Augustus is supposed to have claimed that “he found Rome brick and left it marble”. Queen Victoria might make the same claim about London.
There is no good building stone within easy distance of the city, and the squares and terraces of Georgian London were built almost entirely of brick. But by the time of Queen Victoria, there were railways and canals, and transporting building materials was no longer prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, the Second British Empire was rich enough to build whatever it wanted to.
Charles Barry’s and Augustus Pugin’s Palace of Westminster, with Big Ben dominating Parliament Square was one result. George Gilbert Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station, which now welcomes continental visitors to London, was another. Then there were the Gothic pinnacles of Street’s Royal Courts of Justice in The Strand and Alfred Waterhouse’s startling Natural History Museum in South Kensington. There was also J F Bentley’s Westminster Cathedral, its interior sparkling with golden mosaics and the richest marbles of Europe.
These are the showstoppers – the eye-catching palaces of a supremely self-confident century. But there are also quieter glories. Not fifty yards from Knightsbridge with its bustling shops and luxury apartments is the peaceful parish church of St Paul’s. Decorated according to the tenets of The Oxford Movement with a rood screen by G F Bodley, beautiful stained glass and extraordinary tiling, St Paul’s gives us a very different perspective on the tastes of the Victorian age.