Convent a draw for homeless and art lovers: A 19th-century designer returning to prominence inspires devotion among collectors. Dalya Alberge reports

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The Independent Online
THEY are paupers, but they eat off tables fit for a prince. Every lunchtime, about 20 homeless people shuffle into the Convent of Mercy in Birmingham for food and drink.

They sit at refectory tables surrounded by simple oak panelling: the convent and its furniture were designed by A W N Pugin, one of the most influential 19th century architect-designers - the father of the Victorian gothic revival who, with Charles Barry, designed the Houses of Parliament.

In also offering sustenance of the artistic kind, the convent fulfils the relatively small number of scholars and collectors with a passion for Pugin. Some devote their lives to studying and collecting him.

This Pugin circle is likely to be widened with a long overdue major exhibition sponsored by Pearson, which opens at the Victoria & Albert Museum on 15 June. The show will reflect Pugin's passion for applying the principles of medieval art and architecture to modern design, and explore his influence on designers such as William Morris, who have overshadowed him.

Paul Atterbury, in curating the exhibition, found that there was no shortage of potential exhibits as few artists were as prolific as Pugin. Before his sudden death in 1852 at the age of 40 - exhaustion and mercury poisoning having taken their toll - he left some 20,000 drawings; architectural designs for more than 100 buildings including St Giles, Cheadle, and St Barnabas, Nottingham; his ceramics and furniture, and his writings (eight books), tapestries and stained-glass work.

Among lenders to the exhibition is John Scott, a property developer. Every conceivable space in his Victorian home is given over to something Puginesque.

No corner of any room is left empty and hundreds of tiles are stacked up on racks, overlapping one another. Even the doorknobs include one delicately shaped by Pugin into a cluster of garlic cloves. The house, which bears few signs of the 20th century, has the ordered chaos of a museum storeroom: every item has been carefully catalogued.

However, Mr Scott's Japanese wife, Takako, finds it all a little claustrophobic: she jokes of one day having a bare Japanese-style room with little more than a single table: 'This is hectic to clean. John is the art collector; I'm the dust collector.'

This seems to be Pugin's year. Apart from the V & A exhibition, Bonhams is including him in a gothic art sale on 20 June. At the Grosvenor House Art and Antiques Fair, from 9 June, the furniture dealers Blairman & Sons will exhibit a unique Pugin discovery - a Gothic piano with the most intricately-carved frame. News of such an important find will be music to the fanatics' ears.

(Photograph omitted)