God’s Architect

No one could have imagined a Pugin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustus_Pugin and http://www.pugin.com/): ‘he is a marvellous man there is only one Pugin’, wrote his friend and admirer the artist William Etty. Inspired and inspirational, needy, driven, inadequately rewarded in his lifetime for work into which he poured his heart and soul, he seems not to have had a mean bone in his body. His faults were of the kind with which we can all sympathise, and which are often the concomitants of genius: impulsiveness, volatility, a lack of self-discipline, impracticality and so forth. Instead of establishing and developing his career as lesser contemporaries did, to the advantage of their pockets and reputations, he followed his enthusiasms unresistingly and, in the end, irresistibly, changing the face of built Britain in the process, and having an influence even beyond these shores. Ours is a great age of biography, partly perhaps because of the new accessibility of all sorts of scholarly resources, and one biographer after another seeks to show that his or her subject was at the very centre of a given era. But few can have succeeded as admirably and judiciously as Rosemary Hill has done here with Pugin and the Victorian period.

In this biography Parts 1 and 2, which take us up to Pugin’s coming of age in 1833, show just how much of his path in life was paved for him by his parents. Though not the tartar depicted in Benjamin Ferrey’s Recollections of 1861, his mother Catherine Pugin (née Welby) is revealed here as a strong woman who galvanised her more laid-back émigré husband Auguste. She was the moving spirit, for instance, behind his work on the three-volume Microcosm of London (1808-11), a wonderful pictorial record of the buildings and life of the capital during the Regency period. Auguste supported his family in Bloomsbury not only as an illustrator, but also as a draughtsman, print-dealer, furnishings-designer and drawing-master. As draughtsman, he worked for the office of John Nash, thus aligning himself with the new ‘Picturesque’ style and the growing fondness for the medieval. The couple’s late and only child, his mother’s ‘greatest project’, was therefore familiarised from an early age with the great cathedrals and other works of beautiful Gothic architecture, both at home and in France. The boy clearly learnt much more from his father’s drawing classes, alongside older paying pupils like Ferrey and James Pennethorne, than from his few years’ attendance at the Bluecoat School. (The detail here is fascinating: Hill has even resurrected Auguste’s bill for the young Pennethorne’s boarding, tuition, and art materials.) Brought on in this way, Pugin was reading Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels before his teens, and had already developed what would become a lifelong passion for collecting antiquities. So precocious was he that at fifteen his father passed onto him a furniture commission for Windsor Castle, which he successfully fulfilled.

Hill believes that ‘like many only children Pugin was fated to be lonely, not in childhood but as an adult’; but surely it was less his place in the family than the premature loss of it that explained his later neediness: first his father, then his own new young wife Anne, then his mother all died one after another, leaving him an orphan and widower at twenty-one, with his infant daughter, called Anne after her mother, to bring up. A precipitate second marriage was followed not long afterwards by another bolt from the blue: the death of his beloved aunt Selina. Part 3 (1833-36) shows how, in all this turmoil, Pugin turned more and more to the fortified idyll of the Gothic. Here, the psychological reading is entirely convincing. With the inheritance from his aunt, he moved his new wife Loiusa, little Anne and new baby son Edward to Salisbury, where he built his first house, St Marie’s Grange, blind side to the road, and guarded by moat, drawbridge and watchtowers. As is well known, Pugin saw the Gothic as intimately and indissolubly linked with Catholicism. It was, after all, the heyday of the Oxford Movement: Newman published the first of his Tracts for the Times in 1833. In June 1835, the young architect became a Catholic of the type less associated with Rome than with Romanticism.

By now Pugin was already displaying symptoms of some neurological disorder. According to Hill, this was possibly syphilis, contracted from his teenage years working on the stage scenery at the old Covent Garden theatre. Be that as it may, he was working harder and harder. For example, he was preparing the designs for both the competitors for the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster, after the conflagration of 1834; and he was sketching his most detested recent buildings for his manifesto, Contrasts, to be published in 1836. One of the structures to be mocked here was Robert Smirke’s narrow neo-classical gateway to King’s College London, which he contrasted with the grand medieval Gothic entrance to Christ Church Oxford (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_church_oxford and http://www.chch.ox.ac.uk/cathedral/). This particular example seems unfair, since Smirke’s space was so limited, and right on the Strand pavement; but of course what stood out most was Pugin’s volley of attacks on major public buildings like the National Gallery (http://web.archive.org/web/19980526130359/http://www.speel.demon.co.uk/other/natgall1.htm) and the British Museum (http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=45210&strquery=museum).

If Contrasts was by now ‘a violent push at an open door’, it was still intensely provocative, and made him nationally known. Part 4 (1836-1844) analyses its impact in depth, giving a fresh, insider’s angle on the Battle of the Styles — or the ‘almost interminable feud’ between the Greeks and the Goths, as the Quarterly Review put it. By showing his patron the Earl of Shrewsbury and his circle in action, this part also animates the complicated religious controversies into which Pugin had idealistically and rather naively plunged himself. More light is shed, too, on his early involvement with Charles Barry and the Palace of Westminster project, and the panoply of other projects into which he threw himself helter-skelter at this time. In 1837, for instance, he became both architect/interior designer and Professor of Ecclesiastical Antiquities at the Catholic school and seminary at Oscott near Birmingham, the focus of Catholic hopes of regenerating the nation’s spiritual life. In the same year he also embarked on the remodelling of the grand country house of Scarisbrick Hall for Charles Scarisbrick. Much work was already in process, including St George’s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_George%27s_Cathedral,_Southwark and http://www.southwark-rc-cathedral.org.uk/) in Southwark, but during this period he began work on more new churches, including his celebrated St Giles in Cheadle (1840-46, http://www.stgilescatholicchurch.co.uk/) for the Earl of Shrewsbury, and St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Newcastle (1842-44, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Mary’s_Cathedral,_Newcastle_upon_Tyne). He also projected neo-Gothicism as a moral and spiritual ideal in True Principles of Gothic Architecture (1841). And he started work on his new house, The Grange, in Ramsgate (1843-45, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Grange,_Ramsgate ). According to Hill, the revolutionary design of The Grange, with rooms grouped around a central hall, made it ‘the prototype of hundreds of country rectories and suburban houses’.

True, other architects may have been more prolific than Pugin, but there was no such thing as ‘the office of A. W. N. Pugin’. Without wanting or needing the support of teams of assistants and pupils, without regard for the health problems that continued to plague him, or even for remuneration and (especially at first) the trivial matter of funding, he simply took up what interested him and flung himself into it, down to the very smallest detail — including, for example, the church vestments, to which he attached great significance. Part 4 ends like Part 2, with Pugin grief-stricken at the loss of a wife, except that Louisa’s death now left him with six motherless children.

Parts 5 and 6, covering the last eight years of Pugin’s life (1844-1852), make harrowing reading, with as many cliff-hangers as any sensation novel. According to Eastlake’s account of him in his History of the Gothic Revival (1871), Pugin’s name was ‘for at least a quarter of a century a household word in every house where ancient art was loved and appreciated’. Yet Hill tells us that when the House of Lords was opened in 1846, it was not mentioned once in the Illustrated London News’s extensive coverage of its interior). Pugin, who had already come under attack for his ‘unfinished towers and undiapered walls’, was too busy touring his other work in progress, and roving the Continent for new inspirations, to worry about getting the credit for it. Often on the brink of mental and physical collapse, he now cared less and less for his personal appearance, yet turned this way and that for emotional support. He found it at last in Jane Knill, whom he married at his own cathedral, St George’s in Southwark, in 1848 — the first marriage to be solemnized there. They settled down in Ramsgate, where Pugin soon developed a nice little sideline by salvaging cargo from shipwrecks on the Kent coast. Steadied by Jane, he took on more commitments, including the great challenge of the Medieval Court of the Great Exhibition (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Exhibition). Again, he was poorly rewarded, receiving no prizes for it. Yet his work was admired, and he was appointed to help select items from the Exhibition for the national collection that would eventually be housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%26A and http://www.vam.ac.uk/). Pugin was touchingly honoured by this. Meanwhile, he was continuing to speak out passionately and controversially on the principles and practice of church architecture, design and so forth. His last publication was a Treatise on Chancel Screens and Rood Lofts, Their Antiquity, Use, and Symbolic Signification (1851), a fraught subject then, just the year before his death.

Pugin’s life came to a close with two ironies. As his own time ran out, his last architectural work was the design of the Palace of Westminster’s clock tower, in other words, Big Ben. Barry always minimised Pugin’s contributions, but this was clearly based on an unbuilt design for the clocktower of Scarisbrick Hall: ‘The clock is pure Gothic,’ Hill points out, ‘and Barry, who still could not design a door knob in the medieval style, was entirely reliant on Pugin for the conception’ (482). A more bitter irony was that Pugin was last hospitalised at the Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam) in sight of St George’s, the cathedral for which he had had such high hopes and in which he and Jane had exchanged vows only a few years before.

Hill has done wonders by delving into the minutiae of Pugin’s family background and driven personality. As for the former, her more rounded and detailed picture of Catherine Pugin is particularly valuable. And as for the latter, the man hidden behind Pugin’s ‘loudly audible, polemical public self’ leaps out at us from her pages in his battered hat, decrepit sailor’s jacket and baggy trousers, rather a swashbuckling figure when not actually wringing our hearts with his misfortunes. Hill’s greatest achievement is to have followed him closely enough through the years to shatter the fixed idea of Puginism. He was a living force whose ideas developed, and contributed variously and significantly to the complex architectural, stylistic and even theological movements of his day. Despite being attacked by Alexander Beresford Hope, John Ruskin and others, he had a huge and enduring influence not only on our built landscape, but also in fields as diverse as stained glass design (see his windows at St Paul’s Church Brighton, not mentioned by Hill) and furniture production and even retailing. This book has won a clutch of prestigious awards, including the Wolfson Prize for History in 2008. One can easily see why. It is a marvellous biography of a marvellous man. Relish it at your leisure.

624 pages in Penguin paperback

ISBN 978-0140280999

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin

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