London’s Victorian landmarks are among the capital’s most iconic sights
Trafalgar Square (above). Although its name and most famous historic figure – Admiral Horatio Nelson who sits atop the 43.5m column – recall a pre-Victorian battle, Trafalgar Square was developed during Victoria’s reign. The Regency architect John Nash got the ball rolling in 1812 with his vision for a cultural space, “a new street from Charing Cross to Portland Place”, and the baton was taken up in 1838 by Sir Charles Barry, also responsible for the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster, who presented a plan including the statue of Nelson and two fountains. The beating heart of the capital, where Londoners gather to celebrate everything from football victories to new year, Trafalgar Square is enveloped by beautiful buildings – most famously the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery to the north, and the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields to the east. It’s also a mere hop, skip and a jump down the Mall to Buckingham Palace. Do pass through Admiralty Arch built in honour of Queen Victoria in 1910 by her son, King Edward VII.
Tower Bridge. A symbol of Victorian ingenuity, Tower Bridge has overtaken London Bridge as the capital’s most famous river crossing. In the 1870s, a new bridge east of London Bridge was considered crucial for the city and the public competition to find the right design proceeded in 1876. The winner, Sir Horace Jones – also one of the competition’s judges – took his inspiration from designs he had seen on the Continent and his scheme for a “bascule” (French for seesaw) bridge comprised a roadway formed of two segments, which could be pulled up like a drawbridge, allowing ships to pass. The high-level walkway, meanwhile, would allow pedestrians to cross when the road was raised. Initially run by steam hydraulics, Tower Bridge is today powered by oil and electricity. It has witnessed much drama over the decades, surviving the Blitz, rogue aeroplanes swooping between its Gothic towers in 1912 and 1968, and a bus making a daring leap over a three-foot gap as the bridge opened after a negligent watchman failed to ring the warning bell in 1952.
From the Gothic grandeur of Big Ben to the ingenuity of Tower Bridge, London’s Victorian monuments feature on postcards and calendars, are lit up on special occasions and revered as timeless symbols of the capital today, as well as representing its rich history.
Victorian architecture looked backwards as well as forwards. The sumptuous detail of the Gothic Revival of the mid-1800s, as developed by architects such as Augustus Pugin, for example, was retrospective, evolving as a reaction against the simplicity and symmetry of the Palladianism favoured in the earlier decades of the century, which looked back even further in time to ancient Greece and Rome.
Later in Victoria’s reign, as a result of new technology, iron and steel began to be incorporated as building components. One of the most famous examples was Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, the iron and glass structure that originally stood in Hyde Park and was later relocated to south London.
Encapsulating the sense of looking both to the future and the past, Tower Bridge, with its iron-and-steel structure so cutting edge at the time, was also designed to complement the historic fortress nearby and clad in Portland stone – a fitting mix of something old, something new.