The Magazine

Gothic Tradition

The man who designed Victorian Britain.

Aug 31, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 46 • By EDWARD SHORT
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God's Architect

Pugin and the Building
of Romantic Britain

by Rosemary Hill

Yale, 656 pp., $45

In Disraeli's Contarini Fleming (1832), the hero is advised by his father: "Read no history, nothing but biography, for that is life without theory."

The notion that biography is superior to history because it is more faithful to life enjoyed a certain vogue in the 19th century. Emerson would go so far as to say, "There is properly no history, only biography." This was not entirely untenable: Biography can have an actuality that thesis-driven history lacks. Boswell's Life of Johnson may not put its subject in much historical perspective, but in capturing the minutenesses of the great lexicographer, poet, essayist, and critic, it captured the tone of 18th-century society far more reliably than the histories of Macaulay, Carlyle, or Lecky.

Yet, ideally, biography and history go hand in hand, and in God's Architect Rosemary Hill has written an admirably rich life steeped in history. In addition to delineating the development of Augustus Pugin's prodigious talent, Hill's narrative interweaves histories of English architecture and society at a time when "the railway and the Gothic revival, those two great Victorian enterprises, were gathering steam together."

One of her themes is how an inspired autodidact, scathingly critical of the architectural consensus of his youth, gradually brought his contemporaries around to sharing his vision of Gothic--a "sacred style," as Hill describes it, "infused with inner truth, an architecture that did not merely evoke 'pleasing associations' but that embodies, in its very fabric, a metaphysical, divine reality."

Another is how Pugin recovered from the Middle Ages principles which, when applied to his own buildings--including St. Chad's (1838) in Birmingham, St. Giles (1841-6) in Cheadle, Staffordshire, and St. Augustine's (1846-51) in Ramsgate, as well as the interior of the House of Lords (1847) and the wonderful clock tower (1852) of the Palace of Westminster (otherwise known as Big Ben)--helped him to go beyond "limitations of literal revivalism" to achieve a supple, eclectic, eminently inventive approach to the challenges of architectural design and use.

In Pugin's mature style, Hill writes, "Form and meaning, what an object was, how it was made and what it was made for, all were interwoven."

Born on Keppel Street in Bloomsbury in 1812, Pugin was the only child of the architect and drawing teacher Auguste Charles Pugin, and his wife, Catherine Welby. His father came to London from France and worked in the offices of John Nash, who would become one of Pugin's prime satirical whipping boys, synonymous with jobbery and false refinement.

If his father instilled in Pugin his skill in draftsmanship, his mother gave him his unflappable self-confidence, once remarking, "If he only knew how to dress I would consider him a universal genius." However brilliant, her son was a confirmed sloven, always preferring filthy sailor smocks to more conventional attire. Such anti-dandyism was sustained by extravagant pride in his putatively noble birth. He was convinced that his father had been "le Comte de Pugin," who fought for the king, and escaped from the Bastille, before sailing to England.

Hill treats this with a genial grain of salt:

The legend of the émigré Count wandering the streets of London in his tricorn hat, with his muff and gold-topped cane, was handed down by pupils and passed into myth. It became entwined with the romance of the Gothic revival, where history and fiction mingle easily.

The great turning point in Pugin's life occurred when he made a tour with his parents of the Gothic architecture of Lincoln, York, Boston, Tattershall, Grantham, Peterborough, and Hull. There he beheld the Gothic that would ever afterwards epitomize for him a kind of lost childhood, a prelapsarian ideal of true faith and good order. Later, the precocious, bilingual Pugin would accompany his parents on visits to France, where he acquired his lifelong passion for antiquities.

After the French Revolution, which stripped so many nobles of their estates, bargains were ubiquitous. "In the first half of the 19th century it was possible," Hill remarks, "even with the limited pocket money of a 12-year old to buy world-class works of medieval art, for few people knew or cared about them." Many of the objects Pugin picked up for a song are now in the Victoria & Albert Museum, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

In 1832, while designing stage sets at Covent Garden, he met his first wife, Anne Garnet, an actress, who died one week after giving birth to their daughter. A year later, both his parents were dead. In 1833, he married Louisa Burton, another actress. About his hasty remarriage, Hill says this: