The Maximum Dwelling showed some of the ways newly rich Victorian-era industrialists and entrepreneurs spent their new money on building supersized houses to announce their arrival in society.
No surprise there. Architecture is often how rich people do this. The world’s moved on though. Today, big and expensive buildings are how newly-rich countries present themselves to global society. It’s obvious these people and countries have money, but do they have ‘taste’? The mere display of enormous amounts of money was and still is regarded as ‘vulgar’.
(This attitude is nothing new. It pervades much of whatever conventional architectural criticism there is left in the world. Old city good, new city bad, etc. This is not a useful attitude, given that the world’s supply of charming old cities is limited. Most of the world’s population is going to have no choice but to live in ‘ghastly’ new ones. This is fact.)
These newly rich Victorians didn’t want to be seen as newcomers to society but as long-standing members of it – of having had land and money for much longer than was actually the case. This, and the RESPECT that supposedly came with it could not be bought. Instead, they had their houses create the impression of them having been with land for longer. Architects, of course, stepped up to the plate.
Fake pedigree: George Devey was the master of a technique whereby a house was organised into different wings to give the impression that the house at that point in time was the result of a series of additions and extensions over decades, if not centuries. Here’s his Betteshanger, built around 1861.
He provided the house with a complete and entirely bogus pedigree which ran somewhat as follows. All that remained of the medieval house was a curious old tower, which had been re-windowed and repaired with different materials over the centuries.
A low rambling wing had been added in Elizabethan times, entered by a quaint Renaissance porch with a carved oriel window over its archway.
A grander rebuilding or additions of a bout 1630 produced a bay-windowed block of higher rooms with the shaped Flemish gables typical of the neighbourhood: it was built of brick, with panels and diapers of flint here and there; a new window in the side of the porch, with a gable above it, introduced a patch of brickwork into the stone and flint of the original structure. Early in the eighteenth century a wrought iron balustrade had been placed across the arch of the porch, and a Georgian wooden staircase inserted in the middle of the Jacobean state rooms.
Illogical design: Illogical is inaccurate for, strictly speaking, the intention was to create the impression that such a long time had passed since the ‘original’ part of the house was built, the design logic and rationale was either forgotten or no longer relevant. The result was wings and towers of wildly different periods being juxtaposed, or even hidden by supposedly later features. This is Robert Kerr’s Bear Wood (1865-1874). Notice how the stair tower partially obliterates one of the gables and the symmetry of the main block.
The favourite Victorian game of near-symmetry is played with abandon. If one starts from the right-hand gable the design is a straightforward symmetrical one, until the left-hand gable crashes head-on into the great tower; one is half-buried in the other, and a little staircase turret has got involved in the collision.
Stylistic Camouflage: This next house is Wightwick, by Edward Ould. The left half of the house is the 1870 design in typical Victorian Tudor revival style yet the right half of the house is an 1893 addition in a coherent 16th century Tudor style and which, if one is prepared to overlook its improbably good state of repair, could be mistaken for the original house.
No style of building will harmonise so quickly and so completely with its surroundings and so soon pass through the crude and brand-new field.
Ould wasn’t stupid. It’s easy to see why socially aspirational clients would find this an attractive proposition. This is the front of the same house. It had the look.
Juxtaposition of types of construction: A different type of construction could be combined with illogical design to also create the appearance of additions over time. This is Adcote, designed by Norman Shaw and built in 1876. Note the ‘new’ and ‘old’ wings of different construction and joined by a valley gutter. In fairness though, Shaw was more interested in sequential growth as a method of composition rather than as a means of fooling people.
Fake castles: What better way than to create the impression of owning land and money for a long time than to build a castle? Stone mellows quickly and well and after a decade or two it’s easy to think it’s been there for longer than it really has. This is Wray Castle, built in 1840 for a retired Liverpool surgeon, Dr. James Dawson, who built it along with the neighboring Wray Church using his wife’s fortune. Sounds like a story there. Battlements, arrowslits, and turrets galore but alas no moat or drawbridge.
Although there were many extensions to castles throughout the course of the Victorian era, there weren’t that many new ones built. This one’s the exception – Balmoral Castle, completed in 1856 for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The pair could hardly be called social wannabe arrivistes but, just like anyone else, did not want to seem newcomers to the area. In any case and as a general rule, royalty does nothing to discourage the continuity of pointless traditions.
The architect Anthony Salvin (1799-1881) restored many castles but he also designed this new one, Peckforton Castle (completed 1850). It has the look.
Again, the plan and massing show apparently haphazard additions over time.
Ruins: Finally, we have the fake ruin. These were usually positioned to be seen from the driveway by approaching visitors. (Otherwise, what was the point?) The conceit is that the owners have owned the property for so long that entire generations of forefathers have come and gone. Instead of being mere picturesque follies, faux ruins are probably the purest example of how Victorian architecture covertly facilitated social climbing.
The French Style
Finally finally. The easiest way to make oneself feel big and important was (and still is) to diss/vilify/slag off someone else. If respect due to having been ‘in society’ for longer is the name of the game, then people newer than oneself (and their ghastly new styles) become the new target of ridicule by people who hadn’t been around for all that much longer themselves.
The new rich who bought country estates were usually anxious to be accepted by their neighbours, and built their houses in the same manner, even if sometimes distinguishable by a touch of ineptness or ostentation in their design. But the 1870s saw a shift in the social balance that was much commented on the time, usually unfavourably. The previously exclusive preserves of London society became more quickly and easily accessible to self-made millionaires. […] The resulting growth in prestige and self-confidence led to a specifically nouveau riche style. It flourished in defiance of the Victorian doctrine that a gentleman’s house should be marked by ‘elegance and importance without ostentation’. It was imported FROM FRANCE, from the second-Empire world of new families and new and sometimes shady fortunes.
The appeal of these French houses was an obvious one. The Victorians had become increasingly conscious of skyline, and attracted by buildings with a lively silhouette.
French roofs, with their pointed turrets, mansard roofs, bulbous roofs and cast-iron palisade decorations were just the thing. This is Normanhurst, by Habershon, Brock and Webb in 1867.
Halton House was built between 1882 and 1888 for Alfred de Rothschild, a cousin of Baron Ferdinand of the Austrian branch of the Rothschilds.
At Halton Alfred de Rothschild lived a bachelor life of magnificence in much the same style as his cousin at Waddeston but with an extra touch of millionaire eccentricity. He used to conduct his own band in the winter garden, or, fitted out with a white overcoat, whip and gloves, to direct his troupe of circus ponies and dogs; he had his own private team of firemen, with a special uniform, and a team of zebras to pull his pony cart.
Obviously the new rich had grown tired of wanting to be accepted, and learned how to make their own fun. To finish, nobody says it better than Girouard.
Halton was the last of the big French country houses. This is not the place to describe the style’s development in civic and urban architecture, or its adventures in America, where it had its greatest successes and was most fully absorbed into the vernacular.