July 25th, 2004

Victorian Architecture

Drooping eyelids cut short an interesting, wide-ranging conversation with sorenr last night. Now- 12 hours later- I'm taking it up again.

We'd gotten on to Victorian architecture. I grew up in the 50s and 60s, when the critical consensus (only just beginning to break up) was that Victorian architecture was florid and hideous. People like Sir John Betjeman said different, but they were all teddy bear-hugging eccentrics, weren't they?

I've never wholly overcome that early conditioning. I go and stare at Manchester Town Hall and try to love it and never quite succeed. It's grand, but where's the soul? And all that machine-tooled ornament is just too crisp and regular. There was a programme the other day about Tower Bridge. Dan Cruikshank (whom I admire) spent an hour trying to convince me that it's a wonderful building, but, sorry, it still looks kitsch to me.

Now Victorian engineering- that's something else. I worship Brunel. I love the ghost of the Crystal Palace. I marvel over the Forth Bridge. But the Civic and Ecclesiastical architecture of the period just doesn't do it for me. It's not that it's ugly- it isn't- it's just that it's insincere, it's play-acting. It's a chap in mutton-chop whiskers putting on tights and tabard and strutting about.

Unsolicited Advertisment

In the early pages of Mrs Dalloway Clarissa sees a Durtnall's van.

I remembered my Granny talking about Durtnalls when I was a wee small, so I asked my mother about it.

Durtnalls were a building firm. They built my Granny's house. She may even have been pally with some member of the family. My mother went away and checked the local phone book and- guess what- Durtnalls are still in business and still operating out of Brasted in Kent.

Jolly good show!