Gothic Revival Master
Augustus Welby Pugin put his genius to work from a young age -- Part 1
TopicsArt & Music History
Augustus Welby Pugin is in the news these days in the United Kingdom because he designed Big Ben, icon for the British nation, whose scaffolding has now come down after two years and will reopen this spring.
Pugin (1812-1852; his French name is pronounced “PEW-jin”) was THE Gothic Revivalist. A full biography of him was published in 2007 (Rosemary Hill’s God’s Architect) and another on his architecture in 2021 (Oxford professor David Frazer Lewis’s A.W.N. Pugin). In addition to Big Ben, Pugin designed the Houses of Parliament, for which he made 2,000 drawings; six cathedrals in the UK and Ireland; about five dozen Catholic and Anglican churches in the UK, Ireland, and Australia; and other types of buildings and everything in them: candelabras, tables, chairs, wallpaper, floor tiles, chalices, and stained glass windows. The display of his wares, of his genius, in his “Medieval Court” ensemble at the 1851 Great Exhibition was a huge success. The young Queen Victoria toured it twice.
Soon after I joined the newly-created Pugin Society located in Pugin’s hometown of Ramsgate, UK, (thepuginsociety.co.uk) I started speaking and writing about him. In the past 25 years, I’ve delivered richly illustrated talks at the American Institute of Architects, Harvard, the University of Virginia, and Notre Dame. I’ve published seven essays with several more in preparation. What I want to do here is, first, to focus on Pugin’s youth when it was not at all clear that he would be able to support himself and his family, and then briefly address his legacy in America.
Pugin was one of about ten boys, at any one time, who studied illustration in his Protestant French immigrant father’s home studio in London. It was typical of boys to apprentice with their fathers or other men. From the earliest times in his life, Pugin was meeting, traveling with, working alongside, and living in the same neighborhood as serious students of, and men established in, the businesses of art, portraiture, architecture, theatre, publishing, bookbinding, lithography and literature. Charles Dickens, born the same year as Pugin, lived in the same neighborhood.
When Pugin was 15, he quit his father’s school, but he didn’t just roam London. He continued to draw for his father’s books for pay. And he spent a great deal of time in the British Museum, 50 yards from his home. One day the Royal Goldsmiths saw him at a table there imitating a drawing of Albrecht Dűrer, and they commissioned him, at age 15, to design a jewel-studded Coronation Cup.
What would Pugin do with his great talent? One line of work he tried was stage design, but that did not go very far. He also tried furniture design and manufacture. At the age of just 17, he had enough work to hire two helpers. The creative end of the business went exceedingly well but the financial end exceedingly badly. He went to debtors’ prison. His father, without the funds to pay the debts, embarrassingly solicited funds from his friends.
Take a look at the major events in Pugin’s life from 1831 through 1835, ages 19 through 23, to see some of his trials and tribulations:
Summer 1831: He was shipwrecked.
Fall 1831: He was jailed and, as noted, his father got him out of debtors’ prison.
Spring 1832: He eloped with a woman three years his senior, who was pregnant. His parents agreed to let the couple move in with them.
Spring 1832: While on their honeymoon, the city the couple was visiting was placed under quarantine.
May 27, 1832: His wife died from childbirth, leaving him a single father with a newborn.
Fall 1832: He drew the first of his imaginative, gothic Ideal Schemes (this work continued through 1835) for no pay.
Sept. 1832: With his father’s students and his mother, he visited Wells, UK, where he made drawings, for pay, for his father. He was overwhelmed by the city’s ensemble of medieval buildings. In their conversations, his mother encouraged Pugin, now age 20, in his ideas that would become his illustrated, small but highly influential, book four years later: Contrasts or a Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, and Similar Buildings of the Present Day; Shewing the Present Decay of Taste (self-published in 1836, 2d ed. 1841). (Link: https://archive.org/details/contrastsorparal00pugi_0/page/n11/mode/2up)
Dec. 19, 1832: His father died.
Feb. 1833: He decided to become not just an architect but a Gothic architect. He would engage in self-study. There was, however, at the time, limited consumer demand for Gothic architecture. He created the demand!
April 28, 1833: His mother died.
June 1833: Pugin, a widower with a one-year-old child, remarried.
Summer 1833: He undertook a tour of the UK, searching for “the Beautiful.”
Summer 1834: He undertook a self-study tour of European Gothic architecture.
Sept. 4, 1834: His father’s sister Selina, his favorite aunt, a resident of Ramsgate, died.
Oct. 16, 1834: Pugin visited London and saw the Houses of Parliament burn to the ground. He would make drawings for two different architects for their competition to win the government contract to design the replacements.
April 1835: He moved into the first building he designed, his home, St. Marie’s Grange, Salisbury.
June 6, 1835: He was received into the Catholic Church. One modern-day commentator called it “social suicide.” Catholics were very small in number and were oppressed. There were no large migrations of Catholics into the UK until the potato famine started in 1845. Thousands of Anglicans followed St. John Henry Newman into the Church, but Newman did not convert until ten years after Pugin, in 1845.
In Part 2, I will address the rest of Pugin’s life and his American legacy. (Note: I have also written about Pugin in the American Spectator, the Journal of Sacred Architecture, True Principles, and elsewhere.)
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