Very Pointed

Dinah Birch

  • God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain by Rosemary Hill
    Allen Lane, 602 pp, August 2007, ISBN 978 0 7139 9499 5

Modern lives look prim beside the turbulent existence of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. Distractions and misfortunes proliferated throughout his career: shipwreck (he was in his own boat, trading antiquities as a teenager, and barely escaped drowning), bankruptcy, three marriages, several tumultuous love affairs, children conceived out of wedlock, and a series of uncertain commercial ventures. He was a passionate convert to Catholicism, at a time when anti-Catholic feeling ran high. He swore loudly and often, devised his own peculiar costume (nautical, more or less), and wasn’t too careful about personal hygiene. No one thought he was a gentleman, a fact that didn’t trouble him in the least. His erratic behaviour eventually turned into insanity, probably resulting from syphilis caught during his rowdy years in the theatre as a young man. These complications could not chill his exuberant flow of invention, or exclude him from centres of prestige and power. Dazzlingly precocious, he was designing furniture for the king in Windsor Castle at the age of 15. Towards the end of his short life (he died in 1852, at the age of 40), he was almost single-handedly responsible for the decoration and furnishing of the Palace of Westminster, impressing his personality on the heart of the political establishment. Big Ben, that icon of British identity, was an expression of Pugin’s imagination. The famous clock tower, named after the great bell inside, was built according to his directions. It has become his best-known legacy, though it hardly represented his real achievement as a designer. He planned dozens of houses and churches (many now demolished or unrecognisably altered), three cathedrals and a Cistercian monastery. Many of his buildings were startlingly original and graceful, and any traces of condescension towards their idiosyncrasies have long since passed. But his most potent influence lay in his reconfiguring of the domestic ideal.

The concept of a self-contained suburban home, with a spacious garden and accommodation laid out without physical divisions between the resident family and its servants, had its origins in Pugin’s work. Such a house, as Pugin envisaged it, must function as a coherent whole, inside and out, down to the smallest detail. It was an aspiration made possible by the production of handsome household commodities, priced within the reach of middle-class customers. They were not to be privately commissioned, but ordered from a range of ready-made goods: wallpaper, furniture, light fittings, upholstery, textiles, crockery, door handles, jewellery and clothes, all made according to Pugin’s designs, and manufactured by associates who shared his aims. Pugin did not invent the idea that such items might matter, but he was the first to think that they could count for everybody, not just wealthy clients following the latest vogue. He had no interest in display, and cared nothing for shifting fashions. What made his work remarkable was a conviction that windows, roofs or chairs could embody moral qualities that would never change. He interpreted a Gothic vocabulary in building and the decorative arts as a declaration of loyalty to traditional order, of which the family, united in prayer and work, would be a reflection. His vision of a community of belief finds its most prominent expression in the churches that were his public contribution to the Victorian townscape, but he believed that faith should be as evident in a teacup as in a chalice. His position was extreme, and could lead to absurdity. ‘We must have a turn at CARPETS next – let us reform them altogether.’ Yet the belief that design at its best might amount to more than superficial style is something that is now taken for granted. Pugin’s drive to create a new world from old habits of worship might look naive, but we still owe a great deal to his enterprising fidelity.

One of the many achievements of Rosemary Hill’s masterful biography is that she does justice to the drama of Pugin’s life without losing sight of its gravity. She is not blind to his faults, for it is clear that he could be stubbornly self-involved, and infuriatingly limited in his understanding of his own situation or that of others. But she is on his side, and he emerges from her meticulously researched account as an honest, generous and courageous man. He could not afford to be careless of money; he had a living to earn and a growing family to support. Yet worldly success, personal or professional, was never his priority. It was his refusal to compromise that made his life extraordinary, and finally made it momentous. His confident wilfulness emerged very early, shaped by family circumstances. Born in 1812 (he was an exact contemporary of Dickens), Pugin was an only child, cherished and praised. He was the product of an unlikely alliance between Auguste Pugin, a Parisian illustrator who had escaped revolutionary chaos by moving to London in 1792, and Catherine Welby, the forceful but impoverished daughter of a junior branch of a landowning family in Lincolnshire. Catherine was a serious reader, much affected by a series of iconoclastic texts she encountered early in life, including Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and William Godwin’s Political Justice. She favoured the rights of women (perhaps as a result of reading Mary Wollstonecraft), and briefly attempted to found a Godwinian commonwealth with her brother. She had no time for received opinion, exhibiting an independence of mind that she passed on to her son. Her husband, Auguste, was a skilled and resourceful tradesman rather than a professional, and his financial circumstances were precarious. But he had pretensions to social eminence, and led his family to understand that the French Revolution had deprived him of wealth and distinction (Hill’s investigations suggest that it had not). He too was drawn to new ideas. Both Catherine and Auguste were inclined to the contemporary taste for the Middle Ages, which rapidly became their stock-in-trade. Pugin’s earliest memories were of touring England with his parents, looking at imposing Gothic monuments, and his early work was a practical continuation of the advocation of the Gothic he inherited from his father. If his excesses seem bizarrely alien from the more circumspect social tone that prevailed as the 19th century progressed, it was partly because his identity had been formed long before Victoria came to the throne. In many ways, he remained the child of his parents, more sympathetic to Romantic and Regency modes of thought than to mid-Victorian sobriety.

Auguste’s version of the Gothic idiom was light, elegant and mannered. This did not satisfy Pugin. Like his mother, whose early enthusiasm for Paine and Godwin evolved into a fervent allegiance to the Irvingite sect, he needed transcendence, and searched for an authority that would make his dedication to Gothic design more than the promotion of a passing fad. He found it in the Catholic Church. The religion that won his devotion had built the cathedrals, almshouses, monasteries and chapels that Pugin revered, and his conversion had more to do with architecture than theology: ‘I can assure you after a most close & impartial investigation I feel perfectly convinced the roman Catholick church is the only true one – and the only one in which the grand & sublime style of church architecture can ever be restored.’ The emphasis on restoration had an emotional resonance for Pugin. His decision to become a Catholic followed a period of painful disruption and bereavement. His young wife, Anne, had died shortly after childbirth; his parents, who had been the centre of his life and work, died within months of his becoming a widower. At the age of 21, he was alone in the world, with an infant daughter as the only remaining link with his lost family. The move was more than a wounded retreat into the past, however, and there is no suggestion that Pugin’s commitment ever wavered. Nor did he allow the loss of Anne and his parents to crush him for long. He quickly remarried, choosing as his bride Louisa Button, a tough and resilient young woman from the theatrical world in which he had found his first wife too. She was to become the mother of five children.

Pugin began his independent career with a sense of mission, together with the practical skills he needed to make an immediate impact. Though his formal education had not amounted to anything of intellectual substance, he knew how medieval Gothic buildings had been put together, and was now free to put his ideals into action. His first efforts revealed his inexperience, but also his indomitable nerve. He built a house for himself near Salisbury (or Sarum: Pugin liked to use its ancient name), a town that demonstrated the right architectural credentials in its fine old buildings, crowned by a magnificent cathedral. St Mairie’s Grange, his new home, was equipped (to the amazement of local observers) with a drawbridge, turrets, chapel, sacristy, dry moat, spiral staircase and watchtower. Its interior was illuminated with glowing colours and fine antiquities. A 15th-century gilt chalice was acquired for the chapel, which was further enriched with medieval embroidery that Pugin had bought for the price of its silver thread. The venture was designed to exhibit what Gothic architecture in the contemporary world might mean. As a domestic experiment, it was not successful: it was inconvenient, and proved to be too far from London. It was eventually sold, for much less than it had cost to build. But the experience was fruitful. Pugin began to see what would work, and what wouldn’t. For all its medieval eccentricities, the fundamental pattern of St Mairie’s Grange looked forward to what was to become conventional in the construction of thousands of detached Victorian villas. It was built of red brick rather than the stone or stucco that had previously been favoured, it had a pitched roof rather than pediments, and casement rather than sash windows. Provocatively antiqued, it predicted the future.

Pugin wasn’t trained as an architect, and it showed. But he might have been more cautious and less innovative if he had been assimilated into the profession. Similarly, he had no grasp of historical scholarship, and this too gave him a freedom he might otherwise not have had. Contrasts (1836), the high-spirited book that made his reputation, was a very odd piece of work, largely based on a misapprehension. Pugin’s argument was boldly visual, turning on a juxtaposition of the solid worth of Gothic architecture, with its fertile and humane detail, with the meanly mechanical regulation of Georgian building. The Reformation, he asserted, had destroyed the harmony of faith and charity that had given the medieval aesthetic its vitality. His aim was to show ‘how intimately the fall of architectural art in this country, is connected with the rise of established religion’. He neglected to mention the Renaissance – in 1836 he hadn’t heard of it. Never one to stand on his pride, he cheerfully corrected his error in the second edition of the book in 1841, a fuller and more persuasive statement of his case. Entirely certain of his essential principles, Pugin did not hesitate to modify the particularities of his position when he saw the need. He lamented his earlier blunders (‘I am heartily ashamed of 9 tenths of what I have done’), and took the trouble to learn more about the context of medieval architecture. His mature work moved away from the German models that had first excited him, and renounced the intricacies of late Gothic in favour of simpler lines and more austere decorative models. He learned by working, rather than thinking. His theories, if that is what they were, always followed the hands-on experience of planning and constructing a building. The subtle connections between materials and design, setting and function, couldn’t be measured on paper.

Pugin’s later career passed in a frenzy of activity, exploding into a profusion of competing projects. The mountain of work he undertook for the Palace of Westminster was a constant drain on his energy. Charles Barry exploited his productivity without scruple, providing a meagre return in money or recognition for the drawings that his younger collaborator turned out in staggering abundance. Pugin was vulnerable to such machinations, for he took little interest in furthering his own career. Having failed to win election to the Royal Academy, he recorded a typically laconic response. ‘There is no likelyhood of my ever having any letters after my name unless V.P. (very pointed).’ His mind was usually elsewhere. The febrile wrangling that preoccupied the English Catholic community was a persistent vexation, and he was grieved by the failure of the Tractarians to make common cause with his fellow Catholics. Pugin had been optimistic for the conversion of England, a prospect that had come to seem wholly unrealistic. He worried about his unruly children (‘Edward is not to make fire works on any account’). Still more upsetting were the love affairs that threw him into chaos after the death of Louisa, his second wife. The families of the respectable and well-connected young women he courted towards the end of his life understandably drew back in dismay at the prospect of the unkempt Pugin as a son-in-law. There were several ardent and distressing encounters before he won the hand of Jane Knill, who could supply the domestic security he needed. Even Jane, sensible and self-assured, was soon worn down by the demands of married life. Pugin grumbled about her drooping spirits in pregnancy: ‘Women are never well my wife has not moved off the sofa for a week except to go to bed I never saw the like they are always ill it is dreadful.’

As the pressures of work and disappointment multiplied, Pugin was increasingly ill himself, a fact which he ignored as far as he could. He battled on, with an obstinacy that suggests he knew his time was limited. When the collapse into madness came, it was sudden and calamitous. No treatment could help him. Jane, roused from her sofa by his desperate plight, did her best. He barely knew her in his delirium, but she would not abandon him to the doctors of Bethlem Hospital, defying family and friends to bring him back to the Gothic house he had built for his family in Ramsgate. Briefly lucid on the day before he died, he recognised Jane, and his home: ‘It is a beautiful place is it not?’ He is buried in the chapel he had designed himself, close to his house.