March 1st marks the birthday of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812 –1852), the London-born architect, designer, artist and critic. Today Pugin is remembered for his role in championing the Gothic Revival style. From the Houses of Parliament to Alton Towers, churches and cathedrals around the country, to the furnishings in suburban family houses, throughout his short life Pugin blazed a trail with his visionary Gothic architecture.
Pugin was the son of a French draughtsman, Auguste Pugin. As a boy, he travelled through England and France with his father who was making architectural drawings of medieval and ecclesiastical buildings. It was these visits that inspired Pugin’s idea of the Gothic. His had little formal education; attending Christ’s Hospital school in London for a brief time. From an early age he was fascinated by medieval architecture and drawing. Whilst working in his father’s office after leaving school, he gradually made contacts and gained commissions from furniture designers, upholsterers, goldsmiths and even designed theatre scenery at Covent Garden. The young Pugin’s career as an independent designer began in 1827 with two very grand commissions for George IV. The first was to design church plate for St Georges’s Chapel, Windsor. He was then engaged as a craftsman by the upholsterers Morel and Seddon to furnish the new apartments at Windsor Castle. He set up his own business supplying carved wood and stone details for the increasing number of buildings being built in the Gothic style, but that business failed in 1831 largely due to his lack of experience. In that same year he married Anne Garnet who died in childbirth the following year, leaving him with a daughter.
In 1832 John Talbot, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, employed him to make alterations and additions to his large residence, Alton Towers, which subsequently led to many other commissions, including St. Giles’ Catholic Church, Cheadle, which was completed in 1846.
After his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1835, he published 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. (1836). The book ‘contrasts’, drawings of satirical comparisons between beautiful types of medieval buildings such as parish churches, chapels, town halls, public inns etc. and their early nineteenth-century counterparts. It argued that since gothic was an expression of a Roman Catholic society, only such a society could produce true gothic. He continued to expand upon this theme in True Principles of Pointed Architecture (1841)
In 1835 he built himself a house, St Marie’s Grange, Alderbury, near Salisbury. Whilst working for the architects James Gillespie Graham and Charles Barry (1795–1860), both asked Pugin to create Gothic furnishing and decorations for their buildings. In the autumn of that year he drew the competition entries for both men for the new houses of parliament. In January 1836 Barry was declared the winner and Pugin continued to help him for a further year with the drawings needed for the preparation of the estimate.
Pugin had a strong influence on John Ruskin and some of the early figures in the Arts and Crafts Movement. Apart from his work on the Houses of Parliament, he designed over a hundred buildings, mainly churches, and his work includes several Roman Catholic cathedrals, including St Ostwald’s in Liverpool, and St. Chad’s in Birmingham. He also designed Scarisbrick Hall in Lancashire. In Pugin’s eyes the medieval age represented a lost age of chivalry and a time of moral harmony, as opposed to the ugly city slums and factories of the Victorian age. Driven by his religious passions, his aim was create not just a great country but a good and moral one.
In 1841, quickly becoming a leading architect for new Roman Catholic churches and with a growing architectural business, Pugin and his second wife Louisa moved from their Salisbury home to Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. His first important commissions were for St Mary’s Church, Derby (1837–9), and St Alban’s, Macclesfield (1839–41). He also purchased a piece of land at the West Cliff, Ramsgate, where he proceeded to build himself a large house and a church on which he worked whenever funds allowed. Pugin’s private life was thrown into turmoil after the sudden death of Louisa in August 1844. In November that year he proposed to Mary Amherst, the sister of the future Roman Catholic bishop of Nottingham. Mary accepted him at first even though her family disapproved as they felt Pugin was socially inferior, but in May 1846 she entered the convent of the Sisters of Providence at Loughborough. After this disappointment, he met Helen Lumsdaine, daughter of the rector of Upper Hardres-with-Stelling, in Kent. He proposed to her in November 1847 and they became engaged the following January but this also ended in failure in April, due her father’s opposition to her becoming a Roman Catholic. Eventually, in July 1848, he became engaged to Jane Knill (1825–1909) and they were married on 10 August 1848. She brought stability to his final years and Pugin spent more time at home, conducting much of his work by post. The marriage produced two children.
After Louisa’s death Pugin received a letter from Sir Charles Barry on 3 September 1844, asking for his help with the fittings and metalwork for the House of Lords. He returned to work at the houses of parliament, which became one of his major occupations until the end of his life. He also continued to write, producing amongst other works, An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England (1843), Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament and Costume (1844), and Floriated Ornament (1849).
Pugin’s final home , which he designed himself, was St. Augustine’s (The Grange) in Ramsgate. The nearby St. Augustine’s church which he both built and funded, almost bankrupted him. Here, he created a beautiful medieval tomb which would become his own resting place.
Due to overwork and use of mercury, Pugin suffered a breakdown and was certified insane in February 1852. For four months he was confined in a private asylum, Kensington House. In June, he was transferred to the Royal Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam). A few days before his death, Jane took her husband back to home Ramsgate, where he died on 14 September 1852.
His death was recorded on his death certificate as ‘insane 6 months: convulsions followed by coma’. Pugin’s eldest son, Edward Welby Pugin, took over some of his practice. His estate was valued at £10,000, but his widow Jane received a government pension and sold his library and fine collection of medieval artefacts in 1853.