God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain by Rosemary Hill
Reviewed by Peter Mandler
Times Literary Supplement
One of the heart-warming things about the Victorians is how generous they were in their choice of heroes. The same bourgeois philistine could find himself one week worshipping an exotic Oriental dandy such as Benjamin Disraeli, and the next a manly Christian gentleman such as David Livingstone. In many ways, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin united both models in one brief life -- though this promiscuity of character may have limited rather than extended his heroic potential.
Like Disraeli, Pugin imagined for himself a romantic foreign history: a long line of royalist Comtes de Pugin, a noble father exiled by the French Revolution, a family crest and signet ring ostentatiously sported in evidence. In fact, his father Auguste came from a long line of Parisian artisans in the luxury trades, self-exiled probably in search of better trading conditions. Auguste's bumpy English career as an architectural draughtsman at best permitted only a shabby-genteel lifestyle, but the raffish world of late-Georgian Bloomsbury in which he worked allowed him sufficient artistic license to sustain an air of mystery, and his marriage into very minor Lincolnshire gentry added further resources, not least a fiercely intelligent and ambitious wife, Catherine Welby, without too much respectability. In this decidedly louche environment Augustus grew up quickly. In his father's workshop he learned to draw. Hanging around backstage at the theatre, he learned about sets, and actresses, and sex. It is possible his first child was conceived in a tumble with a dancer in a darkened theatre box, after the last show. When they married, as was not uncommon at the time, the bride was heavily pregnant. By November 1829, aged seventeen, he had opened his own carpentry-and-joinery workshop in Hart Street, literally at the Covent Garden stage door. By the age of twenty-one, he had lost both parents and his first wife, but gained a second, possibly another dancer. For a time they lived at Ramsgate, inaugurating Pugin's long association with that seaside town; he took up sailing, and all his life was said to dress like a sailor, almost piratical.
So far, so swashbuckling. But already the Christian gentleman had begun to emerge. Part of Pugin's attraction to the sailor's life came from his restless search for the true simplicity that might lie beneath the shams of modern cosmopolitanism. While knocking up all sorts of Gothic nonsense for homes and theatres, catering to the fashion of the day, he began to take the medieval forms and formularies deathly seriously in a way that was not common in Bloomsbury or Covent Garden, nor in respectable Ramsgate. With furious energy he drew up "Ideal Schemes" of richly imagined high-medieval ensembles, human, social, decorative and architectural. Gradually he came to inhabit an "Ideal Scheme" himself, building for his young family the first of his trail-blazing open-plan villas, outside Salisbury and, spiritually, joining the Roman Catholic Church there. Fortunately for Pugin, the English Catholic Church of the 1830s was closer to his "Ideal Scheme" of manly simplicity, spiritual unworldliness and egalitarian community than any Catholic Church in Europe. The Salisbury community, as described by Rosemary Hill in God's Architect, sounds more like a band of John Bunyan's Nonconformist Pilgrims than the limp-wristed, incense-drenched Romanists that haunted the Victorians' nightmares. In the same way, the ideal Catholic community that Pugin illustrated in his most famous work, Contrasts, published at this time (1836), "passionate and plain", bore very little resemblance to the historical Catholic world of the previous 300 years. As Hill nicely points out, Pugin at this time hardly seemed aware of the existence of the Renaissance. And, again, he owed to his Protestant homeland an almost complete absence of Baroque and Rococo architecture to unsettle his medieval dream of Catholicism.
But then, Protestants were to prove just as eager as Catholics to embrace Pugin's dream, at least as it was played out in ironwork and glass, wood and stone, beam and pillar. The generalized piety and good solid construction of the Gothic had general appeal; it felt more national and even more democratic than the effete classical alternatives. It was a Liberal Anglican Parliament, not a neo-feudal Catholic prince, that specified its new palace should be constructed in a Gothic or Elizabethan style, providing Pugin with his greatest career opportunity. It helped that the official winner of the competition was the respectable High Society architect Charles Barry. Pugin's role was diplomatically played down at the time. On the whole, Hill clears Barry of any mean-spiritedness in this respect -- he often tried to protect Pugin from himself -- but he did exploit the younger man's astonishing productivity as a designer, squeezing every last quatrefoil he could out of him until practically his dying breath, and at shockingly cheap rates. Even when (as happened often) Pugin insisted on advertising his outrageous Catholic fantasies in the newspapers and in polemical pamphlets, most Protestants seemed happy to accept his honest Gothic adornment for their national palace, and to welcome his ideals of construction and decoration into their own homes. In the celebrated network of craftsmen to whom Pugin supplied designs, there were, equally, Catholics like the ironworking Hardmans and the builder George Myers, and Protestants like the ceramicist Minton and the decorator Crace.
Like any good jobbing artisan, Pugin took his commissions where he could find them; in any case, he was such a driven man, whether by angels or demons, that he could hardly ever say no. Nevertheless, at the height of his professional productivity, in the early 1840s, he wished passionately to be only a Catholic architect. One might say that at this point his Disraelian side resurfaced. The times were propitious. A sense of social disorder among the masses (triggered by Chartism inter alia), but also of fresh lights and new energy among the elites, galvanized all sorts of dreamy projects. Disraeli showed his own Disraelian side to best advantage at this juncture, sloganeering extravagantly on behalf of his "Young England" coterie for a newly chivalric, newly nationalist Toryism. One of that coterie, Lord John Manners, was said at the time to be rather a "Puginite".
Puginites were certainly multiplying. As Tractarians trickled over to the Roman side and the Church of England seemed to be losing its nerve, there was a little wave of Catholic triumphalism in which Pugin allowed himself to luxuriate. He had found his own Catholic prince, the Earl of Shrewsbury, for whom he designed cathedrals and monasteries and worked endlessly on another palace, Alton Towers. Having moved to Ramsgate, Pugin built for himself another "Ideal Scheme" in which his own villa stood at the centre of a medieval complex of church and cloister. However, when he was in rampant mood, he could make it difficult for others to be Puginites. He chose this moment to champion the one architectural detail that most Protestants associated with the worst of Catholicism -- the rood screen -- that highly symbolic barrier between the priest in his sanctuary and the congregation in the body of the church. The Tractarian converts were horrified; this was not the modern Catholic Church which they thought they had joined. But Pugin was no modern Catholic.
And yet, towards the end of his life, he began to lean again in the other direction, back towards an almost puritanical simplicity. As Hill argues, the young Pugin had never really been the bald functionalist -- the precursor of modernism -- that later modernists sometimes imagined; his loyalties were to the Middle Ages, only incidentally functionalist. In the late 1840s, though, she allows that his thinking had moved on. A rising generation of Gothic architects -- the likes of George Gilbert Scott, G. E. Street, William Butterfield -- were improvising their own versions of the Gothic. Antiquarian faithfulness was giving way to interpretation. Pugin responded in kind. As early as 1841-2, in a new edition of Contrasts, in his second most celebrated statement, The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841), and in other writing, he had begun to shift his vocabulary away from straightforward medievalism towards something more directly applicable to the challenges of the present, sympathizing with the younger generation's appetite for "plainness, simplicity, severity" in a modern idiom. "The adjective 'natural', rather than 'Catholic' or 'Christian', applied to Gothic architecture", Hill says of Pugin's writing in 1842, "was new and significant". Clearly not yet fully present in The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture, the new vocabulary stressed materials, their "intrinsic qualities", the ways in which design could show them off or bring them out, and, by 1845, the ways in which new building forms and new materials could be brought together into "natural" creations that were also truly modern. The railway stations he encountered on a Continental tour in that summer were, he wrote to Barry, "beautiful -- all constructive principle". "It was now", Hill concludes, "that he began to be -- in some respects -- what Pevsner might have called a protofunctionalist", though he left little trace of this final phase and Pevsner based his judgements on work and writing to which they were less clearly applicable.
To some extent, this last, exciting shift in Pugin's leanings was triggered by his sensitivity to the new leadership needed by the younger generation; he was also chafing (to put it mildly) at his continuing subordination to Barry on the Houses of Parliament project, and at Barry's increasingly unreal use of his Gothic ornament slapped onto a jarringly unsympathetic structure. But it is not fanciful to connect his shift with wider doubts about Romanism, triggered by the ultramontane tendencies of the new converts from Anglicanism -- which Pugin felt were ruining his lovely old English Catholic Church -- and by the increasingly shrill anti-Catholic reactions from within English Protestantism that were peaking at the end of his life. He began to see that some of his truest disciples were Anglicans; indeed, many were liberals. Nor should we blame him if, nearing the age of forty, he was keen to taste some of the fruits of celebrity. In any case, he worked surprisingly happily with the design reformers Henry Cole and Richard Redgrave on the Great Exhibition, and was delighted to join the small committee charged with purchasing items from the Exhibition for the national collections. One-third of the monies spent for this purpose on "buying British" went on Pugin's own products, thus ensuring him at least one lasting memorial at the heart of the Establishment.
God knows, he needed that memorial. He was not to survive to lead the "developmental" Goths as he had done the antiquarian ones. Hill speculates that his loose youth caught up with him; syphilis seems a likely diagnosis of the miserable symptoms that dogged his final years, put him in Bethlem not long after his fortieth birthday, and finished him off a few months later, leaving a third wife and more small children. In his own lifetime, he had got precious little recognition. Hill illustrates amply why this was, due not only to his cussedly idiosyncratic Catholicism, his tempestuous personality, his nearly illiterate polemics, but also to the very oscillations between the poles of his complex aesthetic which wrong-footed even his best friends. How puzzled George Gilbert Scott must have been when proudly building an Anglican church in Ramsgate in pure Pugin style, authentically medieval, only to find that the Catholic church Pugin was building, a stone's throw away, was in the new Pugin style, muscular and asymmetrical, not medieval at all. For a wider public, it must have been even more confusing. Which was the true Pugin -- the Catholic or the Puritan? -- either would do, but a puritan Catholic, leaning now this way, now that, was too hard to fathom.
Fathoming Pugin is just what Rosemary Hill has done. She writes passionately about a passionate man, sympathetically about an often unsympathetic one, always with fairness as well as engagement. Her treatment of the Pugin-Barry relationship, a minefield of prejudice and partisanship, is exemplary. Her architectural criticism seems, to a non- specialist reader, technically sharp, but most importantly to that reader it consistently comes alive. To be sure, she gives the influence and the legacy short shrift, and some of Pugin's less admirable associates may get more credit than they are due; "benign" is the softening adjective that she applies quite frequently to some of the loonier neo-feudalists of the day. But God's Architect is, triumphantly, a biography, not a "life and times" nor an architectural history (and yet even Hill's architectural history gives a fair estimate of Pevsner, another notorious minefield). For once, a long biography of a short life seems not a page too long -- if anything, too short, such are the pleasures of life with her Pugin. It is almost certainly vastly more pleasurable to live with Pugin through Rosemary Hill's lucid and moving prose than to have had to live with the semi-deranged sailor in real life.
Peter Mandler teaches Modern History at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. His recent books include The English National Character: The history of an idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair, published last year.