- 1 ‘Most members specialize either in literature or in “civilization” (or cultural studies), but there (...)
- 2 The Journal of Victorian Studies is an emanation from the Victorian Studies programme of Indiana Un (...)
1Confronting subjects and points of view is today generally presented as an approach to be encouraged and often sets useful challenges, although one should be careful to preserve rigorousness and disciplinary specificity. These issues are currently on the agenda for many university research groups, among others in the humanities. The SAES conference in which this paper was first given is an example of how such a broad topic as English studies can bring academics together, although the more than 20 workshops which were organized also show how periodization, geographical categorization or thematic specialization can divide, in both a contradictory and necessary way. More particularly, Victorian studies as developed in the French Société Française des Etudes Victoriennes et Edouardiennes (SFEVE) have offered a broad range of approaches and one of the principles of the society’s meetings and publications is to exchange on a particular topic by crossing Victorian literature and culture with political and social history, thus bringing together different perspectives to address the question in a more comprehensive way. This position was reasserted by Alain Jumeau in his article entitled ‘Victorian Studies in France’1 published in 2007 in The Journal of Victorian Studies, one of the first interdisciplinary publications in the humanities.2 On an international basis, Victorian studies even more clearly imply not only crossing approaches and methodologies but also widening the geographical range of members and themes as the following examples show:
The (North American Victorian Studies) Association aims to provide a forum for the discussion of the Victorian period and to encourage a wide variety of theoretical and disciplinary approaches to the field. Its members work in a number of disciplines as well as a range of regions and countries.3
The Australasian Victorian Studies Association aims to promote the activities and research of scholars in Victorian literary, historical, and cultural studies, including art history, architecture, politics, popular and print culture, and, increasingly, considerations of ‘the Victorian’ beyond the chronological period, and beyond the geographical centre of British Victorian Studies.4
- 5 Industrial Archaeology Review, volume 23, Issue 1, 1May 2001, p. 5-6.
2Victorian architecture is a field of study which lends itself to an enlightening exploration on the limits and borders of Victorian studies. The elements of reflection developed here have their origin in an enriching conference on the topic of ‘The Representation of Workers’ a few years ago. The subject could be approached in terms of the evolution of the franchise for workers in the 19th and 20th centuries, but also allowed scope for different interpretations of the notion of ‘representation’. My contribution consisted in studying how industrial archaeology and industrial museums in the UK had played, and were still playing, a role in transmitting to new generations the workers’ history and struggle for equality and better conditions in Victorian times. One of the starting points for this study was actually Kenneth Hudson’s remark that industrial archaeology should be considered as an archaeology of the workplace and focus on people as well as sites, machines and technologies.5 The resulting article was turned down for publication by the Society for the Study of Labour History on the grounds that the society ‘didn’t do heritage’. It consequently became the starting point for a somewhat different work in the context of broader heritage studies and theories in their recent developments, and had to be put back in the more general debate on heritage preservation in different countries and periods. Did that mean disengaging from Victorian studies or straying dangerously away from the initial work? What did it imply for the development of further research? This paper will try to answer these questions by addressing the issue of commitment understood as faithfulness to a discipline or period of study, through the particular example of working on nineteenth-century architecture today. It will explore the way in which the subject of Victorian architecture can actually be presented as a good example to tackle the much-debated questions of multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, and develop a certain number of issues and examples of what working on Victorian architecture implies today.
3Studying Victorian architecture first of all necessarily means adopting a multidisciplinary position, that is to say considering the overlapping of different disciplinary points of view which provide a more thorough and complex vision of the question. History of art is a necessary starting point, especially the knowledge of the major periods in the history of architecture, as well as historicism and the reinterpretation of styles. Beyond the well-known battle of styles between the classical and the neo-Gothic, which developed most conspicuously on the public scene in civic monuments as well as in religious buildings, references to other architectural styles were constant in a Victorian society which was struggling to assert complex identities and to define a national style. That national style, as many art historians have shown, finally proved difficult to refer to in any other way than eclecticism. Referring to architectural styles in the Victorian period therefore necessarily implies moving in space and time. Historicism also means constantly turning back to past civilisations or cultures. The Italian reference in the Victorian period, for example, was complex and diverse, ranging from Venetian culture to the Florentine Palazzo, and could be applied not just to private houses but also to public buildings or even industrial constructions. Exerting a specialist’s eye on architecture also entails distinguishing between various details on a particular façade or structure as well as identifying specific elements of the structure and their functional or aesthetic roles. Reusing architectural elements or references from various times and countries was not rare at the time and often amounted to more than an architectural or aesthetic statement. The obvious imitation of the Doges’ Palace in Venice on the façade of Templeton’s carpet factory (Glasgow, 1889) is but one well-known and spectacular illustration of the way in which late-Victorian industrialists relied on the architectural appearance of their places of production to convey a sense of wealth, power and what they considered as ‘good taste’. That was part of a response to aristocrats who rejected anything or anyone related to industry as ‘vulgar’.
4It is also important to take into account the main architectural debates which divided artists and critics in the nineteenth century. An example is the development of the so-called anti-scrape movement. William Morris’s Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings cannot be understood without knowledge of Eugène Viollet-Le-Duc’s approach to restoration. Similarly the Art Nouveau architecture which developed from the Arts and Crafts movement at the end of the century and thrived in Great Britain, notably under the influence of Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, cannot be dissociated from the Secessionist movement in Austria or the growing influence of exotic models like Japanese art. Chronological and geographical limits are therefore easily blurred and many similar questions can by no means be dealt with by strictly focusing on what happened in Great Britain in the 19th century.
- 6 ‘Our taste, thus exalted and disciplined, is dazzled by the lustre of a few rows of panes of glass’ (...)
5However Britain also went through completely unprecedented events during that period: the Industrial Revolution, especially in its second phase at the beginning of the 19th century, led to the very rapid construction of new types of industrial and commercial buildings or public utilities, using newly available materials to explore different forms and functions, and announcing modern architecture. In the same way, architects and engineers found themselves in a sort of competition or opposition—as some, like John Ruskin, railed against what they considered ‘engineer’s architecture’6—while having to cooperate in an increasing number of projects. Discussing Victorian architecture today therefore very often requires technical knowledge and references that architects only acquired and used from that period onwards.
6Being a pioneer in all things industrial, Britain was in the same way the first to experiment with industrial architecture and with new materials and techniques provided by the Industrial Revolution. Beyond particular specificities, the whole landscape was affected, and urban planning became an urgent issue because of the very rapid pace at which industrial and commercial developments took place. The Victorians nevertheless occasionally succeeded in reconciling their taste for past styles with the new materials and techniques at their disposal, thus giving birth to such specific trends as the so-called Techno-Gothic style. As evidenced in buildings like the Natural History Museums built by Benjamin Woodward and T. N. Deane in Oxford in 1854 and by Alfred Waterhouse in London in 1881, the Gothic Revival could sometimes successfully accommodate technical progress.
7Taking a traditional history of arts perspective one may legitimately wonder in what way one is actually contributing to Victorian studies strictly speaking, beyond the mere description of characteristics and the replacing of Victorian art in a wider historical and geographical perspective. It is however obvious architecture and industry in the Victorian period cannot be dissociated from social history. Here again, the physical and social impact of the industrial revolution is a determining element. The transformation of formerly upper-class houses into smaller workers’ rooms or the proliferation of back-to-backs in new industrial cities are most of the time dealt with in terms of housing conditions rather than architectural choices—limited and utilitarian though those may have been—and very rarely tackled from the perspective of the implication of and benefits for local owners or building practices. Regional specificities, related to the choices taken by local architects or the type of stone or brick available in the area are not always referred to either. The factory is in the same way often reduced to the description of spectacular machinery or of extraordinary dimensions the better to emphasize the alienation of workers reduced to the status of ants in an anthill. What is less frequently dealt with is the architectural diversity of this type of buildings, which could vary depending on the location, the trade, the part of the production concerned, the number of workers employed. In the same way, the owner’s priorities in terms of security, image sent back to clients, accommodation for workers, were expressed through different architectural choices. There could thus be a lot of particular situations in a very complex framework. In a similar way, the post-1834 workhouse has become the symbol of exclusion and division and the Panopticon structure is rarely considered and studied beyond the reference to the prison taken as a model for those notorious bastilles. Most of the time, the purpose rather than the style is interrogated, although focusing on the structure first, in the Panopticon as well as others forms, also tells us a great deal about the physical separation of genders or of family members within the institution, which in turn takes us back to the underlying philosophy and ideology. This can be illustrated by the following description of the so-called ‘square plan’:
The most widely adopted of the model plans were those produced by the architect Sampson Kempthorne. His cruciform or ‘square’ design featured an administrative block at the front containing a porter’s room and waiting-room on the ground floor, with Guardians’ board-room above. At the rear, a children’s block linked to the supervisory octagonal hub where the Master’s quarters lay. Male and female quarters emanated to the left and right of the hub, while kitchens and stores with dining-hall above stood in the wing at the rear. The square perimeter of the building comprised single storey workshop and utility blocks which also served to enclose the various inmates’ exercise yards. Each of the four areas was often divided by walls into two, allowing up to eight segregated exercise areas. Square-plan workhouses typically accommodated between 300 and 500 inmates.7
8Along the same lines, the development of clubs and pubs for different classes of people is studied as the sign of more entrenched social or political identities, but considering some of the architectural specificities of these two types of buildings—such as the introduction of different entrances, floors, rooms or nooks—also tells much about how they were devised to comply with social networks, a search for intimacy and in some cases patterns of exclusion, thus highlighting different social and sometimes moral motives:
Lorsqu’un établissement comporte plusieurs bars publics, il n’est pas rare qu’on s’y répartisse selon son métier ou sa formation. Les employés de banque, vendeurs, artistes occupent plutôt le bar privé. On y recrée en quelque sorte de l’intime au cœur du public. On éloigne des ivrognes braillards un groupe plus respectable, parfois une famille ou une amie de cœur. Le propriétaire du pub se réserve le droit d’accepter ou de refuser dans la salle de billard ou de concert quiconque par sa tenue ou son comportement sera jugé inopportun. (Cases 10)
9Similar remarks could be made about theatres and music halls. One can thus refer to the architecture of division, exploitation, leisure, and, by underlining specific architectural choices, unveil social aspirations, cultural assertions or political and economic competition. Not only art historians or architects but also social historians can therefore find in the study of Victorian architecture a useful starting point and material for research.
10Possibly the best way to truly contribute to Victorian studies is to proceed in an interdisciplinary way, to go beyond the mere crossing of different disciplinary approaches enriching the perspective in order to reach common work on the same particular theme or object in a truly interactive pattern which sheds a new light on the studied object. This practice is evidenced today in the new trends in industrial archaeology, in which various skills are brought together, as archaeologists, engineers, historians, but also local communities can take part in a multifarious but common task of interpreting the built heritage of the Victorian period. Though bringing together interpretations may not always be easy, the necessity to work as a team rather than separately is now becoming fully acknowledged, because architecture is both an intangible and a tangible heritage that has to be understood but also often reused, relived and re-appropriated. This point will be developed below.
11Another rewarding perspective could be to focus on architecture as a debate in Victorian studies, in a more transdisciplinary approach. The Victorians were in fact the first to address a question that would then become a recurrent one: What is architecture? Who is it for? Are some buildings noble and others less so? What buildings should be protected and how? What do we mean exactly by architectural heritage?
12The Victorians first raised the question of architectural heritage and how it should be transmitted and preserved. They left the question not quite settled, though. But most of all, they left behind them an architectural and urban heritage that the 20th and 21st centuries had to deal with, materially speaking. Working on nineteenth-century architecture, one has the invaluable advantage of dealing with an incredible amount of tangible material. Direct experience can however be misleading because it often implies re-appropriation or reinterpretation using contemporary standards that may blur the initial intention. On the other hand, Victorian buildings themselves have gone through various assessments and appreciations since they came to life. The Victorian society was created in 1954 to encourage a renovation of neglected Victorian buildings which risked disappearing but the initial action focused on what was considered as ‘valuable’ architecture, that is, essentially churches or stately houses. Industrial and commercial buildings were not considered worth the effort, and the turning point was the destruction of Euston station porch—a good example of Victorian eclectic architectural taste and of contrast between form and function—in 1961, which led to a long-lasting questioning as to the importance of the Victorian architectural heritage, including utilitarian buildings. Industrial archaeology developed fast, the Association for Industrial Archaeology was created in 1973 and federated a large number of existing smaller societies. As mentioned above, an interdisciplinary approach is now often favoured to deal with industrial buildings of the Victorian period. Architects, archaeologists, social historians, engineers, metal workers, but also volunteers interested in the preservation of their local identity are called on to work on the same building or site and to confront the results of their work. Architectural and technical characteristics are thoroughly considered but also related to the specificities of the community the buildings belonged to. Industrial archaeology as a matter of fact long suffered from its characterization as a hybrid discipline, because of the implication of so-called non-specialists and volunteers as well as specialists in different fields. Field work, excavation, recording, reconstruction and protection are now often more successfully explained to a wider public and associated with written and oral history on the local and national levels.
13After leading the way in industrial developments, the country had to become a pioneer in the preservation of the built heritage industries left. To a specialist of Victorian studies, such evolutions opened up very interesting perspectives but also a number of questionings. In the same way, the successive campaigns to protect or at least to prevent the systematic destruction of all derelict industrial buildings from the 19th century led to an increase in adaptive reuse which of course offered the advantage of saving many buildings, industrial or not, but also often transformed their initial function and a certain number of their initial characteristics. One therefore often has to work on hybrids and disentangle elements. Renovation and adaptive reuse also often lead to gentrification and to a displacement and change of the initial social components of the place.
- 8 A good illustration of contrasted interpretations of the Victorian era is provided by two books on (...)
14Another obvious difficulty is the amount of reinterpretation and debate that has been at work in the re-appropriation of the Victorian built heritage, especially in cases where sites were preserved to be opened to the public and converted into heritage or educational centres, museums or theme parks. The political opportunities inherent in such heritage have been outlined by various social historians, among whom Patrick Wright in his description of the country in the Thatcher years. But dealing with the Victorian period in the UK, and especially with its architecture, also implies intricate processes of reclaiming and regaining identities, especially class and community identities. The Victorian period is the subject of constant reinterpretations, whether manipulated or not, on different levels that range from exasperated rejection to nostalgia. It has been the subject of fascinating analyses as well as gross simplifications.8 Working on the buildings of the period makes one constantly aware of these paradoxes and contradictions, and after being a controversial issue in Victorian times, Victorian architecture has now become a polemical heritage.
15More recent perspectives have also displaced the issue on an international scene with more globalized approaches: historic landscapes, and historic urban landscapes more particularly, have become the focus of debates aiming at (re)defining them and identifying the most useful tools to deal with them in the contemporary period. Urban planning issues as well as questions of sustainability constantly affect discussions of still endangered or derelict sites of Victorian origin, but also of protected Victorian historic landscapes like Liverpool waterfront, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with all the constraints the distinctions implies when redevelopments are considered. Interestingly Liverpool will soon house the conference ‘Reconnections: Land, Water, Cities and Heritage’ ‘to discuss how the past can help shape the economic future of urban waterfronts’.9
- 10 See Schiele, B.: « Les trois temps du patrimoine », dans B. Schiele (dir.), Patrimoines et identité (...)
16The Victorian architectural heritage should therefore not only be considered as a manifestation of the past, but also as truly part of our present as well as an element to consider in our future, in keeping with the description of heritage as a ‘three-moment process’.10 Its physical presence is both a testimony from the past and an element affecting our everyday life. Studying it therefore implies a repeated detachment, while immersion and personal experience can also be a starting point from which to proceed to approach the Victorian point of view. Its inevitable presence does not always guarantee that it is going to be taken into account as an important element in Victorian studies or that all the conditions for acceptable academic research are going to be met, because it also poses immediate problems in contemporary times which are asking for immediate responses.
17The recent field of Neo-Victorian studies11 provides a number of answers to the questions addressed in this paper, first of all by asserting itself as inseparable from Victorian studies:
For what is the relationship between the Neo-Victorian and the Victorian, the Neo-Victorianist and the Victorianist? The fact that there is a distinction between the two specialisms is obvious yet are not both groups of researchers actually engaged in a similar, if not identical, task? Is not the locus of their dual perspectives an approach to understanding the impact of the nineteenth century and its enduring legacy into the present? Indeed, returning to the already cited editorial from the inaugural issue of Victorian Studies, with its reference to ‘the life of that era … its events and personalities … interpret[ing] and apprais[ing] its achievement’, could we not hope that Neo-Victorian Studies might share similar, perhaps even the same aims and intentions? In this sense, the Neo-Victorian is about new approaches to the Victorian period rather than an attempt to indulge in escapism masked as historical narrative. (Llewelyn 169)
18Although Neo-Victorian studies first developed in the literary field, some of their early conclusions could easily be transferred to other types of texts and taken into account in any study of the Victorian architectural and industrial heritage, which can in many cases be described as neo-Victorian if one considers the changes in the environment, the new uses or the alterations frequently imposed on it:
The importance of the palimpsest lies not in its writing of new texts over old ones, but in the simultaneous existence of both narratives on the same page, occupying the same space, and speaking in odd, obscure, and different ways to one another. For it is important to remember that, as the neo-Victorian text writes back to something in the nineteenth century, it does so in a manner that often aims to re-fresh and re-vitalise the importance of that earlier text to the here and now. (Llewelyn 171)
19The same approach can be used to discuss how we still live with the Victorians, in many more ways than by just inheriting their buildings:
To a large extent, the Victorians are the very fabric of the spaces we now inhabit, and it is through fabrication—through f(r)iction—that we seek to address what that means to us in the here and now. But that visible presence should not hide the ways in which they remain obscured from us, just as they found themselves obscured from the generations before them. (Llewelyn 180)
20Beyond academic circles, bodies in charge of architectural preservation like English Heritage also seem to have become aware of the necessity to relate contemporary experience of the built heritage to the country’s history or possibly ‘story’, as the online ‘story of England’ series shows.12 For the Victorian era as well as other periods, buildings and sites are presented along with particular stories that can be related to them. The aim is not to give a comprehensive view but to stimulate and encourage interest in the period and its architecture through fragments of history:
Gone are the days when people learned about history simply from reading books. People are increasingly looking for experiences that bring history to life in an engaging way and nothing beats standing on the spot where history happened. We offer a hands-on experience that will inspire and entertain people of all ages. Our work is informed by enduring values of authenticity, quality, imagination, responsibility and fun. Our vision is that people will experience the story of England where it really happened.13
21This vision can of course be questioned because of the obvious dangers of reduction and simplification it suggests and the fact that it also obviously answers financial concerns regarding the preservation of sites which encourage the promotion of tourist-friendly presentations. That references to ‘imagination’ and ‘responsibility’ should be found in the same sentence may however testify to a reflection on how to adapt to new publics in the process of transmission. Academics may be less directly concerned by the issue of adapting to all sorts of audiences but the issue of ‘temporal, geographical, cultural and intermedial persistence’ is nevertheless to be taken into account, as has been successfully done by the Victorian Persistence seminar in Paris Diderot university over the last few years.14
22Many books and essays on architecture were written in the Victorian period, many architectural journals and schools started back then, and the subject really became matter for debate and research. The Victorians also explored the various meanings and dimensions of architecture, at the same time an art, a science, a practice and experience, but also a word referring to a building (and possibly some of its interior decoration), its design, drawing or photograph, or even to a never completed draft or project. As Kester Rattenbury pointed out, architecture very often means the ‘representation of architecture’ and ‘all forms of representation have their own bias, their own preferences, their own cultures, their own economic, cultural and personal drives’ (Rattenbury, xxii). Architecture is about constant references, (re)presentations and (re)interpretations, but also about aesthetic, social, political commitments, and the Victorians may have been the first to fully realize it. A reflection on the architectural heritage they left of course means comparing now and then and wondering about who we are and where we live, but this cannot be achieved without interrogating who the initial protagonists—whether builders or users—were, what place meant or how history was perceived back in Victorian times. More than a duty to confront the past, it therefore involves a constant re-engagement with the period.