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:

To marry on the very day that his parents' effects were sold was a gesture of defiance. . . . The trauma of the twelve months that began with his first wife's death . . . and ended with his second marriage resonated throughout his life. He could never bear to look back at it directly, but the past, though he scarcely spoke of it, found expression, obliquely, throughout his work.

In Pugin's architectural preoccupation with the past, there was an abiding autobiographical element.

After the death of Louisa in 1844, Pugin fell in love in rapid succession with two beautiful women much younger than himself, both of whom first returned and then rejected his attentions, one because of his class and the other because of his religion.

"Those who never knew him," one colleague wrote, "may smile at his being able to fall in love again and again but it is the truth, he was always young through vitality and would be happy or miserable like a boy."

About his third wife, Jane Knill, whom he married in 1848 when he was 36 and she 21, he wrote a friend, "I have got a first-rate Gothic woman at last, who perfectly understands and delights in spires, chancels, screens, stained glass, brasses, vestments, etc."


For all his amorousness, however, Pugin was a contented family man and never the aloof paterfamilias: When six of his young children came down with measles (life-threatening at the time) he nursed each of them back to health. His domestic architecture, however, was not flawless: "I have made a horrid mistake in building this house," he complained of the Grange, his family home in Ramsgate. "There are no nurseries cut off from the rest the consequence is that living in a Pig market is less terrible the perpetual screams that proceed from every room in the house are distracting . . . incessant powerful screeching . . . oh dear."

In 1835, Pugin converted to Roman Catholicism, writing a friend: "I can assure you after a most close & impartial investigation I feel perfectly convinced 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."

As this makes clear, his conversion--a particularly bold one for any Englishman to make 12 years before John Henry Newman went over to Rome--was inspired as much by aesthetics as faith. His journals document his impatience with the more easy-going Anglican Church, noting in one entry how "Rev. Wm. Cooper wore top boots & white breeches on Sunday," and "I can see the time . . . rapidly approaching when there will be only the catholick & the infidel: the power of the church of England is rapidly on the decline."

Still, what is remarkable about Pugin's faith was how reticent he was about it. "Of the interior, spiritual experience of these months," Hill observes, "Pugin himself, who was not by nature introspective, said nothing, and there is nothing that a biographer can properly say either."

This is true: Pugin was never shy about castigating those who did not share his principles--he was particularly vituperative towards Robert Smirke and Charles Cockerell, the architects, respectively, of the British Museum and the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford--but when it came to articulating his faith he was mum, preferring to let his buildings speak for him, which was just as well, because on the few occasions that he did try to describe his faith, he baffled most English Catholics.

For Pugin, Catholicism had little to do with Rome, nothing to do with the pope, and everything to do with rood screens. In light of these eccentric views, it is not surprising that Newman should have looked askance at Pugin--though he was never impervious to the brilliance of his work. About St. Giles, Cheadle, one of Pugin's most dazzling works, Newman wrote: "The chapel is on entering a blaze of light. I could not help saying to myself, Porta Coeli."

In 1835 Pugin met the architect Charles Barry, with whom his name will always be linked. It was on the strength of Pugin's drawings that Barry won the commission for the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster after it burned down in 1834. Once it was time to begin work on the interior, Barry recognized (as Hill points out) that "he could not possibly design Gothic detail of the quantity and quality required and in so many different media. Nobody except Pugin could."

Barry pleaded with Pugin to help, and Pugin agreed. "Thus began a commitment that lasted, and he often felt, blighted, the rest of his life." Because of his Catholic faith, which posed problems for England's Protestant Establishment, Pugin's role in the collaborative work was always kept quiet. Consequently, "The nature of his employment made it invidious from the beginning for both Pugin and Barry. It ensured that while Pugin would never in his lifetime get the credit he deserved, Barry would always be suspected of owing him more than he did."

Still, the results of Pugin's contribution were magnificent. The House of Lords, the Peers' Lobby, and Big Ben are some of the loveliest things in all of English architecture.

In 1836 Pugin published Contrasts, the success of which helped launch his architectural career. In this rollicking polemic Pugin contrasted the England of John Nash with medieval England, to show how inferior the former was. In thus attacking what Hill calls "the world of the Regency, that Vanity Fair of stucco-fronted manners, high taste and low principles," Pugin argued what William Cobbett had argued in Rural Rides (1830): that the English Reformation had robbed the English of their traditional faith and traditional liberties. In the 1830s and '40s, when the country was reeling from the Industrial Revolution and the First Reform Bill, such critiques commanded serious consideration. Afterwards, as Hill shows, a more liberal consensus took hold.

The England of Prince Albert and the Great Exhibition did not feel the romantic pull of the olden times so strongly. The dream of 'reunion' with Rome that had faded through the 1840s now vanished. Between the Evangelical and High Church parts of the Established Church, a Liberal, Broad Church movement was emerging anxious that England, having escaped the Continental revolutions of 1848, should now avoid the reaction to those revolutions which has seen the Catholic Church reassert itself already in Belgium and Austria, as it would soon in France.

In 1845, the year of Newman's conversion, Pugin built a grim, barracks-like structure for the Catholic seminary at Maynooth outside Dublin, but after this his architectural commissions dried up, and he did much of his later work in textiles, wallpaper, furniture, and stained glass.

Of these piecemeal commissions, Pugin complained: "This is all very well if one is architect to the whole job but architect to one grate or one fireplace is worse than keeping a fish stall." Still, even if Pugin never was given the freedom or the scope he needed to develop his genius fully, his output remains impressive. (Readers looking for a good guide to his work as a whole should track down Paul Atterbury and Clive Wainwright's Pugin: A Gothic Passion, published in 1994, which accompanied the first major exhibition of Pugin's work at the Victoria & Albert.)

When Pugin and his brilliant collaborators showed their Medieval Court at The Great Exhibition (1851), it was an unexpected success. "No other designer," Hill writes, "embodied Pugin's vision of home and hearth and God. It was a vision that appealed powerfully to the mid-Victorian mind."

Proof of the vindication of his principles could also be seen in the fealty he commanded from such leading lights of the Gothic Revival as Gilbert Scott, George Street, and William Butterfield, as well as from William Morris and members of the Arts and Crafts Movement--although John Ruskin, who insisted that the Gothic had nothing to do with Catholicism, belittled Pugin in The Stones of Venice. When a family member asked Pugin what he thought of Ruskin, the architect replied: "Let the fellow build something himself," and returned to his work.

In 1852, after putting the final touches to the great clock tower for the Palace of Westminster, which recalled his first commission in 1837 for Scaris-brick Hall, Pugin remarked, "I am the machinery in the clock." Thereafter, he grew increasingly psychotic and in September, at the age of 40, he died mad, probably of syphilis contracted when he worked in the theater.

Of the early 19th century, Hill observes: "These were years of revivalism in the positive sense, not of nostalgia or lack of confidence in the present but a time when for many the past was experienced as a living source of inspiration from which England could regenerate itself, like Arthur come to life again."

This creative understanding of the past was one of Pugin's greatest legacies, and God's Architect is a worthy celebration of its abundant fruit.

Edward Short is a writer in New York.