God's Architect: Pugin and the building of Romantic Britain, By Rosemary Hill

In his short career, Pugin designed churches, cathedrals, wallpaper, furniture and even wedding dresses
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Rosemary Hill's title neatly encapsulates the theme of her biography, which depicts Augustus Welby Pugin as a man balancing two obsessions: Gothic architecture and Catholicism. Indeed, he was barely able to separate them, having arrived at the one through the other. "I feel perfectly convinced that the roman Catholick church is the only true one," he wrote to a friend with his usual disregard for spelling and punctuation, "and the only one in which the grand & sublime style of church architecture can ever be restored – A very good chapel is now building in the north & when compleat I certainly think I shall recant."

A tour of England, drawing the "pointed architecture" of churches and cathedrals, had convinced him that everything had gone wrong, in society as well as in its buildings, since the Reformation. And that was that; within a year, he had converted to Catholicism, and was dreaming of reversing 250 years of history. He wanted, in Hill's phrase, to see "the Middle Ages set going again, like a clock that had merely been stopped".

If his change of religious allegiance had a deeper, more spiritual motivation, he never revealed it. It was, however, in tune with the times. The 1830s brought Catholic emancipation and the rise of the Anglo-Catholic Oxford movement within the Church of England, followed by a spate of competitive church-building as the churches belatedly came to terms with the movement of population from the countryside to the towns.

Pugin was well placed to benefit from the boom, but it proved a mixed blessing. Although his energies were prodigious – in a working life of only 16 years he designed five cathedrals and more than 40 churches, as well as innumerable pieces of furniture, tiles, wallpapers, candlesticks and doorknobs – his completed projects were almost invariably compromised. The poverty of his ecclesiastical clients brought endless frustrations, and Pugin was never satisfied with simply building and decorating a church. He also wanted to specify clerical garb and even the details of liturgy, which was another source of conflict at a time when the different strands of Catholicism in England began to assert themselves .

As a boy, he worked with his father, an architectural draughtsman, in creating books of Gothic detail for architects to copy. But his real love was the theatre; he took a job as stagehand and scene-painter at Covent Garden and built an elaborate model theatre in the attic of the family home. In a sense, everything followed from that; he never lost the desire to create visual effects. Many of his designs have been lost, or were never built, but those that survive, for instance at St Giles in Cheadle, in the House of Lords, and at his own home in Ramsgate, are extraordinarily elaborate and vividly polychromatic; too much so for most modern tastes.

But a model theatre is also a good toy for a control freak, and Pugin was nothing if not that. One of the many incidental pleasures of this book is its revelations of how far Pugin was prepared to go to assert his own taste. Not only did he design wedding dresses for his wives and overcoats for his apprentices, he even drew round his daughters' feet as a guide for their bootmaker.

In this intense personal involvement in detail, Pugin was increasingly out of step with mainstream architecture, which was beginning to take on the trappings of a profession. He never, for instance, reconciled himself to working to a contract. His collaboration with Charles Barry on the new Palace of Westminster dominated his working life for many years. He designed much of the interior and the clock tower – "I am the whole machinery of the clock," he boasted – but his ad hoc, piecemeal, even amateurish approach ensured he was never given appropriate credit.

Hill, however, gives short shrift to those who posthumously claimed Pugin as the real architect of the scheme. She is also dismissive of those who would claim Pugin as a kind of proto-modernist on the basis of a few bold and simple pieces of furniture and some statements deploring "artificial" ornament. Instead she places him at the heart of the sentimental Victorian obsession with all things medieval; the visual equivalent to Sir Walter Scott, he forms a bridge between the Georgians and the likes of Ruskin and Morris.

Although she clearly likes and admires Pugin, she is not blind to his failings. Self-educated, and self-taught as an architect, he had curious gaps in his knowledge: he had never heard of the Renaissance, for instance. He was a passionate controversialist in both architecture and religion, but his polemical works tend to be incoherent and self-serving: his theory would follow his practice rather than leading it, and every twist and logical contortion would be hammered home.

This biography is a tremendous achievement, impressively researched, level-headed and stylishly written (although it will help if you can tell a spandrel from a crocket). If it has a failing, it is that Hill cannot cast much light on Pugin's emotional life. As she says, Pugin was "not by nature introspective". Twice widowed, he pursued a doomed love affair before finding a prospective third wife and rapidly transferring his thwarted affections to her. "It was not that Pugin was fickle," she says. "He was always sincerely in love." But we have to take her word for it; the sentiments in his love letters are largely conventional. Nor has she unearthed much evidence for his pre-marital love life, though it proves crucial to her well-argued assertion that this noisily religious man's insanity and death were the result not of overwork – although that can't have helped – but of syphilis.