Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812 –1852)

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812 –1852) was an architect, a designer, an artist and critic. His is a name that frequently appears when reading about theology, architecture, or the arts of the nineteenth century. Pugin is best remembered for his role in championing the Gothic Revival style, and his influence and hand can be seen on buildings such as the Houses of Parliament (where, although heavily involved in the design of the interior decorations and furnishings his contribution is thought to supersede that of the commissioned architect) and Scarisbrick Hall in Lancashire, as well as many church buildings, and houses throughout the country. Pugin’s Gothic architecture was visionary and intrinsically involved with both his reading and understanding of theological doctrine, and his taste for the medieval, and the rich tapestry of Catholic ornamentation.

Scarisbrick Hall.JPG
Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire, designed by Pugin circa 1850

Born in London in 1812, the same year as Dickens, Pugin lived for a mere forty years. His name is often overshadowed by other Victorian greats, such as Dickens or Ruskin, but considering his short life Pugin’s contribution and lasting impact upon the British landscape is significant.

His father, Auguste, was a French artist who had come to London after the French Revolution: Pugin’s mother, Catherine Welby, was from a wealthy Lincolnshire family. It was Catherine’s and not Auguste’s money that enabled the family to set up in Bloomsbury. His mother took control over Pugin’s earliest religious education which came from the Protestant Low Church services that she took him to each Sunday morning. These services were received in plain chapels called ‘Preaching Boxes’ and it was here that Pugin heard the preaching of Edward Irving, the later founder of the Holy Catholic Apostolic Church. Despite his mother’s devotion to Irving, his laborious style alienated Pugin as did the cold austere fabric of the plain buildings he preached in which were a far cry from Pugin’s later designs.

His early school education was rather informal, in fact he never attended school in the way we would think of it today. His interest in medieval and ecclesiastical architecture stems from the earliest days of his youth and from his father’s own publications e.g. Specimens of Gothic Architecture. After leaving Christ’s Hospital school in London where he studied for only a brief time, Pugin worked at his father’s office, a place which offered students drawing lessons. This job enabled him to travel in both England and France whereupon he spent much time drawing medieval buildings, a repeat of annual autumnal trips Pugin had taken with his father during his youth. It was also through his father’s office that Pugin began making a network of contacts which became invaluable as his career grew. It was as early as 1827 that Pugin’s career as an independent designer began with two grand commissions for George IV. The first was to design a church plate for St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and the second was to furnish apartments at Windsor Castle.

Clearly ambitious Pugin set up his own business although that was to fail as early as 1831, mainly because his optimism took precedence over experience. It was at this time that Pugin married for what would be the first of three times. He married his first wife, Anne Garnet, in 1831 when she was five months pregnant. Sadly, although the baby girl survived childbirth Anne died soon after; that same year Pugin lost first his father and then his mother. Despite this great personal loss, Pugin’s career began to accelerate, and in 1832, the same year Anne died, he was introduced to ardent Catholic John Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury. This lead to numerous commissions, including improving Shrewsbury’s residence, Alton Towers and the exquisite St. Giles Catholic Church, Cheadle which is often described as ‘Pugin’s gem’. The interior of this church is extremely ornate and is a fine example of Pugin’s declaration ‘Let then the Beautiful & the True be our watchword’ from The True Principles (1841). Pugin described St. Giles thus: ‘Cheadle, perfect Cheadle, my consolation in all my afflictions’.

‘Pugin’s Gem’ St. Giles Catholic Church, Cheadle

This sense of ornate and hyperbolic design shows Pugin’s own Catholic tendencies which, by 1835, led him to convert. It is worth reminding ourselves that at this time Catholics were treated with suspicion, and by making this conversion, Pugin effectively became an outsider. The following year he published the book he had been writing during this conversion process which was rather telling text entitled Contrasts or, A parallel between the noble edifices of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and similar buildings of the present day; shewing the present decay of taste (1836).

The premise of this book centres around a comparison of medieval, often ecclesiastical, buildings and their nineteenth century comparisons. It was in this book that Pugin described Buckingham Palace, the British Museum and the National Gallery as a ‘national disgrace’. Roman Catholicism became intrinsic to Pugin’s design mentality and his understanding and representation of ‘true Gothic’ and he continued to explore these themes in his writing as evident in The True Principles of Pointed Architecture (1841) a copy of which can be found at Lambeth Palace. Pugin’s central ideas can be found in these texts and are extremely focused upon the concept of medieval social hierarchy and architectural design and structure, the concern with morality and honesty (comparable to that which he admired in Lincoln Cathedral which he first visited when he was only six years old and continued to visit throughout his life), and the overriding premise that architecture can be more (or less) moral.

A trip to Italy in 1847 confirmed his distaste for Renaissance and Baroque architecture, whilst simultaneously reinforcing his delight in the medieval. For Pugin, the early modern period represented a chivalrous time with a positive moral and pure atmosphere, a stark contrast to the industrialisation and smog of nineteenth century Britain and its decaying Georgian era. Pugin’s Catholicism sought to enliven the idea of divinity through architecture and embrace charity through social hierarchy and care. Morality and honesty was the intended output of Pugin’s proposed society. He was determined to improve architecture which he saw as being riddled with Georgian immorality. Simply put, the city was in peril because the soul of society was in crisis. Pugin’s writing was impressive and honest, and a mere five years after the publication of The True Principles, the British landscape began to depict his ideas in brick form. Sir Gilbert Scott, an eminent architect, said he had been ‘awoken from his slumber’ on reading The True Principles.

Whilst Pugin’s name is not frequently discussed today, his views and aims were hugely influential and his immediate legacy can be found in other not dissimilar Victorian thinkers: there is no doubt that Ruskin was heavily indebted to Pugin. The whole Church design boom in the nineteenth century seems to have come on the back of Pugin’s ideas (which obviously come on the back of his predecessors ideas, if only in opposition to the decadence of Georgian society). In 1841, due to the growing success of his business, Pugin and his second wife, Louisa, moved from their home in Salisbury to Cheyne Walk (where many a famous name lived, e.g. Rossetti). More and more churches and houses were being commissioned from Pugin but this business success was soon marred by another personal tragedy, namely, the death of Louisa in 1844. Pugin became manic and appears to have been quite distraught at her death, although he wasted no time in trying to marry again and after two inappropriately premature attempts at gaining a new wife, he married for the third and final time in 1848. Jane Knill was to outlive Pugin.

The following year, Pugin produced the beautiful Floriated Ornament (1849) which was a series of thirty designs. The book carried with it an important message, encouraging and guiding designers to ‘return to nature’ – a message Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites also loudly proclaimed at this time. It is clear from reading this work that Morris’ approach was heavily indebted to Pugin’s, albeit Morris’s ideas were underpinned with a Socialism and not Catholicism. Whilst Pugin encouraged designers to seek natural forms, an emulation of medieval practice, it is interesting to note that his frontispiece is filled with highly decorative angels. These highly Catholic representations of the angelic body are an interesting preface to a work that presents itself as seeking from nature a sense of medieval morality.

Pugin, Frontispiece plate from Floriated Ornament (1849, Birmingham Library)

His final home, St Augustine’s Grange in Ramsgate, and the accompanying church, which he designed himself, almost bankrupted Pugin. In the church he created a beautiful medieval tomb which would become his own resting place. This tomb was sadly needed sooner than he would ever have anticipated for in February 1852, while travelling with his son Edward Welby Pugin by train, Pugin suffered a nervous breakdown. When he arrived in London he was disorientated, incoherent and confused. After a period of four months in a private asylum, Pugin then ended up in the notorious ‘Bedlam’, more formally known as the Royal Bethlem Hospital. His treatment there was no doubt horrific. A final irony being that the hospital (which is now the Imperial War Museum) was opposite St. George’s Cathedral which Pugin had not only designed but had married Jane in. Jane, no doubt desperate, helped remove Pugin from Bedlam but despite attempts at therapy and treatment, Pugin died in 1852.

His death certificate states the reason for death as ‘convulsions followed by coma’, however, there are suggestions his health had been an issue since his late teens when, according to some critics, e.g. Rosemary Hill, Pugin may have contracted syphilis. His estate was valued a £10,000 and his son, Edward took over the business and design practice. Pugin’s library and collection of medieval artefacts were sold by Jane in 1853, many of which ended up in the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, perhaps no surprise considering Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited Pugin’s Gothic stand at the Great Exhibition of 1851 which was also a great hit with the public and critics.

Pugin’s The Medieval Court at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Pugin is often described as the foremost architect of the nineteenth century. His legacy not only emphasises the complexity of religious instability, nineteenth century creativity, design and industry, theological debate, and attempts at moral redefinition but it also illuminates the connections between the many now famous names. One example which demonstrates this interconnectedness of Victorian figures is to be found in the history of the church of St. Mary’s, Derby. The foundation stone was laid on the fourth July, 1838 which was Queen Victoria’s Coronation Day.  The church was completed on the ninth of October, 1839 and during the pontifical high mass marking the dedication of the Church, the impressive Nicholas Wiseman (later Cardinal) reportedly commenced his sermon with the words: “St. Mary’s, without exception is the most magnificent thing that Catholics have yet done in modern times in this country”.

Pugin, Wiseman, Ruskin, Queen Victoria. These figures were responsible for the shape of the nineteenth century: for the State, for ideas on social reform, for the management and the changing face of the Church, and in Pugin’s case, for the architectural Gothic landscape of Britain. Church, State, and Art all coincide through the work and presence of these figures: and it is interesting that despite Pugin’s concern with a return to medieval morality and embracing of the Catholic religion, that his finest work is said to be found in the Palace of Westminster.

Palace of Westminster
There is debate as to how much Pugin contributed to the design, particularly as Barry kept his name out of the formal record. An 1834 design by Pugin has a remarkably similar look to the palace and it seems impossible to think that he did not make a significant contribution (particularly when Barry later turned to him for the design of Big Ben) even though Pugin was displeased with the result; he famously remarked ‘All Grecian, sir; Tudor details on a classic body’. Pugin’s motivations were never for reputational or financial gain: whereas Barry earned £25,000 for Westminster, he only received £800 and no public recognition. This whitewashing by Barry seems to have been a contributing factor to the drying up of commissions and it is perhaps partly responsible for playing a part in Pugin’s low level reputation.

The Palace of Westminster is a secular cathedral but it is one built like a church and, as with all of Pugin’s architectural designs, it was an act of his most sincere and heartfelt Catholic faith.

Herbert, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1845, Palace of Westminster)