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Portrait by an unknown artist

National Portrait Gallery

Passionate Pugin

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812 - 1852) was the writer and architect who single-handedly ‘enchanted’ Britain by reviving the architecture of medieval England, and spearheading the Gothic revival.

‘That revival’, wrote Roger Scruton, ‘was an attempt to re-consecrate a land that had been desecrated by industry’ and create a circle of belonging. ‘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. . .restoring the country to its true condition of enchantment’ (England).
The man who accomplished this was a young, passionate, self-educated genius and Christian.

Architecture and the sea

Born in 1812, Pugin grew up surrounded by his father’s architecture students. He had little formal schooling, but spent his time copying the medieval 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. He was precocious and adventurous.

Pugin loved the sea. He dressed in a sailor's jacket and loose pilot trousers, and often went sailing. The theatre drew him. After creating 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.

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 Encyclopedia). His decision to become an architect released all his creative energies.

In 1835 he became a Roman Catholic. His faith and the ancient Gothic buildings that had been created by faith 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 medieval buildings with their meagre early nineteenth-century counterparts (Oxford DNB). In a few strokes Contrasts demolished banal pedestrian architecture and revived Gothic.

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’.

Mary Hill, the author of God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain, places his achievements within his all too short life span -

At the age of 24 Pugin had written the first ever architectural manifesto; then, before he was 30, he had built 22 churches, three cathedrals - including England's first since St. Paul's - several schools and a Cistercian monastery. It was Pugin who invented the Victorian church as a building type, and he was just on the point of reinventing the modern family house.

Pugin designed dozens of neo-Gothic churches and their interiors as well as houses, hospitals, and schools. Some of his interiors were not built as designed because many Catholic parishes lacked sufficient funds. St Giles, Cheadle, Staffordshire, did have the funds. Built at the expense of the earl of Shrewsbury, the church has Pugin's magnificent red sandstone tower and spire, sumptuous colours inside and a chapel that is a blaze of light.

The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben

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


Central Lobby, Houses of Parliament

In 1834 the Houses of Parliament were gutted by fire. Charles Barry was asked to design the new houses in the Gothic style made popular by Pugin.

Working with Barry, Pugin produced thousands of construction drawings for the new 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. Quicksand was found during excavations, and part of the structure had to be erected on land reclaimed from the River Thames.

The result was one of the world's iconic buildings, an embodiment of the rich history of representative government and the struggle to balance the powers of the people and the Crown and an affirmation of the human soul.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Pugin's design of Big Ben.

Principles of art with soul

Pugin designed according to three principles -
‘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 had a soul – a tender, sacred, brave and festive soul. His 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. They adored Pugin.

He 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 was Pugin's last design. 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.

Gothic architecture enchanted Britain. Like a wise, kind and brave soul, it continues to inspire us.


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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass