The developments in architecture and associated trades and professions were inspired by or reflected in a wide range of literature, from epoch-making books by some of the most influential thinkers of the time, to "pattern books" of house design and trade journals — which could still have a wider general readership — and "household" books and magazines. Thanks to the rise in literacy there was now a huge market for the lower-priced and more practical publications, and the boom of publishing in this area matched that in housing itself.

At the top end were the works of A. W. Pugin and John Ruskin. The future architect William Burges's whole path in life seems to have been set when he received a copy of Pugin's Contrasts (1836) for his fourteenth birthday. He was also greatly inspired by Ruskin: "No man's works contain more valuable information than Mr Ruskin's," he was to write in the 1860s — although he warned sharply then against adopting superficial features from them (Brooks 197). As well as Contrasts, Pugin's True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841) and An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England (1843), had a huge impact in architectural circles. So of course did Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851-3). As Michael W. Brooks has said, "No books on architecture, before or since, have commanded such immediate attention" (xiii).

Then there were the architectural treatises, and the pattern books which were of such practical use to small builders. As for the former, Helen Long picks out Sir William Chambers's Treatise on Civil Architecture of 1759 for special mention, because it continued to be added to and reprinted up to 1862. Chambers was the architect of the main part of London's wonderful Palladian Somerset House, and his aim in this book was "at once to simplify the study of architecture without sacrificing any of its richness, variety or precision, and to cultivate taste and increase pleasure not only by providing information and examples, but also by encouraging the development of critical judgement" (qted. in Harris). Long could have taken Chambers's period of influence much further: his ideas were transmitted also by Sir Banister Fletcher (Professor of Architecture and Building Construction at King's College London from 1890-1899) in his landmark History of Architecture on the Comparative Method (1896), which architectural students use to this very day.

On a different level, but usefully focused on domestic architecture, was Robert Kerr's The English Gentleman's Country House (1864). Its contents are much better explained in its later title, The Gentleman's House, or, How to Plan English Residences, From the Parsonage to the Palace; with Tables of Accommodation and Cost, and a Series of Selected Plans. Kerr sees his age as a time when "the world of art is living upon its gatherings from other ages, and from all ages alike" (370), and seems unperturbed by this as long as there is no affectation or inconvenience (quaintness, however, appears to be quite acceptable). No detail is too small for Kerr's attention. Even the poultry are taken care of: they must have plenty of space because "none will flourish without a good run of greensward" (275). With its comments on the upstairs/downstairs life of those days, this is a wonderful book for the social historian, and it must have been reassuring at the time for those who wished to build a fine house in a mixture of styles.

Kerr took some of his examples, like the plan of Hemstead House in Kent (Plate 30), from "the Builder & other sources." The Builder was probably the most influential periodical of the period. Its "Precursor Number" had appeared at the end of 1843, and while many of its index entries there sound highly technical (like "Double Spiral Staircase"), others are clearly for the layman (like "Choice of a House" or "Keeping a House in Repair") or at least the artisan (like "Paper-Hanging Pattern" — cheap mass-produced wallpaper was available from the 1840s, Picard 166). In the back of this "precursor" issue was an advert for another publication, The Architectural Magazine" with a snippet from a Times review describing that magazine as "pregnant with interest and instruction, both for the architect and the general reader" (emphasis added).

Other types of literature about housing were aimed at more specific readerships: for builders and artisans there were pattern books for both exteriors and interiors; guides and manuals for everything from bricklaying and plastering to plumbing and painting; and lavishly illustrated trade journals and catalogues. The catalogues are particularly fascinating, showing the different types of cornices, tiles, fenders, warming stoves, gas-fittings and so on (the list is endless) available, sometimes with information about their history. Then there were popular works on home decoration like Charles Eastlake's Hints on Household Taste (1867) addressed mainly to homeowners. The influence of such books was enormous, and spread far beyond these shores. The pattern books and trade journals, for example, allowed army engineers who were more used to building forts, irrigation schemes and so on to create Tudor cottages, Scottish baronial halls and neo-Gothic lodges in Shimla in the Himalayan foothills. Similarly, books like the home-advice columnist Mrs Haweis's The Art of Decoration (1882) enabled the occupants of these residences to fit them out in the best current styles — thus taking Victorian taste in such matters to the very ends of Empire.


As far as this last point is concerned, the traffic was by no means one-way. Deborah Cohen refers amusingly to young couples in England at the end of the period "who decorated their drawing-rooms according to the prevailing fashions of pan-Asianism, with occasional pillows of Indian embroidery to cushion the backs of visitors crouching in unfamiliar postures at inlaid Persian coffee-tables" (127)!


Brooks, Michael W. John Ruskin and Victorian Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989.

The Builder, Precursor Number, December 1843. Available here.

Cohen, Deborah. Household Gods: The British and Their Possessions. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.

Harris, John. "Chambers, Sir William (1722-1796)." The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Viewed 25 August 2008.

Kerr, Robert. The Gentleman's House, or, How to Plan English Residences, From the Parsonage to the Palace; with Tables of Accommodation and Cost, and a Series of Selected Plans. London: John Murray, 1865. Available here.

Long, Helen C. Victorian Houses and Their Details: The Role of Publications in Their Building and Decoration. Oxford: Architectural Press, 2002.

Picard, Liza. Victorian London: The Life of a City, 1840-1870. London: Phoenix, 2006. (This has a useful chapter on "Houses and Gardens.")

Related Material

Victorian Web Overview Victorian Social History Architecture Housing

Last modified 25 August 2008