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Reviewed by:
  • Victorian Architecture: Diversity and Invention
  • Stefan Muthesius (bio)
Victorian Architecture: Diversity and Invention by James Stevens Curl; 635 pp., over 400 ill., mostly b&w. Reading: Spire Books Ltd., 2007. $140.00.

General books on British Victorian architecture are by now quite numerous, due not least to James Stevens Curl's own previous wide-ranging efforts. Was there room for another study, and a very heavy one at that? The answer for anybody with even the slightest interest in, and love of, the subject is a clear yes—if the book is illustrated in a distinctive way. What is striking above all about Curl's new book is the preference throughout for the older kind of photograph, typically those undertaken for the English National Monuments Record and its sister institutions in the other parts of Britain in the years after the war, as well as the images going back to the late Victorian period itself. They all consistently and wonderfully combine comprehensiveness with precision. Buildings are shown in their entirety, revealing the full richness of their massed classical columns and cornices or their piercing Gothic spires and subtly grouped decor. This full dignity of the professional black and white photograph is prudently interspersed with more recent excellent colour spots that reveal more subtle light and textural qualities. The effect of all this is marred just a little by the inconsistencies in the captions—that is, the frequent omission of dates and names of architects.

The question as to what one gets out of such a massive text is quite another matter. Clearly, a quick orientation is not what one should expect. Like all previous architectural historians, the author had to battle with the question of how to divide up British architecture between 1800 and 1900: by styles, by types of building, by materials, by geography, or by chaining it all together in strict chronological order? Curl provides a mixture of all these modes of organization. A summary rationale for this division is not given, but one may take it to provide a degree of completeness. Far more difficult to judge is how much Curl provides that would be new to the specialist. One certainly greets the inclusion of much striking, but so far hardly known, work in Northern Ireland. What holds the narrative together is more problematic, however. It is the author's penchant for strong personal value judgments, mostly of a fairly simple kind. In one column (on page 127) we meet references to a "rather striking church" (Wilton), a "fine brick exterior" (Christ Church, Streatham), and a "dull Romanesque church" (St. Mary, Elvetham Hall, Hampshire). Appositely, he totally rejects the whole of twentieth-century Modernism, with its "godlessness" and its penchant for designing from a "tabula rasa" (94). A confusion enters at this point because Curl not only wants to defend the diversity of the Victorian imagination against Modernism but also cherishes the order and predictability of the earlier classical-Georgian urban architecture. In this context, the reviewer is quite sympathetic to Curl's chiding of Ruskin's anti-urbanism and his de-emphasis of the Arts and Crafts contribution to the story, whereby Curl departs considerably from the still widely prevalent grand narrative [End Page 235] according to Nikolaus Pevsner. Altogether, one sympathizes with Curl's emphasis on the urban, on the size and the power of the Victorian city. But the wider problem—and Curl is of course aware of this—is that it was the nineteenth century itself that instigated the radical criticism and satire of bona fide patrons and designers. Curl does not seem to realize that for a real understanding of Victorian architectural discourses, as well as discourses for and against Modernism, including those that play off Victorian against Modern and vice versa, the historian must find a standpoint outside these debates that allows for a characterization of the whole of these discourses, in order to explain their origins and their workings. How else can we cope with that cacophony of negatives: the Victorians' condemnation of Georgian as insipid, the Neo-Georgians' attack on Victorian "vulgarity," the Moderns' contempt for nineteenth-century "lies," the more recent hate of a "brutal and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 235-236
Launched on MUSE
2012-06-07
Open Access
No
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