The Magazine

Gothic Tradition

The man who designed Victorian Britain.

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