Victorian Architecture and The Bishop’s Tomb
Victorian architecture cannot be lumped into a single style. The Victorian period was one that actually encompassed many eras. Three of the most popular Victorian architectonical designs are the Italianate, the Neoclassical, and the Gothic Revival, which is the architectonic style most often associated with the Victorian period. Still, if Victorian architecture is to be defined as anything, most would agree that it is expressive, confident, and dim. In his page The Reality of the Victorian, George Landow quotes Robert Furneaux Jordan who points out that, “The architecture of the Victorian Age tells us more about the men who made it than does any other architecture in history.” If the architecture itself gives hints as to who the Victorians were, then it can be considered as an expressive type of architecture. He mentions that this style of architecture gave information about the Victorian everyday life, as “it was all so self-assured and vulgar, that it never leaves us in doubt. It never diluted itself — as has our architecture — with inhibitions about style or taste” (Landow).
Sullivan gives a more objective description of Victorian architecture. He states that Victorian houses were equipped with an endless array of stained glass above the front door, and that there were ceramic tiles around the porch. He states that “on a sunny day, or if there were a street lamp nearby, the wall inside was splashed with yellows, reds, blues, and greens.” Despite the splash of colorful light reflections projected by the stained glass which gave homes a feel of being a small roman-catholic church, the tiles were often of dark earth tones, such as brown and green. This dark ambience was often juxtaposed with pubs. Pubs, according to Sullivan, were “were little bubbles of light in a dark city”, as they were “were bright and glittering.” When the only places of ‘light’ in the city are places where men go to consume alcohol and get drunk, and the homes are nothing more than overly elaborate and ornate dim dwellings, it is no surprise that the Victorian architecture was considered as dim.
If this style of architecture were to be taken by the two qualities above-mentioned, expressive and dim, then it would be safe to say that the Victorians were a depressive people; however, Victorian architecture was also seen as ‘confident’ in the sense that, as quoted in Landow, Jordan points out that “The Victorian architect knew what he wanted to do and, good or bad, he did it.” Whether what they were doing was of bad taste or good taste, right or wrong, the Victorian architect did his work.
With the industrial revolution filling the skies of small towns with soot, and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species threatening to unravel Victorian faith and scientific thought, it is of no surprise, then, that Victorians were, if their architecture in-fact speaks for them, a dim and gloomy, yet expressive and confident people. They had something to be gloomy about – Darwin’s observations, yet they needed something to hold on to, therefore their confidence.
Victorian architecture is also seen in their poetry. In The Bishop orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church, by Robert Browning, the bishop orders his tomb built with the qualities found in Victorian architecture, but to a much grander scale.
The poem starts with the word ‘vanity’, a word that may signify excessive pride, like that of the 18th century Englishman, or “lack of real value; hollowness; worthlessness” (dictionary.com) These qualities are often related to people with bleak, dark, or dim personalities. This could be seen as the bishop being an embodiment of vanity, which is in itself an embodiment of the Victorian Englishman. When asking for his tomb, the bishop asks for angel statuettes, and that there be an entrance where a single ray of light creeps in. He demands that there be columns, trademarks of Victorian architecture, and that it be made of marble, a material often used to produce the tiles for the porches. He demands that the slab of stone with his name be made of pure ebony stone, and that there should be a large lump of blue lapis lazuli representing the world put between his knees. This symbolizes the confining of the world to a dark prison, and it is dark, as only a single ray of light will creep into it. Still, what is most astonishing about this comparison of architecture and Bishop’s tomb, is that just like the Victorian architect, the bishop knows what he wants in his architectonic design and, whether it is good or bad, does it.
In the end, some Victorian literature represents Victorian architecture, which in turn represents Victorians themselves. The architecture is dark and gloomy, and the only brightness in the towns are pubs, just as the majority of the bishop’s tomb is dark, and there is only a single ray of light shining through the darkness. This ray of light may be seen as a ray of hope that mankind will someday be redeemed of the darkness in which it has been placed; but if this light of redemption translates in architectonic terms into town pubs, then what hope of redemption is there really?
Landow, G.P. (2001). The Reality of Victorianism. Retrieved October 13, 2007, from
Victorian Web Web site: http://www.victorianweb.org/vn/victor7.html
Sullivan, D. (2006). Stained Glass and Gaslight. Retrieved October 13, 2007, from
Victorian Web Web site: http://www.victorianweb.org/art/stainedglass/sullivan.html
Browning, R. In The Bishop orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church.