An era marked by the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901) in which there was inordinate economic and social transformation in Britain. The Industrial Revolution meant rapid change in the infrastructure of the UK, with growth in the railway service, expanding towns and an upsurge in consumerism. The British empire was reputable and formidable with developing countries around the world, generating more status, wealth and prosperity. Outer influences escalated with connections to other cultures and countries impacting the social stimuli within the UK. International commerce and trade were at an all-time high, and inspirations were sourced from all over the world including Japan, which for the first time began foreign trade. Britain was considered the financial capital of the world, and this impacted the customs and manners in which the British people lived. Wealthier families decorated their homes in order to present their affluence through architecture, furnishings and home accessories. Mass-produced goods and products multiplied, with a need for improved manufacturing and a growing market place. British technology was progressing and there was an introduction of new materials (glass, steel, iron) during this era.
The Great Exhibition 1851
An assembly of art and design, Henry Cole, an inventor and civil servant, along with Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, were encouraged by exhibitions such as the French ‘Industrial Exposition’ in 1844 and strived to create a British equivalent. Cole had an enthusiasm for the arts as editor of ‘Journal of Design’ and saw this presentation as an opportunity to display British manufacturing, products, machinery and our agricultural means to the rest of the world.
Joseph Paxton designed the space, known as Crystal Palace, a cast iron and glass conservatory structure based on his design for Chatsworth House for the Duke of Devonshire. An example of Victorian architecture, Crystal Palace was ground-breaking, gallivant and daring. It was also structurally prevailing in its use of inexpensive materials and simplicity to assemble and dismantle, eventually moving location from Hyde Park to Sydenham.
The showing was incredibly successful with Queen Victoria opening the exhibition and an estimated 6 million people that subsequently visited Crystal Palace during this time. On display there was an array of merchandise and artefacts including ironwork, metal work, pottery, porcelain, taxidermy, furniture and fabrics. Items were not just made in Britain, but all over the world including countries such as Turkey, India and Russia. The financial success of the exhibition meant that Henry Cole was able to craft further museums with the profits in South Kensington, including The Victoria and Albert Museum, The Museum of Natural History and the Science Museum.
The Victorian style was characterised by a blend of previous design movements including Gothic, Rococo, Louis XIV and Elizabethan. A consequence to the symmetry and straight designs within Palladianism (a style based on the Italian architect Andrea Palladio) Victorian style was an assortment of innovative technologies teamed with nostalgic references to the past. Fortune and riches were illustrated through Victorian architecture, as upper-class families lived in Italian inspired detached villa style homes, whereas the middle class lived in terraced houses built in long rows. Architecture appeared in everything from red brick (Gothic influence) to white stucco (Italian influence) and were designed to accommodate family lifestyles.
Interiors highlighted functional rooms with intention, such as a study, a parlour room, or a room for the children to play in. Residential homes were cosier and less formal, yet still indicated wealth and status in the décor and possessions that were revealed such as vases and embellished picture frames. Social changes in Britain allowed for increasing cultural influences, including Indian, Japanese, and Italian. Demonstrated through architecture, design and interiors, these inspirations meant Victorian style was varied, diverse and eclectic.