Making an entrance: Part 3

Most of London’s residential districts retain a character and appearance largely set by the architecture of the period during which they first developed. Front doors are among the most noticeable features for dating the original development of an area and they are often the first item to be restored when an area starts to recover its former status.

A Victorian Front Door
A Victorian Front Door

This door features leaded, stained, glass in its top panels and in the fanlight above. The three lower panels feature curved stopped chamfers which were hand-carved by skilled craftsmen.

At a detailed level, the variations in traditional front door designs from street to street reflect the distinct phases during which development occurred. Looking today at the streets of different areas – from Edgware or Hendon in the north, to Ealing in the west, Fulham, Wandsworth or Putney in the south west, Brixton, Camberwell, Deptford and Greenwich in the south, Bethnal Green, Hackney or Leyton in the east – you might assume that vast swathes of these streets were built almost simultaneously. In fact, speculative building played a large part in the development of London and relatively small areas were developed in any one decade. What we now see as a coherent neighbourhood, historically, may have been twenty, thirty or even forty years in the building.

1850's: humble Victorian detailing, South London
1850’s: humble Victorian detailing, South London
1870s: exuberant Victorian detailing, South London
1870s: exuberant Victorian detailing, South London
Between 1882 and 1894, at least four different firms of builders erected houses along this North London street
Between 1882 and 1894, at least four different firms of builders erected houses along this North London street

In the nineteenth century, if a speculator proposed to erect a terrace of a dozen substantial houses his builders would most likely set up a workshop on site to manufacture much of the woodwork required -window frames, architraves, skirtings and of course doors. If the local clay were suitable they might even install a kiln to make bricks, tiles and even terracotta ornaments. Carpenters, plasterers and painters were frequently attached to itinerant crews who either offered their own ‘trade-mark’ styles of mouldings and other details or worked from pattern-books chosen by the developer. In any one Victorian or Edwardian street, the first dozen houses may all share identical designs of wooden front doors, stucco or terracotta mouldings on the outside; fireplaces, cornices, ceiling roses, architraves, balustrades, newel posts and skirtings on the inside. When you look closely, the next dozen or more houses may well be subtly different in all these details because they were built a few years later by a different developer employing different tradesmen. The individual builders were of course craftsmen; they made the items they fitted. There was no popping along to Wickes or B&Q for umpteen lengths of cornice, architraves and a dozen standard-size doors. Until the coming of the railways there was no uniform sourcing of factory-made building materials and products – and even then it was mostly only facing bricks, roofing slates, drainage pipes and bulk supplies of stone and timber that were moved over distances of more than fifty miles.

A pattern-book Victorian terrace, Kentish Town. The symmetry and decoration of the paired entrances were selected to tell the world that the inhabitants were people of wealth and taste, secure in their self-confidence
A pattern-book Victorian terrace, Kentish Town. The symmetry and decoration of the paired entrances were selected to tell the world that the inhabitants were people of wealth and taste, secure in their self-confidence

 

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