Our collections


Victorian buildings still dominate many of our towns and cities. It is all too easy, therefore, to take them for granted. In fact, we have lost many spectacular buildings from this period, and changed for good Victorian townscapes and suburbs. What survives still remains threatened by demolition, renovation or ‘improvement’, despite recent fashions for all things Victorian. Queen Victoria’s long reign (1837-1901) was full of change  and Victorian buildings reflect this. Stylistically and technically early Victorian architecture is a world away from late Victorian.  

There is a great deal out about the architects of the period in the collections of the British Architectural Library. The foundation of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1834 reflects the growing status of the architectural profession at that time. Other architectural associations, societies and clubs emerged throughout this period. Architecture and architects mattered; many architects becoming national even international figures. Much was written about them in their lifetimes; after their death their papers were often preserved, or recollections published.

In comparison, the builders and craftsmen remain remote. Often photographs survive of them, or records documenting their names and wages, but little else. Arts and Crafts architects attempted to address this, working directly with craftsmen, but few succeeded. Increasingly, the Victorian building world became industrial in scale and organisation, the workers mere cogs in a machine.  



There was an explosion in publishing architectural books in the Victorian period and this is reflected in the collection of the British Architectural Library. Sketching architects and students published notes of their foreign and regional architectural tours; scholars wrote learned surveys for a public obsessed with historic architecture, especially medieval monuments; and architectural grammars were widely published, ensuring that all parts of a building from A-Z were named.

Architectural critics held sway over the public, such as Pugin, Ruskin, and Morris, and architectural societies, like the Cambridge Camden Society, (later named the Ecclesiological Society) and Incorporated Building Society (ICBS) tried to uphold standards. Added to this was the surge in demand for architectural journals and periodicals. Weekly publications like The Architect, The Builder, British Architect, and Building News ensured that the construction community was kept up-to-date as never before.What’s more, the books and periodicals are often jam-packed with illustrations: the period saw the invention of the chromo-lithograph and photograph. Plans, elevations and details litter textsmeaning that at long last we can easily experience the hopes of Victorian architects and patrons. Many unexecuted designs were published, enabling us to follow the careers of frustrated architects, or trace the evolution of  buildings. Most are accompanied with  lively commentary, helping us understand the impact of architecture on the Victorians, something made  obvious too from the shelf space these texts occupy in the British Architectural Library.

Browse the RIBA British Architectural Library catalogue (opens in a new window) 

Drawings and archives

A great many presentation and exhibition drawings survive from the Victorian period, show-stoppers then and now for the brilliance of their scale, intricacy and colour. The RIBA Drawings Collection contains many of these, and much more. With the emergence of the RIBA a different category of drawing is found preserved in the collections – scholarship drawings.

Drawing then was very much at the centre of architectural training. For years, students had to survey buildings and execute fine topographical plans, elevations and bird’s eye views before being given a free-hand to design. Some can be found in the online exhibition, superlative examples of control and colouring.  Many sketches and working drawings are to be found in the Drawings and Archives Collection of the British Architectural Library. Often rough and incomplete, these can reveal the thinking of the architect and his working relationships with builders and craftsmen.

Significantly, archives also survive in significant quantities from the Victorian period. Collections of letters, writings, drawings and sketchbooks of individual architects can be examined. In addition, the archives of the RIBA itself can be consulted, including the nomination papers of many thousands of architects. These, like the papers of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, offer an unusual vantage point on architect’s careers and personalities. Combined, these different types of drawings and archives offer an unprecedented richness to research individual architects and the architectural profession in general.

Browse the RIBA British Architectural Library catalogue (opens in a new window) 


Many of the most interesting exhibits in the online exhibition are photographs dating from the Victorian period. These portray historic and contemporary architecture often long lost, their tones soft ochre and grey. The earliest images in the RIBA Photographs Collection date from the Great Exhibition (1851); thereafter, most photographs are topographical, examples of architecture given by members to aid the teaching of students. The medium varies considerably; prints of all kinds can be found, even a few lantern slides. Most are loose, some are still in albums. And their number is considerable, towards two hundred thousand, a remarkable resource for researching British and international architecture and changing societies.

Browse the RIBA British Architectural Library catalogue (opens in a new window)


About the online exhibition

'How We Built Britain' is a major collaboration with the BBC


Images in the exhibition are from RIBApix, a growing database dedicated to providing you with exceptional and unique images from the RIBA British Architectural Library's collections.

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