E. A. Freeman and the Racialisation of Architecture in 19th-Century Britain

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


If racism and racialist thinking in architectural history has become more apparent throughout the course of the twentieth century, then the same forms of bias and their affect on architectural thinking in the nineteenth century are less clear. The first history of world architecture in the English language written in 1849 is a case in point. Called simply A History of Architecture, this book was written by one of nineteenth-century Britain’s most noted (and somewhat infamous) historians and critics of architecture, Edward Augustus Freeman (1823-92). A onetime Regius Professor of History at Oxford, and long-serving member of the Oxford Architectural Society, Freeman was comparable in reputation to John Ruskin and James Fergusson as a critic and theorist. His understanding of architecture—what he described as his ‘philosophical’ approach—was influenced by the Rev. Thomas Arnold’s 1841 Oxford lectures on modern history, particularly his notion of the ‘unity’ of history, the underling thesis of which was animated by German idealist thinking, especially that of the philologist and historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1176-1831).

The ‘unity’ conception of history presupposed that ‘civilisation’ had reached a peak in Ancient Greece, then, like a form of cultural relay, its ‘torch’ was passed to the Romans, and later picked up by the Teutons—the only post-antique ‘race’ capable of furthering human civilisation. Freeman applied this thesis to his analysis of the evolution of architectural forms, concluding ipso facto that the greatest achievement in the history of architecture was therefore the northern European Gothic (including English). The underlying argument was that architectural attainment was directly related to race and racial aptitude. This paper will discuss the theoretical basis of Freeman’s History, considering not only its impact but also its relationship to contemporary architectural debate, the ascendancy of the Gothic Revival, and Britain’s rise to world power.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSociety of Architectural Historians
Publication statusUnpublished - 12 Apr 2013
Event66th SAH Annual Conference - Buffalo, NY, United States
Duration: 10 Apr 201314 Apr 2013


Conference66th SAH Annual Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited States
CityBuffalo, NY


  • Freeman, architecture, architectural theory, Victorian Britain, race


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