Time and again, when asked which period of architecture we as a nation are most drawn to, Georgian is right up there at number one. With pleasing symmetry, lofy ceilings and large windows, Georgian houses still chime with our vision of the ideal interior, while presenting a quietly elegant exterior facade. But how did Georgian style emerge and what were the factors that made it happen when it did?
In the early 18th century, the formerly fashionable French ‘baroque’ style soon became associated with the Stuarts and fell out of favour once George I took the throne. Wealthy aristocrats looked to the art and architecture of Renaissance Italy for inspiration. It was customary for young, wealthy gentlemen to take a Grand Tour at this time, which shaped the cultural parameters of the ruling elite. Amanda Vickery, Professor of History at Queen Mary, University of London has been quoted* as saying: ‘The Grand Tour was like a gap year, and it stamped on these men what good taste was.’ The architect William Kent ‘began the early 18th-century phase of classicism,’ explains David McKinstry, Secretary of The Georgian Group. ‘Classical architecture had been around in England since the 17th century, but the early Georgians rationalised it and it became a much more organised, codifed form of architecture.’ Together with Lord Burlington, Kent championed Palladian style – inspired by the work of the Venetian Andrea Palladio, the classical architect Vitruvius and the British architect Inigo Jones and based on ancient models. Kent designed several well-known houses in this fashion, including Holkham Hall in Norfolk, Wanstead House in Essex, and Burlington’s own villa, Chiswick House, which was completed in 1729 and resembles a symmetrical Roman temple with columns, a portico and pediment.
‘Gothick’ soon became a popular concept in British architecture, too. ‘It was revived for its romantic connotations, tied up with chivalry and old England. In the mid 18th century, people moved away from the cult of reason and towards a more Romantic sensibility.’ Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House, built in the 1750s, is a good example of this style – he transformed a couple of cottages into his vision of a ‘little Gothick castle’ complete with pinnacles, battlements and a round tower.
By the late 18th century, there was an awakening of interest in neoclassical construction – a Greek revival, championed by the likes of Robert Adam and James Stuart. ‘Designers became much more interested in pure classical forms, largely because of the work of archaeologists in Greece and Italy,’ reveals McKinstry. ‘They became obsessed with accuracy and built country houses, banks and churches based on Greek temples, such as St Pancras New Church.’ By the late Regency period, architects began to think about the appropriate styles for different types of building – for domestic houses, churches, rural buildings and so on. Thanks to patent books (which ranged from the very high end such as James Gibbs’ A Book of Architecture, through to more mundane publications on smaller buildings), architects’ drawings were published and widely circulated for the first time. This, combined with the new standardisation of brick sizes, meant that buildings had similar proportions, regardless of location or status. There was a concern – even among the less well of – to be fashionable and modern. ‘Even in modest buildings, if people could afford it, they tried their best to make them look more ‘polite’ – by which they meant, more conscious of design,’ reveals McKinstry. ‘Plain watle and daub cottages were often re-fronted to make them look like they were made out of smart bricks.’
Throughout the Georgian era, the internal decoration of houses evolved as drastically as the exterior did. Architects such as Robert Adam often worked on both the interior and exterior (and sometimes designed the furniture too), so the overall look was cohesive and visionary. ‘Early Georgian rooms usually had full-height panelling, but it was painted softwood, rather than the previous era’s oak,’ reveals Sarah Latham, Creative Director and Founder of Etons of Bath, an interior design firm that specialises in Georgian homes. In the early and mid 18th century, rooms were painted in deep, primary shades. ‘Colours were heavy and dark, such as deep greens, popular in breakfast rooms,’ says Latham. ‘Later, in the Regency era, the colour palette became much lighter – pea green, pale sky blue and pretty peachy hues.’ ‘The shift towards paler, prettier colours was partly a result of archaeology,’ points out David McKinstry. ‘When they began to excavate Pompeii and Herculaneum, a lot of original Roman and Etruscan paint colours survived and people copied these subtle tones, although a very deep Pompeiian red inspired by frescoes was popular, too.’ Emerald green, first created in 1814, was also desirable.
Intricate, white plasterwork is a key feature of 18th-century interiors. ‘Georgian homes have large windows, so the rooms are flooded with natural light, which makes the plasterwork look beautiful against coloured walls,’ says Sarah Latham. In the early 18th century, wallpaper was rare and expensive, so walls were panelled then painted, or hung with silk damask. Wallpaper became more readily available as the era went on. ‘In the mid and late 18th century there was more mass production and English potteries began to produce Wedgwood, Chelsea and Derby, which influenced interior design and rooms became more colourful as a result,’ says David McKinstry. ‘Carpets were almost unknown in the early 18th century, but towards the end of the century wealthy people had installed carpets as we know them today.’ The leading furniture designers of the time, which include Thomas Chippendale, George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton, published their drawings, but local cabinetmakers actually made the pieces. ‘People had less furniture, because it was so expensive, so it needed to be portable – moved from room to room and house to house,’ says McKinstry. ‘There’s a sense of theatre in Georgian interiors,’ he continues. ‘If you couldn’t afford marble, it didn’t matter, you just painted some wood to look like marble. I like the fact that Georgians – despite all their classical rules – didn’t take design too seriously.’