The Style and Characteristics of Georgian Architecture

classical-doors-panelling-and-mouldings-in-Henley

“Doors and windows are condemned by passing fools who know not that they condemn Palladio’s Rules”
Jon Gay, Epistle to Paul Methuen, 1720 from Steven Parissien, “Interiors”2009

In this article we describe the main characteristics of Georgian architecture, a period which has bequeathed many of our finest stately homes and a wealth of elegant terraces, crescents, squares and town houses. Although the key stylistic influence of the period is Classical the story is more nuanced than that.

What is not in doubt is that the apparent simplicity and lightness of touch of Georgian architecture is achieved by strict adherence to a complex body of principles derived from exhaustive study of ancient buildings. This means that those seeking to recreate an authentic Georgian interior with absolutely correct period details are well advised to seek expert help from those with an intimate knowledge of Georgian house features that spans the whole Georgian era.

 

History of Georgian Architecture

The Georgian era spans the reigns of George I to IV and covers the period 1714 -1830. The dominant characteristic of Georgian architecture is the Palladian style. This was a British phenomenon as the predominant style in Europe during these years was Rococo. This stylistic departure from continental design reflects the wider political and economic context as Georgian Britain forged ahead with its empire building efforts to emerge as one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

The restrained and rational elegance of Palladian design that is so characteristic of Georgian period architecture is in notable contrast with the vivid scenes of drunken debauchery and gambling excess depicted by the contemporary artist William Hogarth. It was a period of vast wealth yet glaring inequality where cultural refinement was underpinned by an economy founded on slavery. Darwin had not yet written the origin of the species but rationality and intellectualism were growing apace. Georgian intellectuals sought to identify the epitome of order, hierarchy and perfection amidst the chaos and contradictions, and looked to classical Greece and Rome for inspiration.


William Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty. Hogarth himself attempted to define the principles of beauty and grace in aesthetics in this publication which praises the beauty of the serpentine S-shaped curve.

Lord Burlington and his colleagues in the Office of Works, appointed following the succession of George I in 1714, also did much to shape Georgian style according to Classical designs.

The agricultural and industrial revolutions as well as booming global trade spawned an emergent class of increasingly wealthy capitalists who shaped the architectural landscape of the period. The history of Georgian architecture was shaped by entrepreneurs, speculators and gamblers. Some of the most influential private developments of the early Georgian period were funded by lottery and those willing to take a chance. The Adam brothers and John Nash created beautiful Georgian buildings for the wealthy as did their counterparts but also undertook tentative ventures into urban planning for the emerging middle class. Their crescents, squares and terraces in Bath, Bristol and Edinburgh as well as London still dominate the architectural landscape.

The Georgian era is synonymous with lavish personal projects including many remarkable London Townhouses and Georgian Country Homes.
Examples include

  • Palladian Chiswick House built by the Earl of Burlington in 1729 in the Palladian Style with interiors by William Kent (see below).
  • Apsley House and Kenwood House – Robert Adam, and
  • Northington Grange, Hampshire(Greek Revival)

The people who commissioned, bought and lived in these Georgian buildings will have been extremely fashion and style conscious. Keen to distinguish themselves at the upper eschelons of society through their knowledge and demonstration of the latest trends in clothing, wallpaper, interior design, literature, music and intellectual inquiry including and appreciation of all things classical from the Grand Tour. This is in part why the Georgian period is widely regarded a century of unparalleled elegance and taste.

The main inspiration for Georgian period architecture is classical, sourced from surviving examples of architectural buildings and mouldings from the Roman and Greek Empires as well as being heavily influenced by the work of Andrea Palladio.

Characteristic of Georgian Architecture

Georgian style is synonymous with classical Palladian design, heavily promoted by Lord Burlington, the country’s most prominent architect in the years 1720-1750. The Neoclassical style based on Roman and later the Greek architecture and championed by Burlington and other notable bastions of Georgian period architecture including Adam and Nash is what we think of as typical Georgian period style. Its elegant form is characterised by the fine balance between palatial grandeur and a sense of lightness and modesty.

Palladio’s immutable laws of proportion dominate the Georgian period but from 1750s onward, and hastened by the social changes following Waterloo, it is not the only design style of the Georgian period. Later Georgian joinery designs begin to embrace asymmetric and picturesque movements based on nature and landscape. Neo-classical Greek revival, neo-Norman and neo-gothic design all rise to greater prominence in this later period. However, even with these later innovations, it is clear that a strong sense of proportion and symmetry remain the driving principles behind the architecture through the whole of the Georgian period.

Architectural orders from the Soane Collection

Atkey and Co’s new range of interior joinery designed in collaboration with the Soane Museum London.

The search for perfection in design created an intellectual study of aesthetics, proportion, symmetry in the classical architecture of Greece and Rome. The Palladian movement, steeped in rationality, sought to identify mathematical perfection in proportion based on the geometry of circles, squares and half squares, and the shape of the human form. It aspired to identify a definitive and authentic epitome of good taste in design. Georgian designers invented pattern books as a guide for builders to show how to apply these principles to timber and plaster mouldings and ensure the desired standards of perfection were achieved.

Georgian Interior Design

We see the concept of complete design where Georgian classical detailing is applied throughout construction to both interiors and exteriors. This is evidenced in the way that families of joinery details, plaster shapes and other embellishments are applied to alcoves, doors and mouldings in Georgian interiors. Room sets are considered as a whole so that skirting boards, architrave, fireplaces, dado and doors and ceiling details all tend to have clearly related shapes. Georgian doors and mouldings were designed with precision around the detailed order of classical columns.

The exteriors of Georgian era houses do tend to be more restrained than the interiors. It is in Georgian interiors that the hosts lavish expressions of wealth and taste were exhibited. In Georgian interiors we see Roman inspired niches, alcoves, classical columns (Corinthian, Ionic and Doric), masonry figures, vases, urns, ribbons and garlands. Painted images of Roman gods and goddesses, luxurious wallpapers and painted colour schemes. In more modest homes ornament is confined to skirting boards, dado rails and doorcases, but still according to a collective design principle.

Panelled doors were introduced prior to the Georgian period (always in geometric style with the right and left side a mirror of the central plane) but by 1700 the six panel door was established as the preferred door panel arrangement. This preference for six panel doors lasted throughout the Georgian period. Typical Georgian fashion would be to have this six panel door constructions with flat or raised and fielded panel detailing.

The earlier method of hanging a door against a wall was replaced in the Georgian architecture by hanging doors against a dedicated support door post decorated with architrave forming doorways ornamented with mouldings and pediments.

Designs were applied throughout the house with precision and consistency. So, for example, decorative door surrounds tend to echo the design of the mantlepiece. Carved door mouldings work with wall panel mouldings, skirtings, dado rails and cornices. As the Georgian era progresses the panelled doors began to be embellished withmouldings.

Hierarchical design standards were applied to define the status and purpose of areas within the interiors of Georgian period houses. Families occupied the ground and first floors while servants inhabited the smaller simpler top storey rooms and the kitchens in the lower ground floor and basements. Georgian house features are more extravagant on the lower floors and markedly less so on those floors where the domestics worked and slept.

‘Georgian interiors are often the easiest to decorate and restore. Let the attractive, harmonious proportions speak for themselves and leave great piles of furniture to the Victorians’, says architectural historian Oliver Gerrish in his design tips for historical homes.

 

Early Georgian style

Early Georgian mouldings were produced at a time dominated by Roman classical influences, academic rigour and a strict adherence to rules of classical architecture set out by Palladio.

That said, the earlier Baroque movement synonymous with Wren, Archer and Hawskmoor persisted in the transitional early Georgian period up until the 1720s. Elements of Palladianism and Rococo, favoured on the continent, were combined by some architects to revive the baroque into this period. Examples include James Gibbs, who designed Ditchley Park in Oxon in 1720-31 and Giacomo Leoni (the first translator of Palladio’s Quattro Libri into English).

The puritanical regulations of ‘good taste’ were set out in pattern books during the 1730s-40s. These stipulated that walls should be painted in single colours, with architectural elements offsetting the white ceilings and pale hues walls. Skirtings were sometimes painted brown or deep blue. Architectural mouldings were used to frame the walls. Painted timbers also became a feature and pale hues begin to be adopted to lighten interiors in favour of wood colours. Raised and fielded six panel doors are the typical arrangement. It is only toward the end of the Georgian period that recessed or flat panel arrangement becomes more common.

A few example mouldings include: GAR0169, early Georgian door moulding GDM1135, and early Georgian architrave GDA0032.

 

Mid Georgian style

Between 1740-1769 Neoclassical architects start looking to Greece and to authentic examples of architecture in Italy. Looking beyond bookish Palladianism a number of architects travelled to Greece and Italy to discover and study original source examples of classical architecture. Pompeii and Herculaneum are discovered in this time. James Stuart and Nicholas Revett are examples of architects who went to these lengths in search of the origin of good taste, along with the prolific Robert Adam.

By the mid-Georgian period moulding are given a painted finish to match pale tinted walls. Toward the end of the mid-Georgian and into the later period gilding with gold leaf as a highlighting counterpoint for bolder colours was introduced by the Adams brothers. Mahogany became a favourite luxurious timber to be used for main floor rooms of status in preference to oak.

A few example mouldings include: GAR0053, mid-Georgian door moulding GDM0180, and

 

Late Georgian style

Georgian house features in the later period shift in emphasis from Roman to Grecian classicism, starting with James Stuart in 1759 (Hagley Park Worcestershire, Spencer House 1765). This trend really becomes dominant from the late 1790’s onwards. This Grecian influence manifests itself through the reduction in depth of Palladian mouldings. This is combined with the introduction of the quirk, a thin recess feature in a moulding which creates the perception of greater depth by casting more shadow. See for example, Georgian architrave GAR0002 and GAR0079.

As the end of the Georgian period approaches we see an explosion of different moulding styles. The standardisation and slavish adherence to classical form is relaxed. The Victorian period will embrace new inspirations and [link to Victorian article] styles once exclusively reserved for the wealthy become affordable to a wider middle class market (Article on Victorian Joinery Designs).

Flourishes of continental, Rococo style evident in interior design since the 1740s find their way to exterior detailing which now become a little less restrained and rather more lavish. Though during the later Georgian period exteriors become more lavish it always in Georgian interior design where we see wealth and good taste flaunted to full effect.

A few example mouldings include: Late Georgian Architrave GAR0002, Late Georgian skirting board GSK0004, late Georgian door moulding GDM1183 for a raised and fielded panel door.

 

Application of Georgian door and architectural mouldings

Georgian walls were seen as an analogy of the classical column and mouldings were applied accordingly. The skirting was analogous to the base of the column, the dado the pedestal, the wall space the column shaft, the frieze the capital and the wall cornice the entablature cornice. This order of applying architectural mouldings persisted until the 19th Century.

 

Atkey and Company Authentic Georgian Door Reproductions.

Georgian design looks and feels simply elegant. The simplicity, however, belies the intellectual rigor, research and classical authenticity involved. The complex nature of architectural joinery, based on mathematical construction and relationships between shapes, is such that those now seeking to restore, renovated or recreate truly authentic Georgian interiors will need specialist advice. At Atkey and Company we are experts in the creation and application of period interior doors and architectural joinery. We would be happy to share our extensive knowledge and considerable experience.

Our designs come from authentic original examples of Georgian joinery, created by some of the foremost architects of the time. In our next article we trace some the joinery items in our Georgian period collection back to their original source designs.