Britain under Queen Victoria was in the middle of an industrial boom, yet the architecture that flourished during her reign harked back to a simpler, pre-mechanical age that its creators regarded as purer and more virtuous.
When the young queen came to the throne in 1837, her subjects were ready for a shift in mores. England under King George III, and under his sons George IV and William IV, was regarded as a place of questionable morals and frivolity. The Church of England was in decline as nonconformist religions took hold, and public figures, including the monarchs, openly flaunted their mistresses.
In 1864, the prominent social thinker and philanthropist John Ruskin gave a series of lectures in which he announced that a society’s art and architecture directly reflects the morals and values of its people. He scorned the country’s worship of the “Goddess of Getting On”, declaring that materialism and commercialism had become the new religion and said that all recent architectural works – chimneys, railroads, warehouses and exchanges – had been built in homage to this “Britannia of the Market”.
It was in part due to his passion and fervour and others like him, such as Augustus Pugin who, together with Charles Barry, rebuilt the Houses of Parliament after they were burnt down in 1834, and George Gilbert Scott, who created the Grand Hotel in front of St Pancras station in central London, that the gothic revival took such a strong hold.
The style is one of soaring arches, pointed stained-glass windows and elaborate stone carving. There are gables and gargoyles, turrets and polychrome brickwork.
A massive programme of church building had begun as the Church of England fought to re-establish precedence over the Quakers, Methodists and Presbyterians. The new buildings harked back to the medieval age, which was regarded by the social thinkers of the day as the most pure and chaste.
Gothic architecture had remained popular since the medieval times, but it was the Victorians who took to it most enthusiastically. Christopher Costelloe, director of the Victorian Society, says: “[Victorians] regarded Georgian gothic as rather fake and sham. Indeed they regarded most Georgian architecture as frivolous. The period was regarded as one of loose morality generally, and through a massive programme of inner-city church building, the Victorians brought about a religious revival.”
The gothic revival, despite being one of the most influential styles of the 19th century, was mostly confined to public buildings, whose large scale lent itself to the style.
Costelloe says: “It was very expensive to build as there was so much stone carving. When it was used for houses it tended to be rich people who just loved the style and built one-off houses. It wasn’t a style that was adopted for mass housing but was more about wealthy individuals and their personal taste.”
Professor Richard Webber has lived in a gothic revival mansion in Highgate, north London, for 15 years. He is now selling up, albeit reluctantly (for £5m through Hamptons International) but with eight bedrooms and his three children having left home, the house, which cost £4,600 in 1879 – well over 100 times the national wage then – is now too big for him and his wife.
“Internally the house is much more austere than you would expect of a Victorian building; there is barely any plasterwork, the floors are parquet, although there is a different pattern in each room,” he says. “The other feature is stained glass but it’s as if the builder, having put so much hard work into the exterior, slightly runs out of steam when it comes to the interior.
“However, all the materials used are very high quality – Russian pine doors, Kentish flagstones and marble fireplaces. I can see why these houses were so expensive to build.”
Ralph Bowmaker, an interior designer and treasurer of the Pugin Society, lives in a mini gothic revival village in north London called Holly Village. In 1865 Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, then the richest woman in England, built 12 gothic buildings around a small green near Highgate Cemetery.
Bowmaker’s house is furnished entirely in the gothic revival style. “I was always fascinated by Pugin’s work and have collected furniture from that period,” he says. “We have no sofa but a chaise longue with a tapestry design on it. We did have a draped bed but that was a little too much, and we had the kitchen specially made with a few gothic details in the [wood] carving.”
James Harvey, an antique dealer who will be showing some examples of Victorian gothic at the design fair Masterpiece London from June 27, thinks gothic furniture can work perfectly in a modern setting. The sale includes an elaborate gilt clock, made in Chester, which is expected to fetch £7,500, and a French display cabinet priced at £29,500.
“When people think of Victorian style, particularly gothic, they think of dark cluttered rooms that are just crammed with heavy furniture, but if you look closely the pieces are very strong with clean lines,” Harvey says. “Yes, they are intricate in the detail but the outline, if you like, is often strong and crisp. These pieces work really well in a modern setting. The key is not to crowd them.
“Keep it simple and you can create a really dramatic look. Gothic furniture is quite sculptural and if you put a single piece in an empty room with good lighting it would be like a work of art.”
The textiles and gothic colours are exemplified by Pugin and the interior of the Houses of Parliament: rich, dark colours in reds, blues and golds with trellis patterns and heavy detail.
Harvey says these, too, can be modernised: “Most Victorian gothic houses were wallpapered, rather than painted, but these days I would put the paper below the dado rail and paint above in a shade of grey. This gives a really modern feel.”
Bowmaker agrees: because his house is small (he describes it as a “doll’s house”), the richly patterned golds of Pugin would be too much. Instead he has painted the walls in a pale honey colour with modern chalky whites to create a lighter feel.
This is a style that is best sourced from antique dealers and salvage yards but some modern furniture will often incorporate a gothic detail. Look for trefoils and foliage motifs and lots of carved details. Typical colours include reds and golds. For modern furniture with a gothic twist, try And So To Bed, or Squint for its velvet-covered chandeliers. Crown Paints has a range called Gothic Revival or you can visit the Stencil Library for some patterns. Watts of Westminster, founded in 1874, still produces many of the original wallpaper patterns of the period.
And, in a sign that the gothic revival may be coming back once more, a house is on the market in Greater London, which is a perfect modern replica of a gothic house. Libby Thornton, the vendor and builder says: “Building in this style allowed me to celebrate the intricacies of the era. I throughly researched and went to antique fairs to collect authentic items that would complement the architecture. It’s the exquisite patterns and colours that really set this style apart.”