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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.