DESIGN / A revivalist wins on points: Augustus Pugin was responsible for a lot more than the Gothic spires of the Houses of Parliament. Tanya Harrod reassesses his impact

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The Independent Culture
THE V & A has recently concentrated its energies on a series of much-needed new interpretative galleries, but a worrying 10 years have passed since the museum last mounted a large-scale scholarly exhibition drawing on all the expertise of its curators. Now we have 'Pugin: A Gothic Passion', a timely and inspired choice. Pugin is important, but most of us have forgotten why. His reputation, outside a scholarly and, inevitably, rather small band of admirers, has hardly developed since the V & A put on its impressive 'Victorian Church Art' in 1971. Despite the researches of Alexandra Wedgwood and Clive Wainwright, the only cheap, readily available book on Pugin has long been Phoebe Stanton's austere study, concentrating exclusively on his architecture. Thankfully, what promises to be a remarkable interpretative study by Rosemary Hill is now well under way. And no one has needed a sensitive biography more than Pugin -

to rescue him from dim memories of encaustic tiles, and from a shadowy existence as the originator of ideas developed more fully by John Ruskin and William Morris.

Rightly, then, this exhibition has a strong biographical thrust that displays and contextualises his prodigious output - above all his designs for ecclesiastical art, tiles, textiles, furniture and wallpapers. And rightly, I think, his architecture takes second place. We get a vivid picture of the man, his eccentric dress, his exuberance, his passion for sailing, his home life. He comes over as a fascinating hybrid. A 'modern' architect and designer, travelling by rail to visit sites and clients and manufacturers, he was also, as Clive Wainwright argues in an excellent accompanying book of essays, a figure from the Romantic Age, who worked alone and was closer in spirit to Scott or Byron than to High Victorian architects, with their frock coats and well-staffed drawing offices. But the exhibition struggles when it comes to conveying the deep seriousness of Pugin's religious feeling. For it was religious passion that transformed Pugin from a brilliant, facile, boy designer and draughtsman, very much at his father's service, into the ardent young man who created a visual presence for the Roman Catholic revival.

The period immediately after the 1829 Act of Catholic Emancipation was a golden dawn for Roman Catholics in England - emancipation and the influx of a huge Irish Catholic immigrant population brought new converts and new responsibilities. For Pugin, the impetus to convert seems to have been partly aesthetic - the inspiration of pre-Reformation architecture - and partly radical: a dissatisfaction with a complacent Church and State. And his mother had introduced him as a child to a strain of Calvinist fanaticism that had an obvious effect on the kind of Catholic he became.

Pugin's relations with his adopted church were stormy. Because he was an aesthete, there was an exclusivity about his religious vision which might have seemed trivial to non-artists. For instance, there was his insistence upon rood screens to reserve the chancel as a sacred place for the clergy alone: when he saw Cardinal Wiseman showing two ladies round the chancel of one of his churches, he was reduced to angry tears by the impiety. By 1851 he felt wounded and let down by the leaders of the Catholic hierarchy in England. Wiseman, Newman and Faber had little interest in medieval niceties, and Wiseman's taste was distinctly florid and Italianate. Pugin's tenderest relations were therefore not with the priesthood but with two Roman Catholic aristocrats, Lord Shrewsbury and the convert Ambrose Phillipps de Lisle. They shared his love of Christian medieval art, and for them he built and made his most inspired work. The magnificent reredos from Lord Shrewsbury's Alton Towers chapel is surely rightly attributed to Pugin. It includes Flemish-looking donor portraits and shows - as does the West Tofts rood screen - how effectively and glamorously Pugin could reinvent the past.

Pugin's religiosity may have been rooted in Romantic medievalism, but, when it came to design and manufacture, he was far less of an exclusivist than William Morris and his Arts and Crafts followers. Although the visual propaganda of Pugin's most famous manifesto, Contrasts, argued that 14th- century society was more humane

and charitable than early Victorian England, Pugin shared none of that anti-industrialist Arts and Crafts concern for joy in labour which led finally into the exotic backwaters of the 20th- century craft movement. Pugin's designs were carried out using the most advanced technology of the day. Technological innovation lay behind the tiles - a blaze of colour in the exhibition - produced to his designs by Herbert Minton. His endless, inventive designs for metalwork were made in Birmingham - the kind of polluted, overcrowded conurbation so deplored in Contrasts - using methods that would have been repugnant to late- 19th-century artist-craftsmen like Ashbee. Most of it was gilded or silvered base-metal, which was machine-made - spun on lathes, electroformed, die- stamped or cast.

The exhibition includes a chandelier, made for Alton Towers, of remarkable beauty and elegance. But because it is visibly bolted together and made up of mass-produced brass rods and machine-formed foliage, it neatly illustrates how Pugin never shrank from machine production. Again, the enamelling for his jewellery and more lavish ecclesiastical creations had none of the amateurish tendresse of Arts and Crafts work. It was perfect, with some of the hardness that comes with perfection.

One section of this exhibition reveals Pugin's practical modernism in action. The success of his interiors for the Houses of Parliament may be measured by the fact that more than 2,000 examples of furnishing and fittings - from thrones to ingeniously designed noticeboards - are still in daily use. But the culmination of his business- like contemporaneity is demonstrated by Pugin's Medieval Court at the Great Exhibition of 1851, which is skilfully recreated at the V & A. Morris refused to go round the Great Exhibition, Ruskin abhorred it. Pugin also disliked Paxton's iron-and-glass structure, but he was an active participant in the exhibition. The Medieval Court, displaying the full range of his designs for manufacture, was one of the sights of the Great Exhibition and won numerous medals. There is something ironical about this success. Pugin's designs often don't look machine-made, and because of their medieval inspiration it could be argued that they contained the seeds of a later, damaging, English anti-industrial spirit.

So why bother about Pugin? First, because he was a great, inventive industrial designer who knew how to get the best out of flexible, skilled manufacturers. There is a 20th-century lesson for us here - we still have the designers but have lost the manufacturers. And secondly, his religious sensibility led him to conflate morals and art. He was hardly the first writer on architecture and design to do so, but in such works as his True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture, he did it so effectively that he inspired some of the most prescriptive architectural theory of the following century. At the V & A, that particular bitter pill is sweetened by the architect John Outram's eclectic design. Whether Outram elucidates Pugin's True Principles is questionable, but the gloriously camp audacity of his setting for Pugin's art should draw the crowds and win a wider audience for this contradictory genius.

'Pugin: A Gothic Passion': Victoria &Albert Museum, SW7, 071-938 8500, to 11 Sept. The accompanying collection of essays with the same title is published by Yale University Press, price pounds 19.95.

(Photographs omitted)