Victorian Architecture: Two Pattern Books

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9780892570010: Victorian Architecture: Two Pattern Books

On the surface, the subject of the two pattern books reproduced here is architecture. On a deeper sense, the topic is social status. The house is a person's most important acquisition; it places him or her on the social scale, it presents an image of his or her character in the world. In the 19th Century, it was taken for granted that the home reflected the personality of the owner. Architectural styles were not a mere matter of 'aesthetics' or 'taste. Each style carried a distinct 'message.' A Gothic Revival house usually signified that the owner was proud to be of old English stock. An Italian villa meant that the owner belonged to 'a cultured and artistic household.' A French style house proclaimed 'This is a stylish and fashionable home.'

The so-called architectural pattern books offered guidance in these matters. A number of Victorian pattern books were produced by men of some prominence: Downing was a noted author, Calvert Vaux and Samuel Sloan were successful architects. Amos Jackson Bicknell and William Thompkins Comstock are known to History only as the compilers and publishers of some architectural books and periodicals. The two volumes here reprinted had no text but they had three unusual features: 1) They were published in an imposing folio format while most pattern books were in the smaller quarto size. 2) They presented hundreds of exterior and interior details drawn to a usefully large scale. Most pattern books provided only ground plans and elevations of the whole house. 3) They included some design for non-residential buildings. Most pattern books contained only houses.

These books were aimed at architects, experienced builders, and their potential clients. It is significant that these books deal mainly with style and outward show - the social side of architecture. There are no avant-garde masterpieces; Bicknell and Comstock's books show the average standards of their times which makes them all the more valuable historical documents.

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A.J.Bicknell
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