Augustus Pugin: A Passion for Gothic

Dr Gerard Hyland, our final speaker of the summer season, gave a fact-crammed talk to a full house at St Mary's about Augustus Welby Northmoor Pugin (A.W.N Pugin) in late July. Who was Pugin? In short, he was a complex, devoutly Christian, early Victorian decorative designer and architect and, most importantly, the "high priest" of England's Gothic Revival. Born in 1812, he was the only child of Auguste Pugin (an architectural draughtsman and illustrator) and Catherine Welby. He was educated at home and at his father's drawing school, before attending Christ's Hospital School. His architectural and design skills showed at an early age; his first church designs were prepared when he was just nine years old! By 1827, when he was fifteen, he was undertaking the design of furniture and silver plate for Windsor Castle. Later he was to become a stage hand and scenery designer and toyed with establishing his own furniture business. By 1833, in his early twenties, he married Anne Garnett, who sadly died in childbirth. That same year his father also died, followed by his mother a year later. He subsequently married Louisa Button and moved to Ramsgate, deciding to become an architect. Whilst there, his sole relative, Aunt Selina, died, leaving him comfortably off. This allowed him to concentrate on developing his principles of architectural design. Returning to Chelsea from Ramsgate, his main period of intense design activity began.

It was about this time that Pugin met four men who were to change his life. The most important was his patron, John Talbot, Lord Shrewsbury, resident at Alton Towers. An ardent benefactor, from him Pugin received many commissions for the design or redesign of ecclesiastical buildings. Lord Shrewsbury also opened the door to many commissions from landed gentry. If Pugin prepared the designs, it was George Myers, a blunt Yorkshire builder, who turned them into buildings; for he had an uncanny knack of understanding Pugin's requirements from the sketchiest of schemes. He was supported by John Hardman who, with Pugin's support, expanded his family business to include the manufacture of ecclesiastical metalwork and, eventually, stained glass. Hardman also worked with Herbert Minton, who became the supplier of encaustic tiles for Pugin's schemes. However, one person had a particularly strong, and some say malevolent, influence on him. This was the Rev. Dr Daniel Rock, the domestic chaplain at Alton Towers. A noted antiquarian and liturgical scholar, he exerted a strong influence on Pugin's ecclesiology. Dr Rock was an ardent proponent of the revival of the Sarum Rite. This evolved in the eleventh century and required that churches be configured to reflect the form of service. Each church should include a chancel, altar, Easter sepulchre and stepped sedilia, all to be set apart from the nave by a rood screen. Pugin's churches almost always reflect these principles.

Pugin's views on church design carry over into his wider views on the design of secular buildings. To quote Gerard Hyland, "He reset the country's architectural compass". In a series of books, he exposed what he considered to be the deceitfulness of contemporary neo-classical architecture, which he felt reflected the decadence of Georgian Society. This was displayed by the use of what he called "sham devices" (eg. fake windows for symmetry, brick stuccoed and incised to look like blocks of stone, church domes with false lower ceilings). There should, he said, be no unnecessary features; ornament should be for the enrichment of the essential construction of the building. Gothic was "honest and truthful" and hence was an ethical system of architecture. Pugin fixed in people's minds what both English churches and secular buildings should look like and how they should be furnished. Moreover, he fostered the development of the crafts movement in the decoration of his churches to his designs. With secular buildings, Pugin revolutionised domestic Victorian architecture by giving priority to interior function and letting the exterior be its reflection. This "designing from the inside out" was the opposite of neo-classical architecture with its predilection for external symmetry.

His years of maximum output were short, being limited to 1839-45. During that period, he designed and built 45 places of worship, 7 convents, 3 schools and 11 houses. In 1844, his wife, Louisa, died, leaving him to look after six children. He remarried, to Jane Knill the following year, whilst, locally, his church for Lord Shrewbury at Cheadle (St Giles's) was completed. He also progressed the building of his own church, St Augustine's, at Ramsgate, unfettered by the requirements of any client. He was consulted by Scott on the design and decoration of the new Houses of Parliament and, belatedly, he is now credited with the interior design of the House of Lords and of the overall design of Big Ben clock tower. However, in failing health, his workload declined. His predilection for Sarum Rite church design also became unfashionable. He died in 1852, aged just forty years.

A man of immense output and drive (altogether, he designed 132 buildings including 70 churches), his influence remains very much with us today. Here in Staffordshire, we find at 31, the largest number of his works in any county. St Giles's at Cheadle is well known. The interior decorative design, so much its trademark, was not supported by Pugin, but applied at Lord Shrewsbury's request as sponsor. St Mary's, Brewood and St Mary's at Uttoxeter are also good examples of his work. In concluding, Gerard Hyland remarked that the ultimate irony was that his design principles were realised to a much greater extent in Anglican Churches than ever was the case in Catholic ones, because of a popular move toward a more traditional configuration in Anglican churches and a growing Catholic clerical preference for neo-classical (ie. Roman) architecture.

Roger Hockney
July 2015