Kathryn Ferry's The Victorian Home is a recent and welcome addition to the Shire Books Victorian series. This is an ever-growing collection of short, attractively produced and inexpensive handbooks with a wide range of titles, written by experts in their fields. Some, like The Victorian Fern Craze and Victorian Cartes-de-Visite, are on niche subjects, while others trace life in Victorian England from the cradle (Victorian Childhood) to the grave (The Victorian Undertaker, The Victorian Cemetery). Packed with information, they are copiously illustrated, often in colour, and the illustrations, drawn from a variety of sources, are informatively captioned. Lists for further reading and places to visit are given at the end, followed by a simple index. The shortest book received here, Simon Dell's The Victorian Policeman, has only black-and-white illustrations and lacks an index, but it is full of fascinating contemporary photographs of "Peelers," posters, handcuffs and so on, and at only 40 pages hardly needed indexing.

Left: The cover of the book under review. Right: Four other titles in the series [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

The Victorian Home is a much more substantial production, but it must still have been a tall order to cover such a vast subject in a hundred or so pages. Fortunately, Ferry has an enviable grasp of the big picture, which she illustrates throughout with details likely to be new to most readers. Her introduction provides the general background to home-making, linking up the various broad factors (industrialisation, urbanisation and the development of transport) that led to the growing separation of domestic and working life. She then explains that remarkably few people actually bought their own homes. Most of the nearly six million properties erected during the period, mainly after 1870, were by speculative builders working on small margins and using pattern book styles, for renting or leasing. With bankruptcy an ever-present danger, "there was little appetite for architectural innovation" (8). Technological advances brought standardisation too, with, for example (and here is one of those useful details), the invention of steam-powered saws allowing floorboards to be made in standard sizes from the 1830s. Scope for individual taste was thus often limited to finishing touches like decorative terracotta panels and ironwork on the exterior — and, of course, to the interior design, including furniture, fittings, soft furnishing, tiling and wallpaper. This is Ferry's main focus in the rest of the book.

Each of the two main parts that follow has its own brief introduction followed by three longer sections. Ferry introduces the first part, entitled "Living in the Victorian Home," by talking about the arrangement of rooms, lighting and heating, her remarks on lighting being nicely illustrated with pictures of classically ornamented oil lamps and a gas-lamp with an elegant bracket. She goes on to deal methodically with reception rooms, private rooms and "below stairs." Some of the parlours, drawing- and dining-rooms can still be seen today, for example at 18 Stafford Terrace, where the Punch cartoonist Linley Sambourne lived, and Cragside, home of Lord Armstrong in Northumberland. Excursions into social history, on the etiquette of "paying calls," for instance, bring even the more mothballed of these settings to life for us. Ferry finds space everywhere for some sharp contrasts and more of those useful details. Types of bedrooms illustrated, for instance, include a highly decorative upper-class one in French style, with curved furniture, added flounces, elaborate gilding around the mirror, and a luxurious fitted carpet; a plainer but more modern-looking lower-middle-class one; and then on the following page (34) the pared-down, restful solidity of Pugin's bedroom at The Grange in Ramsgate Also shown are nursery fittings and bathroom-ware. Discussion of the latter ends with descriptions of an alarmingly industrial-looking earth-closet, the first one-piece ceramic pedestal toilet, and a beautiful "Gladiator" toilet decorated in Japanese style with blue chrysanthemums. "Below Stairs" shows not only the range, sink, dresser and so on but also the thriving insect population in these rooms, and an aspirational housemaid wielding dustpan and brush but decked out in an impractical crinoline. These lower forms of life are shown in an exaggerated way in contemporary cartoons.

Left (for comparison): A blue-and-white florally decorated porcelain squat toilet in a rich merchant's house in Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan. Early twentieth century. Photographs by JB, 1996.

[Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

The second part of the book, entitled "Styling the Victorian Home," deals thematically with different kinds of influence. Ferry's grounding is in architectural history, and this comes out in her introduction to this part, as she runs knowledgeably through various kinds of external detailing and embellishments. Then comes the first section, "Inspired by the Past." This offers a useful round-up of the various Gothic styles, including terraces in "pattern-book Gothick-style" from Manchester (66) and the polychromatic brickwork of Northern Italian Gothic. Inside the rooms, we see Eastlake's medievalist style of furniture, as well as pieces variously labelled "Tudorbethan," "Modern Jacobean" and "Jacobethan." This is a confusing area where the background material and illustrations are especially useful. The next section, entitled "Foreign Influences," is similarly comprehensive, bringing in J.C. Loudon, Thomas Cubitt, Owen Jones (who gets a useful amount of space), William de Morgan and others. Everyone important in this field gets a mention, in fact, either here or in the final section on "Domestic and Artistic," where William Morris comes into his own. Here again there are some useful links with architectural developments such as Pont Street Dutch and the Queen Anne style of the Bedford Park houses.

Predictably, Ferry's final words are about Victorian eclecticism. As usual the illustrations are exceptionally good. The 1898 villa design given here is an extraordinary concoction, complete with turret, dormer, oriel, beams, balustrade, terracotta panel, keystones round the door etc. Perhaps the nearest thing to this that was actually built is the Carson Mansion far away in Eureka, California, although that is more predominantly Queen Anne. But more usually in late Victorian Britain there was a friendly, rather comfortable mix of elements both indoors and out. "Middle class homes were still full of stuff," concludes Ferry, "but there was a general feeling that the standards of national taste had improved by the end of the century" (103).

Inevitably, since the great boom in building and interior design in the period was due to the expansion and rise of the middle class, the focus throughout the book is on this sector of society. But most of what Ferry says, for example, about the "hierarchical organisation of space" (12), applies equally to better-off households. As for those who were marginal to all this, or left behind entirely, these unfortunates are served by other books in Shire's Victorian Library, such as The Victorian Domestic Servant and The Victorian Workhouse. Note that Victorian Childhood gives some space to rural living conditions, as well as to waifs and strays in the cities, while The Victorian Hospital includes a section on Poor Law infirmaries. One small quibble: Ferry gives the impression at the beginning of her book that it was women who were "making the choices about interior design" (9), but it was only really at the end of the period that they stepped into that role (see the review of Cohen, below). However, all in all, this is a compact yet surprisingly commodious and very appealing introduction to the subject. Ferry, who went on to work for the Victorian Society after studying architectural history at Cambridge, has done much to make us appreciate the design legacy of the Victorians — and also to encourage us to preserve that legacy wherever we can.

Related Materials


Ferry, Katherine. The Victorian Home. Botely, Oxford: Shire Books, 2010. 112pp. ISBN 978-0-74780-748-3. 7.99.

Visual Arts Victorian Social History Architecture Housing

Last modified 16 July 2010