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Victorian is not one style but many. All of them feature a picturesque and romantic exuberance that has charmed observers since the mid-19th century. This look at the early Victorian period shows how to recognize some of the favorite styles within it. Includes timeline and list of notable landmarks. 55 illustrations.
Nobody who has paid any attention to the peculiar features of the present era, will doubt . . . that we are living at a period of transition, which tends rapidly to accomplish that great end, to which, indeed all history points--the realization of the unity of mankind.
---Prince Albert, speech at lord mayor's banquet, 1850
When the young Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, both her realm and other industrializing nations had embarked on a remarkable era of peace, progress, and prosperity. The turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars was over; despite revolutionary outbursts in Europe in 1848, the Crimean War in 1853-55, and the American Civil War in 1861-65, a sense of security and confidence pervaded the first thirty-five years of Victoria's reign.
The industrial revolution was well under way. Factories had begun to produce a torrent of useful and luxury goods that brought new standards of comfort to the lives of millions. A glittering bazaar with dozens of choices for every type of commodity was laid out for consumers. Yet at the same time that people expressed a strong belief in the ongoing improvement of society, they also embraced a romantic yearning for what they perceived as the simpler virtues of the past and for the lure of other cultures. Architecture and the decorative arts responded by mining new discoveries about ancient and distant civilizations, as well as the styles of more recent times. The result was a heady brew, with ingredients from ancient Egypt and Rome, medieval England, Renaissance Italy, royal France, and the Near East.
The early Victorian period was an era of tremendous creative energy, particularly in literature and music. This was thegolden age of the novel. Readers eagerly awaited the next tale from such authors as Sir Walter Scott, William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Alexandre Dumas, father and son. Poetry also flourished, with the verse of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and John Greenleaf Whittier reaching wide audiences, while Walt Whitman remained unappreciated. Music burst out of the narrow confines of aristocratic chambers and small opera houses. Symphonies and concertos by Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert led the way early in the century; the repertoire was soon enlarged by Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Franz Liszt. Romantic and heroic operas by Gioacchino Rossini, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Giuseppe Verdi, and Richard Wagner tugged the heartstrings and made spirits soar.
In 1850 Prince Albert, Victoria's consort, promoted the idea of a Great Exhibition as a celebration of Britain's progress and industrial might. Opening in London in 1851, the exhibition was housed in the Crystal Palace, designed by Sir Joseph Paxton. A shimmering structure of thin iron members and great panels of glass, the Crystal Palace was itself a tour de force of the new technology. Its exhibits, concentrating on lavish examples of the decorative arts, undoubtedly whetted the acquisitive appetites of viewers. The Crystal Palace symbolized both the rise of industry and Victorians' belief in the promise that the union of technology and art would produce a better life.
The Age of Change
Early Victorians ushered in the modern world with new technology tempered by arts that made spirits soar.
An Array of Styles
All styles were good--Italianate, Gothic Revival, exotics, Second Empire--as long as they were romantic.
The silhouettes were picturesque, the colors subdued, but public and private spheres all sought to delight.
Mass production unleashed dazzling varieties of interior choices, but best of all were central heat and water.
From furniture to textiles and objets d'art, eclectic furnishings in florid styles became the signature of the age.
At home, at work, at play, at large, and on the road, Victorians developed new building types for new times.
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Author Biography: Constance M. Greiff, who lives in Rocky Hill, New Jersey, has written Lost America and John Notman, Architect, 1810-1865 and is director of Heritage Studies, a preservation consulting firm.