A Spotter's Guide: The Early Georgian Townhouse

Historic England

This corner of Soho has some of the best examples of houses from the Early Georgian period in the whole of London. By the end of this exhibit you'll be able to point out key architectural features that make a house Early Georgian as well as learn some architectural terms which you will be able to apply to other buildings from different eras. If this sounds too academic for you, don't worry, this tour is aimed at the novice up. 

Making an entrance
It was the done thing during Georgian times to impress visitors with your amazing front door. And where else to get inspiration for your door’s decorative features but from the ancient temples of Greece and Rome, something the Georgians were obsessed with. A pillar either side underneath a fancy bit of roof (either an entablature or a pediment) was the ultimate way to pimp your porch.

Early doors were tall and filled the entire doorway but around about the 1720s fanlights started to appear above the door as a way to let light into your entrance hall. Fanlights started off simple at first, as you can see here above Meard’s doors, but as the Georgian era progressed they became much more elaborate in their design.

The carpenter John Meard (possibly the same Meard who worked with Sir Christopher Wren on St Paul’s Cathedral) redeveloped this street in the early 1730s and it is one of the best places in London to experience Early Georgian architecture. Nearly all his houses here are still standing and because they’re so historically important they’re listed at Grade II*.

Glossary:

Entablature – in classical architecture, this is the collective name for the architrave, frieze and cornice.

Fanlight – usually a semi-circular glazed opening above a door. Can also be used, by extension, for a rectangular glazed opening above a door.

Georgian Architecture – from 1714 to 1830 (during the reigns of George I, II, III and IV) when the classical style and classical proportions became widely used.

Pediment – the triangular upper part of the front of a classical building, also used over doors and windows. Not always triangular (traditional) but sometimes segmental (shaped like a segment of Terry’s Chocolate Orange), a pediment can also be broken, open and swan-necked. (Confused? We’ll point them out later on).

Bricking it
A brick is not just a brick. A yellow brick was cheaper than a red brick, but both were inferior to the super fancy crimson brick (technical-types call it a “rubbing-brick”). You can see these super fancy crimson bricks here around and above the windows, used for arches and as decorative dressings (that bit on each side of the window).

Many early 18th century houses couldn’t get enough of the fancy bricks and it all started to get a bit much. Finally, someone said “less is more” and around the 1730s the trend was on the way out, which may be why Meard (yes, he built these houses too) uses the effect sparingly here. As we move along Dean Street and see more recent houses from the same period, the use of fancy crimson bricks becomes less and less.

While Meard may have toned down the dressing on the windows, you can see here on 67 and 68 that he turned up the bling for his front doors. He’s gone all out with Roman Doric pilasters, triglyphs and rosettes in the friezes and, projecting cornices. Number 68 was to be his own home so he may have wanted a bit more wow than he did on Meard Street.

Glossary:

Rubbing Brick – a rubbing-brick can be easily cut, carved and rubbed to be a particular shape without it losing its long-term durability. For a very long time it was the king of bricks.

Stock Bricks – the better kind of bricks used for outward facing walls. In London, stock bricks are often yellowish in colour as they come from the local yellow clay.

Window Arch – an arch transfers a heavy load sideways and downwards, which means you can get an arch that is flat and not necessarily ‘arched’ in shape.

Window Dressing – not just an attractive display in a shop window, the window dressing can also apply to the decorative architectural features around a window.

Keeping it in proportion
As you now know, the Georgians loved the ancient temples of Greece and Rome. This love developed into academic theories of proportion and symmetry, and the front of your house had to obey these “rules” if anyone was going to take you seriously. The square in particular was considered the key to architectural beauty.

Proportions based on squares were used to determine the size of windows and their relation to each other. If a town house was three bays wide (in this instance, bay means window), then the space occupied by the first and second floor windows should form a square.

You can see this square rule on number 70. The square of six windows sits between two pilasters and below the rather grand cornice (ignore the warehouse windows above the cornice, this was a late 19th century renovation when the building was a printing house. The sill bands would also have been a later addition).

This square and sense of measured proportion is especially apparent when compared with the visual chaos at number 69. The distance between windows is all over the place, possibly due to renovations at one time or another.

Glossary:

Bay – division of a space by regular vertical features, such as arches, columns or windows.

Cornice – flat topped ledge with moulded underside, usually found along the top or near the top of a building.

Ground Floor/First Floor – for those of you not from Britain and haven’t yet been confused by our lifts, our first floor is not the same as the ground floor – it’s the one above!

Pilaster – flat representation of a pillar.

Sill Band – a projecting horizontal band that connects window sills across the face of a wall.

Above the parapet
Forty years after the Great Fire of London, Londoners were still a bit jumpy and some of them started freaking out about the overhanging wooden eaves that had once again become all the rage. To get rid of this rampant fire hazard a Building Act was passed in 1707 which insisted that roofs should be hidden behind an 18-inch parapet wall with a cornice of either brick or stone.

Rather than being grumpy about the new law, which could have imposed on their artistic architectural flair, the Georgians decided to roll with it and remarked how the appearance of a flat roof totally fitted in with their love of classical proportions and reminded them of the rooflines of ancient temples (have we mentioned how much they loved temples?).

Parapets surrounding roofs are now common in Central London, and Georgian architecture often favoured the symmetry of paired chimneys on each end of the house. This allowed for fireplaces in almost every room and made for a toasty house in winter.

Glossary:

Coping – protective masonry or brickwork capping a wall (capping = put on top of).

Eaves – the overhanging edge of a roof.

Great Fire of London – a terrible fire in 1666 that swept through the City of London. Despite many radical proposals to create a safer London, the city was reconstructed on pretty much the same street plan that had existed before the fire.

Parapet – wall used to conceal a roof.

Let's take this party upstairs
Having some guests round? At the end of the 17th century you’d entertain guests with a drink or two downstairs on the ground floor. But around the beginning of the 18th century some maverick decided to bring their guests up to the first floor. The craze spread so fast that by the middle of the 18th century the first floor was the only floor fit for entertainment.

The style of houses built during this period reflects this trend and at the beginning of the century the ground and first floor windows were of the same size. Later on, when the first floor became the only party place, it became more common to see the highest ceilings and tallest windows on this floor only. Those in the know called the first floor the Piano Nobile, and the long rectangular windows were sometimes dressed up on the outside with architraves (Number 77 next-door has pediments on top of architraves) or a full entablature if you wanted to be really grand.

Sadly, nothing lasts forever, and by the end of the 18th century the main area for entertaining your peeps had already returned to the ground floor. Those crazy Georgians.

Glossary:

Architrave – in this instance, it’s the moulded frame of a door or window, but it can also mean the lowest member of the entablature (see definition below) in classical architecture.

Entablature – in case you’ve already forgotten, in classical architecture this is the collective name for the architrave, frieze and cornice.

Piano Nobile – the first floor of a Georgian house, containing the principle rooms.

Going underground
All houses except the poorest had basements containing a kitchen, scullery and other stores such as a pantry and larder. It’s a shame there aren’t any examples remaining here, but in some London streets you can still find in the pavement circular cast-iron coal hole covers. This was so that coal could be delivered directly to the coal store without having to traipse it through the house.

And that Amazon package which is arriving when you’re not at home? Not a problem. The Postie can use the tradesmen’s entrance to the basement and leave your package with the cook. Result!

Talking shop
8 Dean Street is a rare survival of a Mid Georgian shop front. Yes, original! From 1791. It’s almost a miracle it has survived as shop fronts were often destroyed or altered when they became old or out-of-fashion and subsequently ignored by picky shoppers (we’re all guilty). 

It’s a lovely example from its time with two bow-fronted oriel windows on either side of the shop door. A lot of the decorative detail is classical but there’s some splendid rococo panel-frames too. There’s so much to see here that we risk geeking you out on a lot of architectural jargon. To stop you from fleeing, we’ll limit the technical speak to the images where it’ll make more sense.

Glossary:

Rococo Architecture – also known as Late Baroque, this is an 18th century artistic movement which was light in style and rather graceful. Think lots of shell-like shapes and curves.

Oriel Windows – bay windows which project from the main wall but do not reach the ground.

Last stop and quick quiz
Built between 1756 and 1767, this house is only 40 years older than the previous houses on this tour but already we can see some architectural changes. The window dressings are gone, the ground floor is raised to allow more light into the now “half-basement”, and the fanlight above the door is semi-circular rather than rectangular. There’s a bit more that’s different too but let’s leave it for another day as this exhibition is already lingo heavy. Time now for a very serious quick quiz to see how much you remember. Ready? Go!

1. What’s the first floor called when it’s your favourite place to hang-out?

a. Piano Forte
b. Piano Nobile
c. Grand Piano

2. What’s the correct term for super fancy crimson bricks?

a. Rubber Ducks
b. Rubber Bricks
c. Rubbing Bricks

(Fun’s over, now for the tough ones – see pics if you’re really stuck)

3. On the first floor of the last house pictured, which is the correct sequence of window hoods?

a. Entablature, Pediment, Entablature
b. Entablature, Entablature, Pediment
c. Pediment, Pediment, Pediment

4. Above the front door, is the pediment

a. Open
b. Broken
c. Swan-like

Answers:

1. b.
2. c.
3. a.
4. a.

Historic England
Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Translate with Google
Home
Explore
Nearby
Profile