Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was a zealot. There had been monomaniacs in architecture before, arguing over the rival claims of Greece and Rome as the correct model for neo-Classicism, for example. But Robert Adam and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart had confined their publicly expressed opinions to matters of style. Pugin wanted to change how his generation went about life. After him, architects would feel free to despise the taste and outlook of their contemporaries, with the sort of arrogance bemoaned by Prince Charles.
In Pugin’s case, recalcitrance was part of the man’s DNA. It gave him the grit to set 19th-century architecture on a new course. He turned the Gothic Revival into a moral crusade, and changed the face of Victorian Britain as a result.
Shortly before his death aged 41, Pugin’s doctor told him he had packed the work of 100 years into his lifetime. He had designed scenery for London theatres. He had gone to sea and been shipwrecked. He had bought and sold Gothic antiquities, brought home from the Continent in his lugger The Caroline. He had written and published several books, championing Gothic as the only possible architecture for a Christian country.
Standing at his drawing desk in his house, The Grange at Ramsgate, without, for the most part, any assistant, he had produced the tsunami of decorative detail that washed bold Gothic pattern into every corner of the Houses of Parliament statues, desks, ceiling bosses, lamps, wallpaper, thrones and inkwells. He had designed country houses for Catholic gentry and churches for Catholic worship. He had built and fitted out a church at his own expense, as part of an envisioned Catholic community based on The Grange.
All of which had been achieved against a background of money worries and personal tragedy, including the death of two wives and the mental deterioration that led him to die insane. Bullish, long-haired, apt to offend conventionally minded contemporaries by his rough clothes and eccentric absence of whisker, Pugin was, by any standards, an extraordinary man.
Born in 1812, Pugin was the son of a French emigré. In London, Auguste Pugin, who did not correct the mistaken impression that he was a French count, found work as an illustrator. There was no money for formal school, but the young Pugin learnt draftsmanship from his father, helping him draw the architectural details in Specimens of Gothic Architecture from the age of 14.
Specimens cleverly took advantage of the growing appetite for the Gothic style, until then constrained by a lack of accurate source material. Soon, he had the job of designing Gothic furniture for Windsor Castle. It was a lot to expect of a 15 year old; in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, he collapsed from overwork.
In his early twenties, Pugin converted to Roman Catholicism. This provided a direct link with what he regarded as the great Age of Faith before the Dissolution of the Monasteries, a time (as he saw it) when charity for the poor had gone hand in hand with sumptuous ritual and soaring architecture. However, it cut him off from the obvious source of rich commissions for a Gothic Revival architect the Church of England, which was just then turning its attention to the dilapidated state of its buildings.
His book Contrasts; or, A Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, and Similar Buildings of the Present Day… explained the degeneracy of architecture in Britain by its want of ‘Catholic feeling’, excoriating Classicism as a pagan style. His first major work was to design Scarisbrick Hall for Charles Scaris-brick, a rich Catholic gentleman who wanted a setting for the Gothic carving he collected. Pugin worked on more than 40 churches, often on squeezed budgets, although achiev-ing a union of decoration and architecture at St Chad’s, Birmingham, St Giles’ Cheadle and his own St Augustine’s, Ramsgate (pictured).