JOHNMARTINROBINSON BY RELIGIOUS DESIGN
GOD’S ARCHITECT: PUGINANDTHE BUILDINGOFROMANTICBRITAIN
★By Rosemary Hill (Allen Lane / The Penguin Press 601pp £30)
Pugin was an astonishing figure, and the most astonishing thing about him, considering the scale of his achievement, was the shortness of his life. By the time he was twentyone he had been shipwrecked, bankrupted and widowed. He then became an architect, using his youthful training as draughtsman and stage designer to recreate the Middle Ages. In the next nineteen years, he transformed British architecture, became a Catholic, designed twenty-two churches, three cathedrals, numerous houses, a Cistercian monastery and the interior of the Palace of Westminster – down to inkwells and coat stands. Even by the standards of Victorian achievers, his was a barely credible story. Then he died insane, thrice married, disillusioned, and aged only forty. Nobody was more disappointed by Pugin than Pugin himself. ‘Those who have found themselves at his churches in Dudley or Stockton on a winter afternoon will fully sympathise’, writes Rosemary Hill. And yet how brilliant, too, in the House of Lords or St Giles’s, Cheadle. It is a riveting story and has attracted many biographers, but none has captured so well the fully-rounded Pugin – his family background, his Catholicism, his architecture, his role as a visionary and polemicist – until now. This book is by far the best biography of Pugin. It is packed with new information, drawn from unpublished letters and documents. Moreover it is sympathetically and wittily written, full of insight and delightful turns of phrase – ‘as a pattern designer Pugin had a Mozartian facility’; he lived ‘a long life in a short time’; he fell in love ‘easily and often, somewhat more often than was in accordance with his ideal of Christian married life’. Pugin’s career is firmly rooted in his family background, as the precocious, much-loved and spoilt son of an artistic family with French connections on his father’s side and established landed cousinage on his mother’s. Hill has produced here many new records about Pugin’s antecedents and his upbringing in Islington and Bloomsbury. His father was of a French Swiss family descended from mercenary soldiers and had come to England from Paris at the Revolution. His mother was a Welby, daughter of a lawyer related to the Welbys of Denton in Lincolnshire. His childhood was pampered, affectionate, and responsible for his precociousness, his self-confidence, and his natural authority, but also for a lifelong innocence and vulnerability.
Pugin senior was an artist and engraver who also ran a drawing school in the family home. Pugin learnt more from his father than from his brief schooling at Christ’s Hospital, which he found ‘dry’ – a Pugin term for things he did not like. At the age of fifteen, he designed the furniture for the gothic rooms at Windsor Castle for George IV’s decorators, Morel & Seddon, and then designed stage scenery. He married his first wife, Ann, as a teenager but she, and his parents, died when he was twenty-one, and this sad change of life sent him into new streams, towards the interrelated worlds of Catholicism and Gothic Revival architecture which everybody now recognises as ‘Puginian’. He made the decision in twelve months, which took Newman twelve years. He wrote to his friend Osmund, the Salisbury builder: ‘I can assure you after a most close and impartial investigation, I feel perfectly convinced the Roman Catholick Church is the only true one – and the only one in which the grand sublime style of church architecture can ever be restored.’ The consequences are visible in history. The greatness of Pugin, as this book so well demonstrates, was however not merely architectural. His vision was not just about buildings but was social. He pointed to the Middle Ages as a model for architecture but also for society, for a coherent Christian civic order where the poor and sick were cared for and fed, and children educated. He had been born in the Georgian Age, ‘the England of Miss Austen’, and in the 1830s and 1840s saw the world transformed by railways and Free Trade. His response was his famous polemical publication Contrasts. St Cross Winchester was better than the Workhouse. All this prefigured Ruskin and William Morris, and much that was good in late nineteenthcentury and early twentieth-century England, as well as setting the main architectural trend of the Victorian era. Looking back from an England with a huge, uneducated underclass, hideous cities and moral and social breakdown, Pugin’s response is hauntingly relevant. That, too, makes this perceptive and brilliant biography particularly worth reading. Pugin himself saw no distinction between his life and art. His importance is that he inspired, transformed and reinvigorated architecture and design, and stimulated social views that led in time both to the preservation of historic buildings and towards the Welfare State. This book depicts the whole man – ‘tremendously hearty’ yet dejected, writer, architect, Catholic. It will not easily be superseded. To order this book at £20, see LR Bookshop on page 37
LITERARY REVIEW August 2007