Who was Pugin (Augustus Welby Northmore)? Gothic dreamer or genius?

(1 March 1812 – 14 September 1852, aged 40)

Do you ever think about the people you would invite to a fantasy dinner party?  I do, and Pugin wouldn’t be on that list.  You see,  I don’t really like any form of ‘revivalist’ gothic architecture.   I’m willing to change my mind (and I haven’t yet been to Strawberry Hill), but for now I stand by the phrase “I just don’t like it”.

However, I did bump into Pugin at Chirk Castle (about which more next week) and he kept floating across my horizon from time to time; so I thought I’d read a little about him (in the faith of the saying “if you know a man’s story you can learn to love him“).

Pugin was a Gothic Revivalist, knows best for “Big Ben” clock tower of the Palace of Westminster and providing Charles Barry (yes, he of Highclere fame) with pictures for the interior of the Houses of Parliament.  He achieved a lot in little over 15 years of his working life, dying at 40.

It is in part he who is responsible for the great number of gothic churches that litter the English landscape.

Born in London, the son of a French draughtsman, he converted to Roman Catholicism and had learned to draw from his father, using pictures of gothic buildings to copy.  He went on to publish volumes of gothic drawings, and the thing I remember most about Pugin is that I was told he disliked how other architects would embellish buildings with the gothic but fail to build in gothic.  He, rather, decided to build gothic, inside and out.

Pugin would look at a Georgian building with its stucco front hiding a shambolic brick structure put up in haste by a speculative builder, its mock columns supporting nothing and its grand frontage no deeper than a single room and see something corrupt about the building.  He believed in revealed construction and wrapping construction around an interior space.  You can see this at the house he lived in for the last eight years of his life at The Grange, Ramsgate.  The Landmark Trust have recently put it back into its original state, diagonal “jewel-like” wallpaper and all.

Pugin’s would say Christian beliefs are intrinsically Gothic and the faith’s buildings should reflect this.

Well, while seeking to avoid a debate about the purpose of any religious building, not least a Christian one, nevertheless the English still today perceive the archetypal church as gothic, embracing gargoyles, elaborate rose windows and carved stonework with thick oak furniture sitting in its belly.

Have a go, ask someone to draw an English church for you and see if it has arched windows and a tall spire.

I’m not saying Pugin is entirely responsible for the gothicisation of our village churches (and also the number of high roofs and higgledy piggledy windows on 20th century houses), but the prolific building of structures in the gothic form has allowed it to enter silently into our conscious, just as Georgian symmetry is accepted by many as the perfect house.  After Pugin the world of architecture saw George Gilbert Scott and Edwin Lutyens, for whom a path had arguably been laid.  Did William Morris continue in his footsteps in the world of interiors?

Perhaps Pugin is no more responsible for gothic architecture than Lord Burlington and his cronies for classicism.  One strips back complexity on its face so it true nature of underpinning mathematics is concealed, the other embellishes its form with every twizzle possible, yet both were competing in a similar period of architectural and interior design development, as we’ll see at Chirk next week….

One thought on “Who was Pugin (Augustus Welby Northmore)? Gothic dreamer or genius?

  1. I think you make some good points in this post. of course whether somebody likes a particular architectural style or not comes down to a matter of taste and personal preference. I’m not as anti Gothic as you clearly are. I don’t mind it if it’s authentic medieval architecture and I like some Victorian neo-gothic buildings – there’s some “Venetian Gothic” buildings in Manchester I find attractive – but like in many things the Victorians had a tendency to go over the top with their embellishments.

    I’m 100% with you about churches, though.I’ve always lived in the north west of England where there was a major church building programme in the 19 th Century and the overwhelming majority are Gothic. Old medieval churches were renovated during this period and the Victorians had to make them fit their stereotype of what a medieval church ought to look like, adding new “Gothic” features and ornamentation. Those churches built in other styles from earlier periods stick out like a sore thumb.

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