"There is nothing as unique in English architecture as the development of the houseI no nation is more committed to its development, because no nation has identified itself more with the house." So reported diplomat and attache Hermann Muthesius in the late 19th century when he was deputed by the Prussian board of trade to produce an analysis of city infrastructure - gas, electricity, railways and so on - and instead ended up writing three volumes ( Das Englische Haus, 1904-05) on how the English built their houses in the hope of improving German design. In the burgeoning suburbs of terraced housing and well-developed villas Muthesius saw a "sound and unostentatious but finely developed taste".
Though The Victorian Society Book of the Victorian House contains no statistics, the society estimates that more than 50 per cent of us live in a Victorian or early Edwardian house. House-building over those 80-odd years, all speculative, forms the single largest housing output. The building boom was prodigious, with 841 million bricks produced in 1815 rising to more than double this number by 1845.
Sixty years after Muthesius, the British public no longer cared for the all-too-common Victorian house, and from the 1950s thousands were pulled down, reinvented and knocked through, and all the original period detail ripped out.
Nikolaus Pevsner and John Betjeman founded the Victorian Society in 1958 to save buildings and monuments under threat from demolition. Continuing their mission, Kit Wedd, a former education officer and deputy director of the Victorian Society, has produced this guide aimed at the Victorian house owner with tips on how to care for and restore their homes. As Wedd says, "their very ordinariness is the greatest enemy of the Victorian house. They are everywhere in such quantity that familiarity has bred contempt, and they are brutally treated."
The Victorian house encompasses the history of 19th-century Britain. The domestic design of farm workers' cottages, redbrick vicarages, Scottish baronial castles, town squares and rows of terraced housing reveals innovations in sewerage, electricity, water and communications. It also charts social history - living conditions, class, population growth (it doubled under Queen Victoria) and conspicuous consumption.
The prospect of condensing more than 60 years of such varied development is a tricky one. The period is vast, and the decorative detail various. From the ornamental bargeboards of an 1850s Gothic lodge house to the vermiculated quoins of a townhouse in Eaton Square. From the beginnings of the vernacular Arts and Crafts movement to each subtle change in drainage and tile.
Wedd provides a basic introduction with structured chapters on the exterior (bricks, stones, render, roofs, timber, windows, doors and ironwork); the basic services (fireplaces, lighting, kitchens and bathrooms); and finally the interior (tiles, plasterwork, paints, colours, wallpapers and curtains). Each comes with a brief overview of developments, and includes the major players, succinctly illustrated with standard shots. Then come tips on how to restore your home, including the importance of having a first-aid kit on site and a warning to beware of thieves if you leave building materials in your front garden.
All this is competently done - well researched and well presented - but not inspiring. While this book is welcome, it falls somewhere between an academic study of architectural style, a coffee-table guide to interior decorating and a charitable leaflet on how to restore a Victorian home, especially when compared with Robin Guild's beautifully illustrated The Victorian House Book, which is now in its third edition and available at the same price.
Helen Davies works for the Home section of The Sunday Times.
The Victorian Society Book of the Victorian House
Author - Kit Wedd
ISBN - 1 85410 875 1
Publisher - Aurum
Price - £30.00
Pages - 2