In his brief lifespan as an architect and writer A.W.N. Pugin transformed the British landscape. By the time he died, insane, at the age of forty, he had given the great cities of London and Edinburgh two defining landmarks—“Big Ben,” the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster, and the spire of the church of Tolbooth St. John’s. Pugin had set the pattern for the spires and towers of the Victorian Gothic churches that dominate so many of the smaller British towns. It was largely due to his impassioned advocacy that Gothic became the British national style for nineteenth-century church and civic buildings. He bequeathed his own name to the particular, evocative, Romantic British vistas of monastic settlements and crenellated castles we still describe as “Puginesque.”
Few critics have ever doubted his importance. But defining it precisely has been quite another thing. Difficulties with Pugin stem, first, from the astonishing variety of his work and its differences in scale, from great cathedral complexes to the most intricate detail of church furnishings. Pugin’s creative energy extended to clerical vestments, altar cloths, and jewels. There is also the problem of an often glaring contrast between theory and practice. Pugin argues forcibly for solid structures and excellence of workmanship. William Morris, however, passing Pugin’s Alton Towers in Staffordshire, decried it as “a gim-crack palace,”1 and gim-crack is what many of Pugin’s early buildings are.
Most daunting of all for those who seek to understand him has been the inordinate complexity of the mid- nineteenth-century English Catholic milieu in which Pugin, himself a Catholic convert, flourished. The ardor of the English Catholic revival powered the antiquarianism of his architecture. For the twentieth-century architecture critic Nikolaus Pevsner, from his viewpoint of doctrinaire modernism, Pugin remained (as Rosemary Hill puts it) “this curious man whose importance he sensed but could not, quite, pin down.”
In spite of the outpouring of Pugin scholarship, notably Phoebe Stanton’s from the 1950s onward, and a large-scale Pugin exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1994, the breadth and idiosyncrasy of his achievement, so very much a part of his erratic personality, have caused it to remain elusive up to now. Rosemary Hill’s book is the first modern biography of Pugin, and it is a considerable feat both in its painstaking original research and the way in which Hill deals with architectural history, relating Pugin personally to his buildings, justifying brilliantly her biographical approach.
Hill unravels the influences of his upbringing. Born in 1812, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was the cherished only child of parents already on the verge of middle age. His father, Auguste Charles, who claimed—unconvincingly—to be le Comte de Pugin, was an émigré from Paris, a professional illustrator who romanticized his links with pre-Revolutionary aristocratic France. In London he opened a drawing school and worked closely with the architect John Nash, who relied on Pugin père’s esoteric antiquarian knowledge and his unflagging talent for producing persuasive architectural perspective views.
Pugin’s mother, Catherine, was from an old Lincolnshire family, the Welbys. Her relatives thought she had married beneath her. Hill rightly points out that Pugin’s upbringing in an England still essentially Georgian left him in some ways temperamentally opposed to the more vigorous Victorian ethos he helped to form. But although innately conservative, his mother was highly intelligent, articulate, and affectionate, encouraging the flood of words and opinions that tumbled out of her son from a very early age.
Pugin developed precociously. When he was six he was taken on the first of many studious architectural tours of England at his father’s side, examining medieval buildings. He looked back on these explorations as a time of great “mental happiness.” At age nine he went to Paris and then, three years later, he discovered Rouen, learning more of how Gothic buildings were constructed. He had by now embarked on buying antiquities on his own account, the start of a career in collecting and dealing that continued all his life.
At fourteen Pugin decided to write a book on castles. At fifteen he received his first commission as an independent designer, providing furniture for no less a client than King George IV at Windsor Castle. These were not merely imitative pieces in the lightweight Georgian picturesque manner of his father. They were relatively plain and weighty Gothic furnishings of which the tour de force—a massive royal sideboard—survived until the Windsor Castle fire of 1992.
Hill describes Pugin’s progress as “not so much that of a rising star as of a Catherine wheel.” He was an engagingly Byronic youth, combative, neurotic, and gregarious, enraptured by the theater in what was a great age of spectacular theatrical productions. Pugin haunted Covent Garden, working as a scene painter and stage designer, learning the mechanics of theatrical illusion. This technical experience was to stand him in good stead as major architect of the Gothic Revival, which itself had such an element of stageyness.
Pugin could behave recklessly. Encouraged by sailors he’d met at the theater, he bought a boat, the Elizabeth, which he used for illicit imports of antiques from the continent. The Elizabeth was shipwrecked off the coast of Scotland, and Pugin and his crew only narrowly escaped. He seems to have been sexually promiscuous. Hill suggests convincingly that the recurring illnesses of his later life started with syphilis contracted in his Covent Garden days. When Anne Garnett, who was probably a dancer, became pregnant, Pugin married her, following the family tradition of marriages that crossed the normal social boundaries. She died soon after her confinement, leaving him a daughter. This was the first of many tearful and elaborate funerals Pugin was to orchestrate.
Through these personal vicissitudes his mind was racing onward. He was leaving behind what he now regarded as false Gothic, the “Gothick” pastiche buildings of his father’s generation. Pugin was reaching out toward a definition of a new, more solid and morally significant form of Gothic. This was Catholic Gothic: Pugin’s term for differentiating new from old. With his almost incredible fecundity he filled volume after volume with a series of elaborate pen-and-ink drawings of imaginary Gothic buildings, a dreamlike sequence of “Ideal Schemes.” These medievalist architectural narratives include precise specifications for the furniture and metalwork. His “Ideal Schemes” are close in feeling to Romantic poetry: to Byron’s introspective travelogues, to Wordsworth’s meditations on landscape in The Prelude. As Hill so well describes it, Pugin’s architecture was “a late attempt to build Romanticism.”
Pugin’s father died in 1832, his mother four months later. Devastated with grief, he left the theater, determined to devote himself entirely to Gothic architecture as a tribute to his father’s professional expertise. Always perilously dependent on the company of women, obsessively seeking the “one faithful heart,” he married again rapidly. His bride was another rather flashy young actress or dancer, Louisa Button, and his Uncle Adlard acidly accused him of making the same mistake again.
Pugin had his own strong views on the ideal mode of living: his work as a Gothic architect must flourish in a house that was itself a work of Romantic art. He built his first family home near the cathedral town of Salisbury, a turreted, fortified, red-brick building that, as Hill vividly describes it, was a potent combination of picturesque cottage and fortified fifteenth-century home. Design historians have claimed William Morris’s Red House as the first example of house as manifesto. Pugin’s St. Marie’s Grange, built two decades earlier, in fact was just as radical a statement in its day and affected more directly the architectural principles that ruled the English suburbs as they were to develop in all their pedimented red-brick glory through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Pugin became a Catholic in 1835. His religion dominated his architectural thinking from then on. He held immovably to his belief that “the roman Catholick church is the only true one— and the only one in which the grand & sublime style of church architecture can ever be restored.” The interesting question is why the views of an almost untried architect espousing the aesthetics of a minority religion took hold so rapidly in nineteenth-century Britain, soon affecting the whole architectural scene.
One reason was a general loss of confidence in the Anglican established church, beginning to be seen as lethargic if not positively corrupt. At the time when Pugin was establishing himself as a practicing architect and Catholic polemicist, the religious discontent that underlay the Oxford Movement, which resulted in a number of prominent Church of England clergy becoming Roman Catholics, was already in the air. Pugin’s call for a return to the forthrightness and glamour of medieval artworks coincided with reawakened public admiration for the social structures of the Middle Ages, seen as a corrective to an increasingly immoral and flaccid mid-nineteenth century.
Besides, architecture was itself becoming the subject of informed debate after fire destroyed the original medieval Palace of Westminster in 1834. The burning of the parliament building generated an intensive period of national self-questioning. It was Pugin who drew the plans for the competition entries not just of Charles Barry, the eventual winner, but of a rival architect, Gillespie Graham. Pugin’s contribution to the subsequent rebuilding of the palace was to be his most striking architectural achievement, finally establishing Gothic as Victorian Britain’s approved official style.
Pugin in his middle twenties was unusual and dramatic in appearance. As Hill describes him he was “of only medium height but broad-shouldered and solidly built, with a pale oval face, clear dark eyes, sometimes described as grey, sometimes as black, and longish hair swept back. He dressed, for work, usually in sailing clothes.” Pugin never lost his deep love for the sea. As much as to the mood of the times, some of Pugin’s overnight success as architectural polemicist must be attributed to his peculiarly charismatic personality. He plunged into controversy, self- confident and ardent, unpredictable and humorous. His books and pamphlets of the 1840s have an element of the satiric energy that was then characteristic of Blackwood’s Magazine.
We see Pugin at his most swashbuckling in his book Contrasts; or, A Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, and Similar Buildings of the Present Day. In a sequence of brilliantly satiric drawings he attacks contemporary standards of architecture and town planning, demonstrating the absurdity and pusillanimity of the Georgian in relation to the transcendent splendors of the medieval Gothic. In passing, and typically, he lays into the Gothic interiors at Windsor he had worked on as a boy. The importance of Contrasts lay in the way it heralded a whole new mode of thinking about the built environment, viewing standards of design and architecture as expressive of a nation’s moral worth. Contrasts stirred up controversy, as Pugin had intended. Its publication in August 1836 marked both the final demise of Georgian architecture and the start of Pugin’s spectacularly successful public career.
Between 1838 and 1840 Pugin built or designed eighteen churches, two cathedrals, three convents, two monasteries, several schools, and about half a dozen houses. His early clients were drawn mainly from an idealistic section of English Catholic society, people who already had their minds on building a new England, peaceful, humane, religious in contrast to the recent hedonistic Georgian decades. Hill christens this group the Romantic Catholics. They were sensitive and serious young men brought up on the novels of Sir Walter Scott, attuned to historicism, and responsive to the visual allure of the chivalric and the picturesque. The sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury, a central figure in the movement and Pugin’s major client, had been brought up at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, originally a thirteenth-century Augustinian convent. Shrewsbury, like Pugin, had, as Hill describes it, “formed his early impressions of the world in the shadow of pointed architecture reading Gothic novels by the richly coloured light of stained glass.”
Among the secular buildings Pugin designed for the Romantic Catholics was, for example, a chivalric fantasy interior for the maverick mining millionaire and property developer Charles Scarisbrick at Scarisbrick Hall in Lancashire. But the main focus for his energies was the new Catholic Gothic churches in the small towns and now rapidly enlarging English industrial cities. Important early churches were St. Mary’s in Derby and St. Alban’s in Macclesfield. Pugin’s church at Macclesfield contains a rood screen separating the nave from the chancel. Rood screens, which had been common during the Middle Ages, had been removed from English churches during the Reformation. Pugin’s campaign to reintroduce them as an essential component of Gothic church architecture provoked a bitter controversy with those who took the view that Catholic rites and devotions should be readily visible to the congregation.
In 1839 Pugin started the design for the new Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Chad in Birmingham, built in red brick, a more usual material for warehouses. The following year he began St. Giles’s, at Cheadle, the church generally considered to be his masterwork of ecclesiastical architecture. Rosemary Hill’s description of St. Giles’s is both expert and refreshing:
The church cost over £30,000 and in the five years of its construction the design had been modified. The most immediately impressive features were the last to be included, when the Earl [of Shrewsbury] had decided to spend more money: the 200-foot spire, the intensely patterned interior decoration and the Nazarene paintings by Edouard Hauser on the chan- cel arch and in the Easter Sepulchre. The effect was spectacular and was no “more revival.” There was never anything quite like Cheadle in the Middle Ages. It is a full-blown work of high romantic art.
She writes about Pugin’s legacy with such conviction because she has visited and thoughtfully reassessed all but a few of his extant works.
Rapidly the church became the central building type of Victorian Britain, equivalent of the eighteenth-century country mansion or the Regency Gothick fantasy buildings of John Nash. Puginesque churches with their tall “broach” spires—pointed, octagonal towers built in pyramidal sections—now began to give a special visual character to the British countryside, symbolic, aspirational. The broach spire was soon to be exported to many distant outposts of the British Empire. By 1841, the year in which he published The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture, Pugin had reason for optimism.
True Principles is Pugin’s principal work of architectural theory. In it he speaks directly to the architect, stating his basic principles for design:
1st, that there should be no features about a building which are not necessary for convenience, construction, or propriety; 2nd, that all ornament should consist of enrichment of the essential construction of the building.
His strictures have often been taken at face value as a prophetic statement of the twentieth-century functional aesthetic. Rosemary Hill argues lucidly that Pugin’s interpretation of “function” was a great deal more elastic than that of the Bauhaus pioneers. His concept of the functional stretched to include metaphor. “Pointed or Christian Architecture” and the materials that made it—stone, metalwork, and timber—for him had a mystic inner meaning. In Hill’s interpretation, Pugin’s spiritual driving force, the zeal of the Romantic Christian visionary, is always to the fore.
Pugin’s way of working was highly personal. His architectural practice was almost primitive compared to the large hierarchical London offices that became the norm later in the nineteenth century. Pugin worked from home. From 1843 he lived with his wife Louisa and a rapidly increasing family at Ramsgate, a seaside town in Kent, in a cliff-top house of his own highly original design. Like his house in Salisbury, this was called the Grange. He was later to build his own church alongside the house, acting out his ideals of combining working life with religious domesticity. Pugin’s views have much in common with the concept of the “cell of good living” as developed by the English twentieth-century Catholic craftsman Eric Gill.
In realizing his designs Pugin was dependent on a small group of specialist craftsmen and manufacturers who were used to working with him and able to interpret his rapidly drawn sketches. Of these the most essential was George Myers, the stonemason-builder who understood Gothic construction and supervised his buildings on site. Hill writes of Myers as “the rock on which Pugin built his architectural career.” Important too was his close friend and collaborator John Hardman, the Birmingham metalworking specialist who made up his designs for candlesticks, hanging lamps, chalices, and other church accessories and with whom he set up a shop to produce stained glass. Pugin worked with the London interior decorator J.G. Crace on designs for furniture and furnishings and with the Staffordshire pottery manufacturer Herbert Minton in developing a collection of “encaustic” church paving tiles that were not only practical and hygienic but also authentically Gothic in their patterns. These orangy-brown tiles have now become almost sign and symbol of the nineteenth-century English church.
This intensive mode of working was in many ways ideal for him. Totally in control, he was able to produce work of an astonishing glamour and versatility in numerous materials. Pugin was indeed “a pattern designer of Mozartian facility.” But for a man of his nervous disposition, prone to bouts of fever, torrents of weeping, and terrifying episodes in which he lost his eyesight, the strain could be considerable. Professional and personal dramas would pile up on him. He was not on good terms with his wife Louisa, who resented his many absences. In August 1844 she died unexpectedly and, for Pugin, shockingly. Pugin’s sixth child, Mary, was not yet a year old.
Pugin’s great preoccupation from the mid-1840s was with the design of the new Palace of Westminster for which he provided thousands of detailed drawings, working as usual at a frantic pace. His official title of superintendent of woodworking was misleadingly lowly and his contribution was never properly acknowledged at the time. Temperamentally Pugin was unconcerned with strategies to advance his career, being always much more interested in the task in hand. Hill’s clear-eyed account of the building of the palace demonstrates what was the work of the official architect, Charles (later Sir Charles) Barry, and what was Pugin’s at least equally crucial role. Externally the Palace of Westminster was largely Barry’s. But working closely with Barry, Pugin gave its character of medieval grandeur and wonderment to the interior of the Houses of Parliament. They respected one another artistically and were very well attuned.
All the internal architecture of the House of Lords—the timberwork, the hanging lights, the vertical shafting, the glittering gold throne, the whole resplendent theatrical ensemble—were recognizably Pugin’s, a kind of culmination of all his former work. Once the House of Lords was opened in 1847 he went on to design other interiors in the Palace of Westminster: committee rooms, libraries, and the great debating chamber of the House of Commons, eventually completed in 1852. His design for the “Big Ben” clock tower was a reworking of the clock tower he originally designed for Scarisbrick Hall.
But just as Pugin reached the height of his powers his architectural commissions receded. It was not simply that he had acquired a reputation of being extravagant and difficult to deal with. When asked to give an estimate of costs he was apt to roll his plans up and prepare to leave the meeting, asking, “Who ever heard of a complete cathedral being built in the life of one man?” The fact was that by the early 1840s Pugin’s Romantic Catholic client base was shrinking as dreams of a new Catholic England died. The Oxford Movement converts, in theory Pugin’s natural patrons, proved a disappointment to him. Pugin and the future Cardinal Newman were soon at loggerheads over interpretations of Catholic ideas, and Newman failed to support him in the rood screen controversy.
Competition from other architects was now increasing. Pugin became the victim of his own success, having to watch his Catholic Gothic architectural principles being taken over by the Anglican Church. Hill points out that, for example, George Gilbert Scott’s St. Giles’s in Camberwell, south London, became “a fuller realization of Pugin’s ideal parish church than Pugin had yet completed.” William Butterfield’s spectacular High Anglican church of All Saint’s in Margaret Street would soon out-Pugin Pugin in the way in which the dazzling stone and brick decoration was an integrated part of the construction rather than surface pattern externally applied.
Butterfield and his patrons had been reading John Ruskin; and most galling of all to Pugin was the way in which he was being supplanted by Ruskin as supreme architectural theoretician of the Victorian age. Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture appeared in 1849, to be followed by The Stones of Venice two years later. Promoted by Ruskin, an Italianate Gothic overtook Pugin’s “pointed” Gothic as England’s most fashionable building style. Moreover the fiercely anti-Catholic John Ruskin pursued a malicious professional vendetta against Pugin, ridiculing his writing and attacking his architecture. Pugin was resilient enough to riposte, “Let the fellow build something himself.”
Pugin’s last years make painful reading. After a succession of disastrous and debilitating love affairs he married Jane Knill, a young Catholic convert described by Pugin as “a first rate Gothic woman.” Rosemary Hill draws on Jane’s journal, which has recently been published,2 with its poignant description of his decline into madness within three years of their marriage. Pugin was first taken to a private mental hospital in London, then, as he worsened, moved to Bethlem, the public asylum in Southwark near his own Catholic St. George’s cathedral, where most of the patients were paupers. With immense determination Jane finally managed to take him back to Ramsgate where he died on September 14, 1852.
But before darkness fell Pugin had a final moment in the limelight. He emerged as an acknowledged star performer in the Great Exhibition of 1851. This large-scale international celebration of industrial production, organized by the design enthusiast Henry Cole, supported by the Prince Consort, held in Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, was a cultural event that seized the imagination of the Victorian public. Pugin, stage set painter, church architect, interior designer of the greatest civic building in the land, reinvented himself as a superlative applied artist, almost a precursor of the twentieth-century industrial designer.
In the Mediaeval Court that was in effect his showroom Pugin displayed his own designs for wallpapers and hangings, household china, jardinières, light fittings and furniture, and ceramic tiled iron stoves, demonstrating that Gothic was not a style suitable just for churches. In 1851 Pugin brought the Gothic into the Victorian bourgeois home. Ten years before William Morris founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., Pugin launched an onslaught on current public taste. The sheer range and inventiveness of his products, made by his network of specialists—Crace and Hardman, Myers and Minton—sparked debates on art and industry, craftsmanship and commerce, the means of manufacture and division of labor, that reverberated in Europe and America through another century.
September 24, 2009
William Morris’s letter to Georgiana Burne-Jones, March 26, 1876, in The Collected Letters of William Morris, edited by Norman Kelvin (Princeton University Press, 1984), Vol. 1, p. 292. ↩
Jane Pugin, “Dearest Augustus and I”: The Journal of Jane Pugin, edited by Caroline Stanford (Spire, 2004). ↩