Augustus Welby Pugin achieved fame as an author and artist in the course of his short life. From 1835 until his untimely death in 1852, Pugin designed one hundred buildings, wrote eight books, and produced influential metalwork, furniture, and stained glass designs.
Pugin first derived artistic influence from his father, Auguste Charles Pugin -- a French-born expert on medieval architecture. Pugin began his career in his father's workshop and, like his father, quickly developed a fascination with the Gothic style. Pugin's career progressed quickly -- at age 12, he developed an obsessive interest in churches, and at 14, he conducted a survey of Rochester Castle with the Earl of Jersey. At the young age of fifteen, he designed Gothic silverware for the Royal Goldsmiths and Gothic furniture for various other patrons.
In 1831, he married Anne Garnet. Unfortunately, a mere year after their union, Anne passed away, and shortly thereafter, both Pugin's mother and father died. Several years later, in 1835, Pugin converted to Catholicism, which became a dominant force in his life. A staunch advocate of the religion, Pugin spread his belief that Roman Catholicism was the only faith worthy of Gothic architecture, saying, "I feel perfectly convinced the Roman Catholic Religion is the only one in which the grand and sublime style of church architecture can ever be restored" (Harries).
Pugin expressed his passion for the Gothic style and for his faith through his architecture, writings, and decorative design-work. For his first big architectural project, Pugin collaborated with famed architect Charles Barry on the designs for the new Houses of Parliament. Other early endeavors included a house for his family, St Marie's Grange, a privately commissioned residence, Scarisbrick Hall, and his first large church intended as a cathedral, St. Chad's. These buildings defined the Gothic Revival style not only through their fundamental lay-out, but also through their interior fittings, which could all be classified as fourteenth-century Gothic.
Pugin's distinctive structures garnered attention; however, his early controversial writings, Contrasts (1836) and True Principles of Pointed Architecture (1841), truly made him famous. In Contrasts, Pugin asserted that only a Roman Catholic Society could produce a truly Gothic style, and in True Principles of Pointed Architecture, he argued principally that (1) no features should exist in architecture that are not for convenience, and that (2) "all ornament should consist of enrichment of the essential construction of the building" (Harries). In the second book, he also denigrated classic architecture, which he termed "Pagan." By thus infusing ideology into architecture, these books introduced what J. Mordaunt Crook has termed the
Victorian dilemma of style. . . Pugin, in effect, created the dilemma of style. For it was Pugin who injected morality into architecture. As his Times obituary put it, 'It was [Pugin] who first showed us that our architecture offended not only against the laws of beauty, but also against the laws of morality.' Ethical values had now replaced visual and associative values. [Crook, 52-53]
Although Pugin garnered fame and notoriety for his books and architecture, his first passion was for the decorative arts. Pugin specialized in everything from Gothic furniture and metalwork, to Gothic fabrics and wallpapers. He also harbored a particular interest in recreating the Catholic liturgy in its medieval setting, so he made vestments, candlesticks, and stained glass.
Thus, Pugin exerted an indelible influence on the art world through a vast variety of mediums. Through his works, Pugin perpetuated and legitimated the Gothic style. Although he once said of his work, "I strive to revive, not invent" (Stanton), Pugin undoubtedly classifies as an innovator, for, despite his short, seventeen-year career, Pugin's Neo-Gothic designs and rhetoric continue to resound today.
1. What are the typical characteristics of Gothic architecture? What features of the style appealed to Pugin and his father?
2. Pugin often lacked the financial resources to include as much detail as he desired in his buildings. In fact, Scarisbrick Hall -- a private residence -- was one of the only commissions which permitted the artist's penchant for details. How different do you think Pugin's churches would have been if he had more funding? Would this have changed perceptions of the artist?
3. Why did Pugin's writings cause such controversy? How did Pugin's "inject[ions of] morality into architecture" (Crook) create the "Victorian dilemma of style"?
Harries, John Glen. Pugin: An illustrated life of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, 1812-1852. Buckinghamshire: Shire Publications Ltd., 1994.
Stanton, Phoebe. Pugin. London: Thames and Hudson, 1971.
Crook, J. Mordaunt, "Pugin Created the Dilemma of Style." www.victorianweb.org.
"A Brief Biography, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin." www.victorianweb.org.
Last modified 21 November 2004