Gothic Revival.
Victorian architecture came to be widely execrated and much was bulldozed in the mid 20th century. But you can still see inside 18 Stafford Terrace in Kensington as it was originally (including the nudie bathroom) and this time capsule was where the campaigning Victorian Society was founded in 1958.