The Magazine

Gothic Tradition

The man who designed Victorian Britain.

Aug 31, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 46 • By EDWARD SHORT
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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."