Taken at its simplest and most basic, the entrance to a house need be little more than a hole somewhere in the front wall with the addition of a wooden door to keep out the rain, the draught and the neighbours. However, you need only stroll along London’s residential streets for a few minutes to notice the remarkable profusion of styles exhibited by the front doors and the architectural features that surround them. Steps and railings, arches and pilasters, doors and door cases, porches and fanlights – all contribute to the making of an entrance. Every front door may be required to perform the same set of utilitarian functions but their designs and the impressions they convey to the approaching visitor are many and richly varied.
Here’s a classic sequence, available with minor variations on most residential streets in London. You enter from the street through a waist-high gate; pass evergreen plants and wrought iron railings before ascending three stone steps to a platform of tessellated tiles. While you wait for your knock to be answered, a decorative canopy is thoughtfully provided to shelter you from the rain. If the lights are on indoors, you may also be welcomed by a colourful glow from the stained glass in the fanlight and door panels.
The front door itself may be a relatively simple four panel arrangement or, as seen here in this Victorian front door, a five-panel format with leaded-lights above and solid, raised and fielded panels below the mid-rail. In most instances the mouldings around the inset panels will be different on the outside from those on the inside. On this door, the outside mouldings are of a type known as ‘bolections’. The origin of this word is unknown but in practice it refers to any moulding which projects from the face of the door. Bolection mouldings give the face of any door a more impressive, sculptural, quality. When used on the outer face they also have the practical advantage of making the ingress of driving rain more difficult and therefore less likely. Raised and fielded panels similarly require more work, timber and craftsmanship than flat panels. They catch the light in an interesting way and thereby enhance the sense of depth as an indication of the quality and thickness of a door.
It is an obvious test of the clarity of an architectural design if the approaching stranger knows at once where the entrance is. Any building which requires a sign reading ‘ENTRANCE’ – often accompanied by a directional arrow – has failed lamentably at the first hurdle. But the front door to a London house does far more than align the potential visitor with the reception rooms; it makes an important statement introducing both the house and the household you have come to visit.
At a glance, the front door and its surround can suggest the age of the building, the prestige of its present or former occupiers and – this being England – the social class and aspirations of at least its original owner. In the Clapham photograph, the Georgian front door and its door-case are set within a true, semi-circular, arch made using carefully shaped bricks. The neo-classical door-case forms a pair of pilasters from which cast stone or carved timber brackets project to support a compressed entablature. Above the moulded cornice an elliptical fanlight privately admits daylight to the hallway beyond. Every aspect of this composition speaks deliberately of classicism and therefore learning, permanence and respectability.