Heaven’s Gate

Rosemary Hill

Pugin’s first professional commission, in 1827, was to design furniture at Windsor Castle. He was 15. Three years later, already drafting an autobiography, he recalled that the French master joiner at Windsor, Desmalter, had been ‘a very ignorant conceited man’. What Desmalter, head of one of the most famous Parisian furniture studios for thirty years, thought of the child designer can only be imagined. In later life Pugin repudiated the ‘scamp’ he had been at 15. He was much harder on the furniture.

It was, essentially, Regency Gothic; a light, decorative application of medieval architectural motifs to modern shapes. Much of it survives in use at Windsor and if Her Majesty dips into this volume she may be puzzled by the stern tone in which Clive Wainwright endorses Pugin’s ‘quite proper’ renunciation of her ‘horrific’ furniture, most of which is considered too distressing to illustrate. In Dr Wainwright’s disapproval we hear an authentic echo of Pugin himself, who brought to English architecture and design the notion of ‘true principles’, the idea that bad design meant more than bad taste.

In Pugin’s youth the Gothic Revival had moved on since Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, but had scarcely developed. It remained a novelty style. Pugin’s father, the French émigré artist and self-styled count, Auguste Charles, had published books of Gothic details, drawn to scale from medieval buildings, that contributed to a better understanding of historic design. But Pugin Senior was still quite happy to design fire irons with handles in the shape of bishops. It was his style that was the chief influence on his son at Windsor.

Having exhausted the possibilities of fashionable furniture by the time he was 17, Pugin embarked on a series of other careers. He bought a boat and imported antiques from the Continent to sell in Wardour Street. He set up a furniture-making business, went broke, then became a set designer at Covent Garden. Critics of his architecture say that he remained a stage designer all his life, while admirers have, to some extent, agreed. In one of the best of this collection of 22 essays Lionel Lambourne points out that some of what was most sublime and ridiculous in Pugin’s later career had its origins in the theatre.

The power of his best church architecture is based on his understanding of sight lines, on the manipulation of light, the formation of processions, the effect of figures moving in three-dimensional space – which informed his designs for vestments – and, chiefly, the proscenium arch or rood screen. Whether you see this as a blasphemous trivialisation or not depends in part, of course, on how seriously you take the theatre.

Pugin’s personal theatricality did not help him. He often wore sailing clothes and a wideawake hat, outfits to which clients’ wives objected. His later involvement with the English Catholic Revival was conducted in the language of melodrama. Lambourne quotes him writing in 1850, ‘Ha Mr Editor, I have you on the hip. Look to yourself,’ in an address to the Rambler about plainsong. Such support made the fastidious John Henry Newman shudder. ‘A profound silence’, he suggested, was the only way ‘to bear such blushing honours’.

Nothing in Pugin’s life was more dramatic than his own transformation from talented but undirected dilettante to Roman Catholic architect, designer and propagandist. It began in 1832, with books of drawings, to which he gave titles – The Chest and The Shrine. In these densely detailed images, medieval objects, some real, some imagined, take on a symbolic and narrative resonance. From this point, propelled by a series of personal disasters, including the death of his first wife at the age of 18. Pugin’s emotional identification with the Middle Ages deepened into religious conviction. He came to believe that Gothic architecture was the physical expression of God’s will; that it was the true style in the same way and to the same extent that Catholicism, to which he converted, was the true faith. From this one insight he never afterwards retreated, nor did he advance beyond it. Everything that was essential to his thinking, as Margaret Belcher rightly insists in her essay on Pugin’s writing, was contained in his first important book, Contrasts. With its publication in 1836 his transformation was complete. That of the Gothic Revival now followed.

It had passed through its histrionic Otranto period with Walpole. Under the influence of men like Pugin’s father it had experienced a more historically correct, if lightweight, ‘Waverly phase’. Now Pugin, belatedly, brought to it the Romantic ideals of aesthetic truth and individual expression, the Keatsian intensity of ‘twilight saints and dim emblazonings’. The ‘contrasts’, pairs of plates showing buildings of the 14th century with their 19th-century equivalents, all made the same point. The modern city was ugly because it was irreligious and inhumane: these, Pugin said, are the shoddy buildings of a shoddy age. His examples were exaggerated, his logic was faulty, his grasp of history tenuous. But Contrasts spoke an important truth to a public anxious about rapidly expanding industrial cities, social change and architectural stagnation. It addressed a wide audience, it was a witty book and short.

Aesthetic truth, for Pugin, meant an understanding of the essential structures of medieval architecture and design. ‘It is not’ – he later said – ‘a style but a principle.’ From the true principles of revealed construction and undisguised materials, it was possible to articulate the Gothic style in appropriate forms for modern life – no more ecclesiastical coal buckets. From houses, churches, whole towns in which every nail and weather vane were true, divine truth would be manifest.

One of the chief objections to the notion of applied art as capable of meaning is that it is limited by the formal constraints of function. To this immovable object Pugin opposed an irresistible force, God. He pursued an individual artistic vision in the full belief that it was a divine truth. As with so much in his character and work this was at the same time naive and profoundly effective.

Contemporaries, naturally, thought he was mad, but only, as it were, north-north-west. The Catholicism, to which he converted just five years after Catholic Emancipation, was repugnant to fellow architects who, nevertheless, appreciated his artistic genius. Gilbert Scott went, privately, to inspect Pugin’s church in Cheadle. When Charles Barry came to design the interiors of the Palace of West-minster he knew that he must go back to Pugin, who had drawn Barry’s competition entry. No one else understood Gothic well enough to manipulate it into the myriad new forms and patterns that were needed.

In her chapter on the Palace Alexandra Wedgwood delves further into the tangled question of Pugin and Barry’s collaboration. After Pugin’s death his son Edward, whose wilful, blighted career was in many ways a caricature of his father’s, went to law against Barry’s son, claiming that Pugin had been denied due credit for his contributions. But Pugin had always said that Barry was the architect, the overall vision was his. And that, in essence, was the truth. In her painstaking sifting of the surviving evidence Wedgwood illuminates a relationship that brought the best out of both men, creating a scheme that would have been beyond the scope of either working alone.

Work on the Palace, for which he designed furniture, wallpaper, light-fittings, metal work and Big Ben, occupied Pugin for the rest of his life, fitted in between the demands of his own commissions, on which he worked alone. Methodical, efficient, extremely quick, in his practice, at least, he was entirely rational. But while the architects’ line was – and still is essentially – ‘great designer, shame about the religion,’ his fellow Catholics took exactly the opposite view. When Newman called him ‘a fanatic’ he was talking about the art.

Pugin’s influence was vast. Many were open to one or other side of his message. A few, including craftsmen and patrons, were prepared go with him the whole way, and there were just enough of them for his vision to be occasionally realised. At St Giles, Cheadle, into which the Earl of Shrewsbury poured huge sums of money, even Newman felt ‘the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation’: ‘a blaze of light – and I could not help saying to myself “Porta Coeli”.’

In his 15-year career Pugin achieved few such complete successes. But everything he touched, book design, ceramics, furniture, wallpaper, jewellery, architectural theory, was, to some degree, transformed. It is a tribute both to him and to the authors of these essays that every one of them has something new to offer in terms of research or interpretation, though the emphasis is on the former. (I should mention here that I am engaged in writing a biography of Pugin and am handsomely acknowledged in the opening chapter.)

After a long hiatus in Pugin studies such a flurry of work, generated by the exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which the book complements, is bound, perhaps, to raise as many questions as it answers. The editors have allowed writers to follow the diverging paths of their own specialities. The book is braced, however, at either end by chapters that take a wider view. Clive Wainwright opens with a biographical account that does not shy away from the aspects of Pugin that are too often felt to be beneath the dignity of architectural history.

His passion for sailing, his semi-legal activities in wrecking and salvage, his love affairs are all drawn into Wainwright’s account to good effect. It was the totality, the thing that almost no one else understood, that mattered most to Pugin. He was all but devoid of introspection. The only way that he could inhabit the imaginative world of The Shrine and The Chest was to construct it physically around himself. At Ramsgate, in his own house and church, he succeeded. From here he sailed his boat, did his work and lived the medieval life among his family, apparently not noticing that his daughters wept as he drew round their feet to make patterns for Gothic felt shoes, which they hated.

He was an affectionate man, but to live with him required an acceptance of one’s role in his dream. ‘I bought her cheap and fitted her out with every requisite,’ he wrote, in a letter quoted by Wainwright, referring to a boat. He could have said almost the same of his adored third wife Jane, who was got, if not cheap, then at very short notice after another engagement fell through. He designed the wedding dress, adapted the jewellery he had made for her predecessor and, having kitted her out, felt that at last he had ‘a first-rate Gothic woman’.

He achieved one more great ensemble work, the Medieval Court at the Great Exhibition of 1851, then he really did go mad and died the following year, aged 40. That a mind long strained by holding in tension the peculiar contradictions of Pugin’s vision should finally fly apart, seems inevitable. But people do not die of paradox: he probably had mercury poisoning.

In his concluding essay ‘The Fate of Pugin’s True Principles’, Andrew Saint reviews his influence, fine-tuning in the light of recent research which shows, for example, that Ruskin had read rather more of Pugin than he admitted. Saint also prises Pugin from the grip of what he calls ‘vulgar’ functionalists who would claim him as a forerunner. ‘Sentimental’ might be a better word, for ‘functionalism’ is as wild a goose as any Pugin chased.

What is missing from the book is some broader interpretative account of Pugin’s place in 19th-century thought. For that we are still dependent on Raymond Williams’s brief summary in Culture and Society. Unlike Ruskin and Morris, whom he anticipated in many ways, Pugin has not found a following outside architectural history. Nor has he gained a nook in the national imagination, the heritage trail passes him by. His extraordinary house at Ramsgate stands empty, its future uncertain.

Now, Saint suggests, may be the time for reappraisal. He is surely right, but if Pugin’s ideas are due for a revival it will be because no generation since the original readers of Contrasts has felt so strongly as the present one that there is something wrong with urban England, something that is connected with the way that it behaves as well as the way that it looks.