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Romancing the Stone

Richard Tillinghast

God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain, Allen Lane, 602 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-0713994995

If ever in the history of architecture there was someone who appeared in the right place at the right time with the right vision and skills, surely it was Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, the man who put paid to the Georgian and Regency styles and became the premier architect of the Gothic Revival.

Rosemary Hill, in her exemplary new biography, gives the background against which this son of an émigré Frenchman played a seminal role in transforming the face of architecture across these islands. His works can be seen throughout England and Scotland – in London, first of all, where he designed one of the world’s most instantly recognisable landmarks, the clock tower popularly known as Big Ben, as well as being responsible for much of the detailing and interior decoration of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, for which Sir Charles Barry got most of the credit (including a knighthood), but for which Pugin did the lion’s share of the work. In Birmingham he built St Chad’s, a large urban cathedral. His masterpiece is to be found in Staffordshire, where, given generous backing and a free hand, he built an extraordinary gem of a church, St Giles’s in Cheadle.

Pugin can rightly be said to have changed the architectural face of Ireland too, both with structures he himself designed and built and through his pervasive influence on architects like JJ McCarthy and the many other builders who erected Gothic churches all over the country. In Kildare, St Patrick’s College was built according to plans he drew up; JJ McCarthy built the chapel which was added in the 1870s. In Wexford his buildings are plentiful. He designed the magnificent St Aidan’s Cathedral in Enniscorthy, as well as several others, including St Michael’s Church in Gorey and the chapel of St Peter’s College in Wexford Town. In Waterford he was responsible for the Presentation Convent and for the magnificent banqueting hall at Lismore Castle.

The Gothic Revival had already announced itself in Ireland in the eighteenth century, perhaps most notably in Castle Ward, Co Down, built around 1760 with an unusual, perhaps even unique feature: one facade was built in the Palladian style, the other in the newly fashionable Gothic. John Betjeman, visiting in the 1930s, wrote: “Spent some time in Lady Ward’s boudoir” – a room famous for its fabulous swagged ceiling – “Like sitting under a cow’s udder”. The banqueting hall at Lismore is much more balanced and harmonious, a perfect fantasy vision of medieval splendour.

In the opening years of the nineteenth century, “[a] change,” as Hill puts it, “was coming over the public sensibility, a new feeling for history and a thirst for information about the past. The Middle Ages no longer seemed merely dark and primitive, they were picturesque and romantic.” The craze for things Gothic, as reflected in the building of Castle Ward, was well on its way even before Pugin’s birth in 1812. At that moment the most widely recognised Gothic Revival buildings in England were Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, built in the 1750s, and William Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey, built by James Wyatt between about 1795 and 1813. Gothic and related trends can be perceived, however, not just in architecture, but everywhere in the intellectual fabric of the times. Ideas about aesthetics swept into Britain from Germany through influential thinkers like Coleridge, whose Biographia Literaria gave intellectual support to the new trends in 1817. Everywhere, in both architecture and literature, standards of neoclassical regularity associated with the Augustan age were disappearing in favour of a wilder, freer, more passionate and picturesque sensibility.

The avant garde always finds exemplars for itself in other places and other eras, some in the past, some in the future. The first “new Rome” was Byzantium; the British empire later also saw itself in this role. As readers of the Aeneid know, Virgil rejigged history so that Rome itself could be seen as the successor to Troy. We move forward by looking back. The word romantic itself is derived from the interest shown in medieval romances such as Gawain and the Green Knight and Malory’s Morte D’Arthur by the poets of the period. Keats created a medieval romance of his own in “The Eve of St. Agnes”, as did Coleridge in “Christabel”, rejecting the ubiquitous heroic couplets of the Augustans for earlier forms such as the Spenserian stanza and ballad metre. Pugin’s motto on the medieval-looking coat of arms he designed for himself is En avant.

Certainly the most influential literary exponent of the neo-medievalism associated with the Gothic was Sir Walter Scott, author of the Waverley novels, the first of which appeared two years after Pugin’s birth. Abbotsford, the house he created for himself on the Scottish borders, is a wainscoted Gothic fantasy par excellence, crammed with coats of arms, antlers, medieval swords and suits of armour, old clocks, the lot. Scott’s novels graphically described the interiors where his stories took place. In the fiction, Hill writes, “it was the food, the furniture, the clothes that [readers] were asked to savour, along with the authentic terminology: ‘hangings of sky-blue velvet and silver … chairs of ebony richly carved … silver sconces … Spanish foot cloth … Old English oak … a large … court cupboard … finest tapestry [from] the looms of Flanders’ and so on.” It is almost as though Scott were writing especially for Pugin, because what distinguishes his buildings above all else is his detailed and often breathtakingly beautiful decorative detail. He loved bold primary colours, and was perhaps ultimately more influential as a designer than as an architect.

A popular book that both catered to and helped create this new fascination with the past, replacing the neoclassical urge to reject the Middle Ages in favour of a return to the aesthetic purity of Greece and Rome, was John Britton’s Architectural Antiquities of Great Britain. For exponents of the Picturesque aesthetic associated with Britton’s books, Hill writes: “The cottage and the barn were to them what the Cumberland Beggar and the Idiot Boy were to the poets.” As it happens, a contributor to Britton’s enterprise was Pugin’s father, Auguste, who liked to give the impression that he had been a person of importance in pre-revolutionary France, a count no less. In fact he had been the son of a soldier and had worked as a commercial artist in Paris, producing drawings and engravings for periodicals catering to the trade in luxury goods. In the 1820s, after emigrating to London, he ran a drawing school in Great Russell Street near the British Museum where, as Hill writes,

he simply realized, like many exiles, that given a fresh start it was easier to rise in the world if one implied that one had, in fact, come down. The legend of the émigré Count wandering the streets of London in his tricorn hat, with his muff and gold-topped cane, was handed on by his pupils and passed into myth. It became entwined with the romance of the Gothic Revival, where history and fiction mingle easily. Among the possessions still preserved by Auguste’s descendants is a ring said to bear the secret sign of the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Auguste worked as a draughtsman for the Regency architect John Nash, designer of Regent Street and Regent’s Park in London as well as the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and Lough Cutra Castle just outside Gort, Co Galway. Auguste’s son was, in addition to his skills as an architect and decorator, a passionate satirist, and a favourite target of his venom was what he felt to be the artificialities of the style Nash created.

Pugin’s mother, Catherine Welby Pugin, was the daughter of a long-established family. “There had been Welbys in Lincolnshire before the Conquest,” writes Hill. Catherine was a caustic and outspoken religious enthusiast, a member of a rather odd sect calling itself the Catholic Apostolic Church. While Pugin’s aesthetic leanings and his artistic abilities can be traced to his French father, his expository and propagandistic powers seem to owe much to his English mother. As a pamphleteer and propagandist for the Gothic style, he influenced an entire generation of architects and thinkers. His influence on John Ruskin was immense, though Ruskin, perhaps because of his militant anti-Catholicism, was ungracious enough to denigrate Pugin’s work. When someone mentioned Ruskin’s attacks, Pugin is said to have remarked “Let the fellow build something himself” before turning back to his work.

Pugin’s highly influential book Contrasts, published in 1832, was “tendentious, passionate and plain … an attack on the world of the Regency, that Vanity Fair of stucco-fronted manners, high taste and low principles”. It is easy to see how this sort of attack spoke for the earnestness and moral severity of the Victorian Age, with architecture as synecdoche for a contrast between the moral position of the Middle Ages and that of the spendthrift, decadent period that marked the end of the reign of the Georges. “On comparing the Architectural Works of the present Century with those of the Middle Ages,” wrote Pugin, “the wonderful superiority of the latter must strike every attentive observer.” Contrasts unashamedly invokes Catholic religious feeling:

Here is the brazen font where the waters of baptism wash away the stain of original sin; there stands the gigantic pulpit, from which the sacred truths and ordinances are from time to time proclaimed to the congregated people; behold yonder, resplendent with precious gems, is the high altar, the seat of the most holy mysteries …

For someone who would go on to revolutionise the building of churches throughout the British Isles, the work and study through which Pugin prepared himself for his career was remarkably secular. From an early age he was enthralled by the theatre. As a boy he persuaded his parents to let him build a little theatre in the attic of the house where they lived so he could design stage sets and produce his own plays. Like many another gifted only child, the circumstance of being starved for company and thrown back on his own resources led him to sow through what would now be called creative play the seeds of an enthusiasm which would later become his profession. Impatient with life in the confines of his father’s drawing school, he soon found work for himself in the theatre, working as a set designer in the louche precincts of Drury Lane in London. His parents were alarmed by what they saw as a descent into a highly disreputable world, but were powerless to stop the headstrong young man, who was good at getting his own way.

One of the major satisfactions of Rosemary Hill’s book is that she has taken the trouble and done the necessary research to set her biography convincingly within the surround of the times in which Pugin lived. The nineteenth century was not artistically a great age for the English theatre in the way in the way the previous three centuries had been, with the wealth of new plays written in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, the vitality of Restoration drama after the Puritan clamp-down on anything not sufficiently serious and religious and the great comedies of the eighteenth century stage, with its virtuoso actors like David Garrick. It was rather an age of spectacle, extravaganza and special effects, perhaps preparing the way for Italian grand opera and the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, which were such a feature of cultural life in the late century. Think of the impassioned dinner-table discussion of opera singers in Joyce’s great story “The Dead”.

Victorian enthusiasm for spectacle, grand gesture and large-scale effects no doubt laid the groundwork for our passion for the cinema, even for the Hollywood blockbuster. Here is the fifteen-year-old Pugin: “He was seldom in the office. Still desperately stage-struck, he preferred to hang around in Covent Garden. He was not alone in his enthusiasm for the theatre. His generation grew up in an age of huge auditoria, where spectacle took over from acting, and many of them, including Ruskin and Dickens, were as spellbound as Pugin. This was the heyday of Paganini and Taglioni, of romantic ballet, melodrama and pantomime. It was the moment when stage design became for the first time a profession in its own right, and Pugin decided it was the one for him …” Reading Hill’s book gives one an appreciation of the theatrical nature of architecture, of how important illusion, atmosphere and modulation of space are to the success of a building. And there is no building for which these qualities are more important than the Gothic church or cathedral. It is worth quoting her at slightly greater length on the connection between stage design and architecture:

Pugin learned a great deal from the theatre that he would apply and develop in architecture. One thing in particular … was about the interior division of large three-dimensional spaces. By the time he was working at Covent Garden the stage was 68 feet deep and 82’ 6” wide, the size, if not the shape, of a substantial church. To manage it the designers had begun to use techniques borrowed from Picturesque landscape painting, the wings and flats arranged with irregular masses in receding fields … A three-arched structure divided the stage half-way down to define an interior playing area. It might represent doors or windows; in one case at least, it was actually a Gothic rood screen. The space within a space, the Picturesque ideal of revelation by partial concealment, became one of Pugin’s favourite architectural devices.

When Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, this energetic, passionate and opinionated man was positioned to design works that would embody the style of building and design we see in our minds when we think of the Victorian age. He was responsible for the medieval court, one of the most striking parts of the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, and in fact the gorgeous marble fireplace in the banqueting hall at Lismore Castle came from there. Though not all of Pugin’s commissions were for Catholic churches, many of them were. He had converted at the age of twenty-three, becoming a member of a group Hill calls Romantic Catholics. For him, architecture was inseparable from his religious beliefs and his vision of a unified culture where religion, the community and architecture were of a piece. Like other “Romantics”, Pugin was not an ultramontane but rather an English Catholic. He was loyal to the Sarum rite, the medieval English liturgy; Hill reminds us that the Roman breviary was not introduced into Britain until the reign of Mary I. The rationale of the movement of which Pugin found himself part was to negate the effects of Reformation in England, which had brought about the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII and the introduction of Low Church liturgy and aesthetics. After praising “the natural architecture of our catholic ancestors, here is how he describes the Reformation in an article written for The Dublin Review:

[A] dark speck soon appeared on the horizon, and a whirlwind of destruction arose, and the foundations of this vast fabric were undermined, and the choirs ceased to echo with the sound of praise, and soon they were roofless … and the altars of God were overthrown, and the image of Christ was defaced, and strange ministers stood in the temple of God and mocked the olden solemnity.

On the other hand, Pugin chafed under papal authoritarianism and proceeded as if the hierarchy was irrelevant to what he was trying to do in restoring pure Catholicism to Britain. He wanted an English Catholic Church, not the Church of Rome.

Emancipation in 1829 opened the door to the construction of places of worship for Roman Catholics, and they were especially needed in Ireland. Catholicism had stepped out of the shadows and there were wealthy laymen eager to pay for the construction of new churches. Pugin had a loyal, generous and faithful patron in John Talbot, sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury, whose titles included the earldom of Wexford and Waterford. Through the influence of Shrewsbury, known as the “Good Earl John” and the “millionaire saint”, the young architect secured many commissions in Ireland. Perhaps the best known of the buildings he designed is St Aidan’s Cathedral in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford. Equally magnificent but more difficult of public access is the banqueting hall at Lismore Castle, Co Waterford. I visited St Aidan’s on a bitterly cold afternoon in February and more recently was able to get a closer look both at the banqueting hall and the extraordinary collection of furniture designed by Pugin which has been gathered at Lismore Castle. If there is any truth in it the view that “genius is attention to detail”, both spaces make it abundantly clear that Pugin’s genius lay in his thorough control of every aspect of what we now call interior decoration. In fact to my eye his buildings are more impressive within than without.

Entering St Aidan’s, which was meticulously and faithfully restored in 1994, one finds oneself enveloped in a dark atmosphere of mystery where the light is artfully controlled and the delighted eye moves from one part of the church to another, yet where one never loses a sense of the whole. Pointed arches rising from the pillars which divide the soaring nave from the low aisles unite the peripheral spaces with the main part of the building, which soars with that vertical lift wherein architecture expresses the spiritual nature of Gothic church-building. The low aisles serve the overall design in at least two ways. Their intimate scale, the windows admitting a muted light through stained glass – not the best Pugin was able to command, it must be admitted – allow for clerestory windows along the top of the nave where the glass has been kept clear, thus introducing soft daylight into the building.

Between the bold crossing-supports of the wooden ceiling, the surface is sky blue, dotted with gold stars that reflect the church’s interior light. The lovely round light fixtures which are suspended from the apex of each pointed arch are painted a dramatic red that counterpoints the gold-starred blue ceiling. These individual fittings are just as important as the overall shape of the church. Pugin was a master of the art of interior design who started early, making furniture for Windsor Castle when he was only fifteen. “From an upholstery nail to a rood screen, everything had physical and metaphysical integrity,” writes Rosemary Hill; and one sees proof of that integrity at St Aidan’s.

The crossing, that point in a Gothic church where the nave is perpendicularly intersected by the transepts, is brilliantly decorated with a whole cluster of features that are both beautiful in themselves and filled with spiritual significance. Vatican II eliminated the distinctive separation between people and clergy that lies at the heart of traditionally constructed churches, but that distinction can be seen in St Aidan’s as in other Gothic churches. The crossing is where the people’s nave meets the chancel, set aside for choir and clergy. And it is where the horizontality of the floor plan intersects the verticality of the steeple, supported here by the four powerful pointed arches, all of equal height, with meticulous stenciling applied along the face of each arch.

In this space are placed the carved oak pulpit, sourced in Belgium in the 1840s, and the patterned rug designed by Pugin to lie underneath the altar (I cringed to see it being so vigorously hoovered the Saturday afternoon I visited) and the exaggeratedly vertical bishop’s throne, reminiscent of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s Albert Memorial in Hyde Park, London, with its elaborately Gothic canopy, which here proclaims the power of church hierarchy in the same way Scott’s memorial celebrates the power of the monarchy. Both of them are awesome proclamations of authority, temporal and spiritual. Painted on the massive pillars that support the spire are the names of all the bishops of the diocese from St Aidan on. Their names, painted on scrolls, are flanked by the patterned stenciling that in Pugin’s work prefigures much that flowed from him, such as the Arts and Crafts movement and the Pre-Raphaelites. All these things provide the interior of the church with a medley of materials, colours and surfaces that is at the same time various and harmonious.

Without details like these, a Pugin church would not be what it was designed to be – a space where every surface is elaborated with colour and pattern. Educated in his father’s studio, Pugin was an enthusiastic student of medieval art, and his interior spaces create the vision of heaven on earth that churches offered the faithful before the Reformation. The removal of the elaborate decoration which Pugin designed, which was carried out during the re-ordering of Killarney Cathedral under Bishop Eamon Casey in 1972 and 1973 constitutes one of the greatest acts of vandalism in the history of Irish architecture. It wantonly destroys the architect’s vision. The Victorian plasterwork was almost completely destroyed. The original reredos, altar and screens were ripped out and a new modern altar, pulpit, throne and chairs of Tasmanian oak installed to replace the original Victorian work. In the north transept the former St Patrick’s Altar was removed. A new font consisting of a limestone bowl was fitted into the angle between the south-west pier of the crossing and the first pier of the south nave arcade. Compare this with the lovely Kilkenny marble fonts at Enniscorthy. This radical pillaging of Irish architectural heritage is a monument to arrogance and short-sightedness. By contrast, high marks to the diocese of Wexford for the beautiful job of restoration they have done in Enniscorthy.

Pugin’s life was tragically cut short. He died insane at the age of forty. The accepted view at the time of his death was that he died of overwork. A sixteen-hour working day was the norm for him. It is no exaggeration to suggest that he accomplished a hundred years’ of work in forty. He was frequently ill, and his symptoms strongly suggest that he might have suffered from syphilis contracted through sexual contacts made during his years in Drury Lane. Like many artists who are bursting with creative energy, Pugin had a healthy libido; he had three wives and eight children, if you don’t count at least one other shirt-tail son who moved to America and set up as an architect. Though he was not officially a Pugin descendant, he was acknowledged as such by the large family Pugin sired, and according to Hill, pictures of him show a strong resemblance to the architect, a short but vital-looking man with powerful eyes and a manner worth of his motto, En avant.

Even though he died young, Pugin was already well on his way to being an early example of the celebrity architect who has become a fixture of cultural life in modern times. In Britain perhaps Christopher Wren was the first of these, though architects in his day were just beginning to rise above the level of the builder or the engineer in the eyes of their patrons. Or perhaps John Nash, with his scandalous divorce and his access to the Prince Regent, later George IV, qualifies as the first in a line that would include modern-day figures like Frank Lloyd Wright, Norman Foster and Frank Gehry. Pugin’s tactlessness, loquacity, his tendency to lecture his patrons and bully his employees meant, however, that this great artist never quite succeeded as a professional architect. Unlike his follower Richard Norman Shaw, who had his shirt cuffs made exceptionally wide so that he could sketch out plans for potential patrons seated beside him at dinner parties, Pugin was temperamentally unsuited to running a professional architectural firm. In any case he was, by the standards of any age, “larger than life”, and his biography would make for a fascinating read even if he had not left so many extraordinary buildings behind.


Richard Tillinghast has recently published his eighth book of poems, The New Life. His third book of essays, Finding Ireland: a Poet’s Explorations of Irish Literature and Culture, will be published later this year by the University of Notre Dame Press in the US.

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