Most of the photographs used here are from our website. Additional photographs and images were taken or scanned by the author. [You may use any of them without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer or source and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite it in a print one. Click on the images for larger pictures, and generally for more details.]

1. French Influence on Gothic Revival Churches and Cathedrals

Left: "Amiens," in an illustration by John Ruskin's friend, Samuel Prout. Right: E. W. Pugin's St Colman's Cathedral, even from a distance suggesting the influence of Amiens (built 1868 onwards).

Much that seems uniquely Victorian has a far larger context, both in time and place. Nowhere is this truer than in the period's architecture, as revival follows revival into a growing eclecticism. It applies even (or especially) to the Gothic Revival with its reintroduction of Early English and later forms. The French origin of Gothic itself has long been fully accepted: the spread of "French characteristics during the second half of the twelfth century can be followed very closely in many buildings and many parts of England" (Bony 1). A small indication of its French origin is the fact noted by the Banister Fletchers in their "Evolution of English Vaulting," that the "Lierne" ribs of the vaulting in the the 14c. Decorated style take their name from the French lien, to bind or hold. The French stood behind the Revival too: in the later eighteenth century, it was they who pioneered "the new archeological approach to antique buildings, whether classical or Gothic (Cole 288).

View from the north-west corner of Chartres Cathedral. Note the heavy buttressing.

The pervasive French influence on Gothic Revival architecture had more immediate causes, such as the part-French background of A. W. N. Pugin, and his and other major Victorian architects' Continental tours, as well as the work of the French architect and architectural writer Viollet-le-Duc. But perhaps nothing had a more direct impact than John Ruskin's infectious enthusiasm for French cathedrals like those at Rouen and Chartres: "What a contrast, " he declaimed, "between the pitiful little pigeon-holes which stand for doors in the east front of Salisbury, looking like the entrances to a beehive or a wasp's nest, and the soaring arches and kingly crowning of the gates of Abbeville, Rouen, and Rheims, or the rock-hewn piers of Chartres...." (136). He goes on here to speak of Verona, and Ruskinian Gothic is generally associated with Italian or more specifically Venetian Gothic, but that is to over-simplify (see Crook on "Ruskinian Gothic").


2. French Influence on Secular Gothic Revival Architecture

Left to right: (a) The tower at Carcassonne, illustrated in Viollet-le-Duc, p.117. (b) Late medieval Chateau de Vaux-sur-Seine, with its original towers. (c) William Burges's Castell Coch, near Cardiff, largely rebuilt from 1875. Note especially the round towers; it also has some French-style furniture.

This influence permeated Gothic Revival secular as well as ecclesiastical architecture, and it did so from the very beginning. Horace Walpole added the French-style round tower to his villa in Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, in 1761, having planned it several years before. The house itself is generally considered to be the "the essential link between the Middle Ages, the Baroque/Gothic form and the final nineteenth-century revival" (Yarwood 170), and influenced the whole trend in Romanticizing country houses for the wealthy: "he did not so much popularize as aristocratize Gothic," says Kenneth Clark (49). Strawberry Hill is full of French touches, for Walpole was thoroughly familiar with French taste (see Wilton-Ely).

View of Walpole's Strawberry Hill from the south-east, from Walpole's Letters I, facing p. 103.

Corner tourelles or round turrets with conical roofs were widely adopted in French castles from the late fourteenth-century onwards, continuing to be built even after their defensive role had passed. On this side of the channel, William Burges in particular would be much influenced by the "multiple round tower appearance of later French castles" (Cole 205). Other features of secular French Gothic were prominent staircase towers, whether square or octagonal, groups of gabled windows and, with the less popular late Flamboyant Gothic, what Ruskin called the "tracery of line" (109), the latter particularly appealing to E. W. Pugin. Some Scottish domestic architects developed a particular fondness for the style, blending it uniquely with homegrown Scottish baronial elements.


3. The Influence of French Chateaux and French Renaissance Styles

Right: Chateau d'Eu, a former royal residence dating from the sixteenth century, visited by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Left: William Henry Crossland's highly fanciful and elaborate Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey, of 1886. This is described by Curl as "an essay in the French château style of the Loire Valley" (138).

Early in the reign Prince Albert and the Queen not only visited France but patronised European artists of all kinds, and brought in Continental trends when building or adding to their own residences. Architects, whether London-based or regional, continued to travel to France and import new ideas. Like the Flamboyant later French Gothic, the most highly decorated of other French styles (the Rococo, for instance) proved less appealing. But Curl notes that while French Renaissance architecture was less prized than the furniture of the period, there were still instances of "overt copying or covert allusions" to it (137). Thus, many grand private and public buildings of this period have French Chateaux and French Renaissance elements, sometimes with exaggerated French Mannerist touches. Not only churches and cathedrals but town halls and exchanges, banks, offices and warehouses, college buildings and city terraces, blocks of flats, clubs and hotels all sometimes display French features, such as "skylines of gabled dormers, high roofs, chimneys and turrets producing a romantic effect" (Watkin 251). From a little later came the mansard roofs named after François Mansart (1598-1666).


4. The Influence of the Second Empire Style

Right: The famous Palais Garnier opera house in Paris, by Charles Garnier (1825-1898), built from 1861-75. Left: The People's Palace, now the Queen's Building of St Mary's College, London University, built by E. R. Robson in 1886 (rebuilt after a fire in 1931).

Curl finds the use of French Renaissance features a "curious aspect of Victorian taste" (137), but perhaps that description is better reserved for the Victorian use of the Second Empire style. This was the style that flourished in France during the reign of Napoleon III, from 1861-75, when buildings tended to be more Italianate, more classically symmetrical in outline, and at the same time more heavily ornate. Henry-Russell Hitchcock sees the mode as "in the main a pompous modulation of of the earlier Renaissance Revival" (181-82).

The Castle at Chantilly, rebuilt in 1875-82 by Honoré Daumet, associated like Garnier with the École des Beaux-Arts. Its lake setting makes it particularly impressive.

This kind of grand architecture might seem to have had limited uses in the later decades of the nineteenth century, when the High Victorian phase was over, and some of the most important architects were earnestly engaged in Arts and Crafts projects. But eclecticism ruled the day, and that rather favours extravagance; and in some sectors extravagance was not just acceptable but expected. An English version of the Second Empire style became almost de rigeur for the impressive hotels being built now (see Hitchcock 232). The best example is probably Cuthbert Brodrick's Grand Hotel in Scarborough. Then there were those other built spaces in which the British could drop their inhibitions and enjoy a riot of domes, mansards, swags and other embellishments. Many theatres, music-halls, circuses and seaside pavilions were also being built or remodelled around the end of the century (see Girouard 300, 305). It might seem a travesty to compare some of these with the Palace Garnier, but in many cases the effect was striking. The theatre-designer Frank Matcham used the style to great effect. Something of the elaborate Second Empire style could even be used for a fish market, if, like Sir Horace Jones's new one at Billingsgate, it fronted the Thames at a key position, and was replacing another well-known landmark. Strangely unEnglish as such buildings might seem, they add immeasurably to the character of resorts and tourist venues throughout the country.


5. The Influence of Art Nouveau

Right: Gar de Rouen-Rive-Droit, Rouen. Left: Charles Harrison Townsend's Horniman Museum, Forest Hill, London (1898-1901).

Frank Matcham's work is influenced by and combines various elements, as was common at this time. The Victoria Quarter, Leeds, which once housed his Empire Palace Theatre, has a large frontage that displays both Second Empire Baroque and Art Nouveau elements. At this time too, even the more dedicated Arts and Crafts designers like Charles Harrison Townsend, whose first allegiance was to vernacular forms and the Art Workers Guild, often showed the impress of Art Nouveau. But the main exponent of Art Nouveau was in Scotland, where Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Glasgow School of Art stood as a beacon for it, albeit one that also echoed the grim angular workplaces of the region.



Blatantly French-influenced work could had a mixed reception. Just as some critics complained about French showiness in some of Baron Marochetti's sculptures, they might query a building with obvious French elements. Truro Cathedral, for instance, with its Normandy Gothic spires and other French touches, struck some as out of place in a small Cornish town: when the design was first considered, the Times correspondent wrote approvingly of Pearson's "skilful interfusion of French detail" and the signs of his "study of French architectural principles," but still hankered after something more like "the effect of Canterbury or Gloucester" ("Architecture at the Academy"). Even when buildings strongly inspired by French models were greeted with acclaim, they were hard to follow. Brodrick's Corn Exchange in Leeds, for example, inspired by the Hotel de Blé in Paris, and that prominent Second Empire Grand Hotel in Scarborough, were both splendid landmarks, but somehow led nowhere. Brodrick was unsuccessful in later competitions, and eventually went to live in France. French influence was best, it seems, when fully assimilated — as it had been in medieval times, and would be again when late Victorian eclectisim gave way to the lush mix of styles labelled Edwardian Baroque.

Related Material


"Architecture at the Academy." The Times, 19 July 1880, p.4. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 22 November 2012.

Bony, Jean. "French Influences on the Origins of English Gothic Architecture." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute. Vol. 12 (1949): 1-15. JSTOR.

Clark. Kenneth. The Gothic Revival: An Essay in the History of Taste. London: Penguin (Pelican), 1964. Print.

Cole, Emily, ed. A Concise History of Architectural Styles. London: A. & C. Black, 2003. Print.

Crook, J. Mordaunt. "Ruskinian Gothic." In The Ruskin Polygon: Essays on the Imagination of John Ruskin, ed. John Dixon Hunt and Faith M. Holland. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1982. 65-93. Print.

Curl, James Stevens. Victorian Architecture. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1990. Print.

Girouard, Mark. The English Town: A History of Urban Life. New Haven: Yale, 1990. Print.

Hitchcock, Henry-Russell. Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centures. 4th ed. London: Penguin, 1977. Print.

Ruskin, John. 3. The Lamp of Power in his Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). Victorian Web. 22 November 2012. Web.

Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène-Emmanuel. An Essay on the Military Architecture of the Middle Ages. Oxford and London: J. H. and J. Parker, 1860. Internet Archive. Web. 22 November 2012.

Walpole, Horace. Letters. Vol. I. London: Swann Sonnenschein, 1891. Internet Archive. Web. 22 November 2012.

Watkin, David. English Architecture: A Concise History. Rev. ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2001. Print.

Wilton-Ely, John. "Style and Serendipity: Adam, Walpole and Strawberry Hill." Art Journal, Vol. II, No. 3 (Spring 2011). Questia. Web. 22 November 2012.

Yarwood, Dorothy. The Architecture of Britain. London: Batsford, 1976. Print.

Victorian Web Visual Arts Architecture

Last modified 22 November 2012