The arch medievaliser

A. W. N. Pugin
March 28, 1997

Why present an exhibition and a book about Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin? Pugin was born in London in 1812, the only child of Augustus or Auguste Pugin, a refugee from France and an architectural and topographical draughtsman, and his English mother Catherine. Taught at home by his parents he precociously learnt his father's skills and accompanied him on expeditions to northern France to record its medieval religious and secular monuments. He was also taught his mother's enthusiastic Calvinism. In his late teens he set up his own furniture business. This failed, and he tried stage design at the Covent Garden Grand Opera, and possibly too in Paris. Aged 19, he married but in the following year his wife died in childbirth and in the same year both his parents died. In 1834 he became convinced that the Roman Catholic church was "the only true one", and after a visit to the buildings of pre-Reformation Nuremberg that Gothic was the only true style. In 1835 he was received into the church. He became a tireless propagandist through books, pamphlets and articles for the medievalising of its liturgical arrangements, particularly for the reintroduction of rood screens separating nave and chancel, and for Gothic as a universal style.

His published works included Details of ancient timber houses of the 15th and 16th centuries (1837), Contrasts (1836) in which he caustically compared the buildings of his own day with those of a well-researched but romantically imagined medieval past, The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841), and An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England (1843).

His busy architectural practice was concentrated largely in the 1840s and included work with Sir Charles Barry on the decorations and furniture of the new Palace of Westminster, and churches and religious institutions on England and Ireland, although few of his clients for these were able to spend as much as was necessary to realise his vision, and both the Catholic hierarchy and parish clergy were hostile to or uncomprehending of his attempts to revive medieval forms and apparatus of worship. In 1851 he designed the Medieval Court in the Crystal Palace of the 1851 Great Exhibition where he was able to realise and present to the public his synthetic vision of both monumental and domestic decoration, most of its artefacts, in the spirit of the exhibition, being manufactured rather than crafted. In 1852, he suffered a complete mental breakdown caused possibly by poisoning from the mercury in the medicines with which his various diseases were treated, and was confined in Bedlam in south London, poignantly opposite his unfinished Roman Catholic cathedral of Southwark. He never emerged and died at the age of 40.

His tough architecture was highly influential on the following generation of Victorian architects who included George Gilbert Scott, G. E. Street and William Butterfield, and his prescriptions for the appropriate use of decoration were taken up by William Morris. But his ideas for the reform of liturgical practices were ignored or rejected by, for example, Cardinals Newman and Wiseman, and his art history and theory was largely superseded by the cleverer John Ruskin.

A. W. N. Pugin: Master of Gothic Revival is the sumptuously reprinted catalogue of the exhibition on Pugin's life and work held in 1994 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and subsequently at the Bard Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, New York. It consists of ten essays by distinguished international scholars, followed by the catalogue proper which includes beautifully reproduced illustrations, mostly in colour, of the exhibited objects. The essays vary in length, distinction and relevance, and these qualities do not always coincide. The biographical sketch above was compiled from information scattered through the book; that supplied by Rosemary Hill is irritatingly impressionistic and reads more like an outline for a short television drama documentary complete with its cliched framing device. Andrew Saint supplies an outstanding but regrettably brief essay "Pugin's architecture in context" which, in spite of another contrived introduction, succeeds with affection both in summarising Pugin's architectural career and in conveying the vitality of his radical three-dimensional and picturesque approach to design. He does not shrink from drawing a Puginesque moral for today's readers: we can learn that "architecture or decoration or art of any kind is impoverished without some extra, outward-looking layer of serious meaning and intention".

The remaining essays are a wild mixture, perhaps unsurprisingly given the exhibition and book's transatlantic clientele. The introductory "The early years of the Gothic Revival" places this revival firmly in the 18th century, starting with William Kent and continuing with Horace Walpole. Over-influenced by written sources, its author ignores the likelihood that in England at least Gothic never really went away: that Gothic building continued up to the very last moment before the Reformation, and that it continued to be practised however oddly and sporadically by Christopher Wren in his post-Fire of London reconstructions of a few churches in the City and in some of his work at Oxford, and more robustly if equally idiosyncratically by Hawksmoor, for example, in what he called his "monastic" extensions to All Souls College, Oxford, completed in 1734.

The history of the Roman Catholic revival in England from the end of the 18th century to the first quarter of the 19th which culminated in the Emancipation Bill of 1829 and the establishment of new Catholic dioceses is ably told and set against both contemporary Romanticism and the industrialisation which had brought hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants to the emerging industrial centres in the north of England. The ecclesiastical and political reasons that Pugin got so little work either from the new episcopate or from the new orders such as the Oratorians led by Faber and Newman are clearly exposed.

The remaining essays discuss first Pugin's connections with France, starting with his ancestry, his frequent visits, and the influential publication there in translation of many of his books. The fine and very long essay "The ideal of the Gothic cathedral in 1852" does not really belong here. It examines the development of what in England was to become the "battle of the styles" across the whole of continental Europe. It traces the attempts to find an appropriate style for the cathedrals of Marseilles, finally done with round arches, Viollet-le-Duc's campaigns for the reform of the restoration of medieval monuments, particularly Notre Dame, and the completion of the cathedral of Cologne. While Pugin is shown to be have been one voice in the Gothic party, in the European context he was neither the most gifted nor influential. Pugin's work in Ireland, much of it done in collaboration with local architects, was a disappointment to him: here again money was short, and his conservative constricting medieval vision was not understood. Finally, while Pugin never visited the United States, his influence on the extensive Episcopalian and Catholic 19th-century church building programmes is discussed, and some of the work of his sons, who certainly did visit America in the 1870s and 1880s, is identified.

The first half of the book suffers from the disadvantages of the exhibition of which it is the souvenir: its editor has not decided whether it is a display of connoisseurship and international curatorial skill or if its aim is the presentation of Pugin's work to a broad audience who have paid the museum's entrance fee or bought the book. In the second half, the catalogue of work, Pugin's designs can be studied through their presentation in fine colour photography, the smaller objects benefiting from their separation from their busy, gaudy original surroundings, the larger from their careful framing by the lens.

Christopher Woodward is an architect and co-author with Edward Jones of A Guide to the Architecture of London.   

A. W. N. Pugin: Master of Gothic Revival

Editor - Paul Atterbury
ISBN - 0 300 06656 2 and 06657 0
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £45.00 and £25.00
Pages - 415

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