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Passionate Pugin

After we posted a mediaeval drawing yesterday, the author of the inspiring A Little Guide for Your Last Days urged us to look at Pugin. Actually we had written about this wonderful artist before, but not all that well. So we pruned and polished the earlier post and added details -


Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was the writer and architect who almost single-handedly revived the architecture of Christian mediaeval England. He spearheaded the Gothic revival in Victorian Britain, reconsecrating a land that had been desecrated by industry and creating a circle of belonging.

Genius and loss

Born in 1812, Pugin grew up surrounded by his father’s architecture students. He had little formal schooling, but spent his time copying the mediaeval prints he loved in the British Museum. When he was eight, he designed his first chair. When he was fifteen, he received his first commission – from George IV - for a Gothic standing cup now known as the Coronation Cup.

Pugin loved the sea. He dressed in a sailor's jacket and loose pilot trousers, and often went sailing. The theatre drew him. After designing furniture for the King, Pugin designed stage sets. He was enjoying himself hugely when the deaths of his young wife, father and mother within the space of a year left him shaken, and unsure of his future.

Then an aunt died and left him a legacy. In an inspired move that was not quite drawn out of thin air, Pugin decided to become an architect. His training consisted of little more than detailed sketches of medieval buildings in Britain and northern Europe (Oxford's Dictionary of National Biography).

"Boundless good humour and energy"

Pugin had keen grey eyes, a mind that never forgot what it learned, and boundless good humour. He “would work from sunrise to midnight with extraordinary ease and rapidity. His short thick hands. . .performed their delicate work even under such unfavourable circumstances as sailing his lugger off the south coast of England” (Catholic Encylopaedia). His decision to become an architect released and focused his creative energies.

In 1835 he became a Roman Catholic. His faith and the ancient Gothic buildings that had been created by his faith centuries earlier inspired him. They were like the steady pulse of blood in his body.

In 1836 Pugin published his most famous book, Contrasts. Its beautiful, satirical drawings compare splendid types of mediaeval buildings with their meagre early nineteenth-century counterparts (Oxford DNB). In his books and work Pugin managed to demolish banal pedestrian architecture and revive Gothic - and the people loved it.

Pugin was a self-contained whirlwind of energy. He remarried, and became the father of eight children, Once asked why he kept no clerk to help him, Pugin replied: “Clerk, my dear sir, clerk, I never employ one. I should kill him in a week”. Pugin designed dozens of neo-Gothic churches and their interiors as well as houses, hospitals, and schools.

Due to his vision, "Neo-Gothic style rapidly spread through the culture, encrusting factories, law courts, schools, colleges, waterworks, railway stations and houses with fairy-tale pinnacles and dreaming towers". (Roger Scruton, England).

Many Catholic parishes lacked sufficient funds for Pugin's towers or interior decoration. They were built but lacked his whole concept. St Giles, Cheadle, Staffordshire, built at the expense of the earl of Shrewsbury, had a magnificent red sandstone tower and spire, sumptuous colours inside and a chapel that was a blaze of light.

Pugin's ingenuity at turning architectural problems into brilliant building features would serve him well on his greatest project.


A house for Parliament

In 1834 the Houses of Parliament were destroyed by fire, and Charles Barry was asked to design the new houses. There was little doubt what the style would be, or Pugin's involvement.

Working with Barry, Pugin produced thousands of construction drawings for the buildings, and created all the interiors of the Houses of Parliament, designing the chambers, libraries, committee rooms, furniture, stained glass (destroyed in the Second World War) and every gas lamp, doorknob, and umbrella stand.

The challenges of the eight-acre project were enormous. Quicksands were found during excavations, and part of the structure had to be erected on land reclaimed from the Thames.

Principles of art with soul

Pugin designed according to three principles. The third seems to us the most important -

‘1st, there should be no features about a building which are not necessary for convenience, construction or propriety; 2nd, all ornament should consist of enrichment of the essential construction of the building’ (True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture, 1841). 3rd, truly honest and beautiful buildings are created by a caring and 'good' society. Pugin's buildings have a soul – a tender, sacred, brave and festive soul.

Pugin's principles and faith affected the treatment of his workers. He taught the workers he employed how to build, and he entrusted the building of his designs to them. Few architects have given workers this kind of confident respect, and they returned the feeling with affection.

Pugin worked closely with a number of artisans. Herbert Minton created the decorated tiles in the Houses of Parliament. John Hardman, the Birmingham button maker and medallist, became Pugin’s close friend and manufactured metalwork and stained glass to his swiftly drawn designs.


Pugin's tower and clock face, St Stephen's Tower, Westminster, with Big Ben.
The tower and clock face were Pugin's last designs. He wrote, "I never worked so hard in my life [as] for Mr Barry for tomorrow I render all the designs for finishing his bell tower and it is beautiful."

Queen Victoria formally opened the Houses of Parliament on 11 November 1852. Pugin, just 41 years old, had died in September, sinking into madness due almost certainly to mercury poisoning.

Like a wise, kind and brave soul, Gothic architecture enchanted Britain.