Cover of the book under review, showing the view through the screen into the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament at St Giles, Cheadle. Note that the quotation in the title comes from a letter by Pugin written in 1832. Click on this and the following images for larger pictures. The remaining illustrations are drawn from our own website, and are accompanied by more pictures, and commentaries.

Among the new breed of Pugin scholars, none can know more about the architect's work in Staffordshire than Michael Fisher. A Staffordshire man himself, Fisher has been accumulating his rich store of knowledge about this body of work ever since his student days. Then, in 1998, a commission to carry out a survey of Alton Towers involved going through correspondence that brought him into "ever closer contact with the mind of Pugin" (12). His book, Alton Towers: A Gothic Wonderland, was published in 1999, to be followed by several other studies such as Pugin-land in 2002, and Staffordshire and the Gothic Revival in 2006. An Anglican priest as well as an historian, Fisher presents his latest study not drily but with a warm appreciation of the spiritual side of Pugin's mission — an appreciation essential to an understanding of what Pugin was doing and why he was so profoundly influential.

A Shared Vision

Fisher's first chapter, like one of his earlier books, is entitled "Pugin-land," a term first used by Nikolaus Pevsner in writing about Cheadle (Pevsner 97). Beneath this title, Fisher places a line from one of Pugin's letters: "I have prayed from a child for the restoration of the Long Lost glory of catholic England." Together the two headings hit all the right notes, suggesting both the large concentration of Pugin buildings in this part of England, and the spirit behind them. Key to the translation of the one into the other was the patronage of the wealthy Catholic landowner, the sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbuy. On a more practical level, too, there was Pugin's excellent, dependable Clerk of Works, John Bunn Denny (1810-1892), another Catholic, who had, as Fisher says, "embraced the Gothic vision" (20), becoming Pugin's "true disciple" (22). Despite his best efforts, even Pugin could not be everywhere at once, and needed the kind of support that Denny provided.

Still, Chapter 2, entitled "Prest d'accomplir: the earl and the architect," suggests that not everything would be plain sailing. The Earl's family motto, Prest d'Accomplir, expresses his readiness to act, especially in the Catholic cause, and Fisher brings him out of the shadows as a "gentle, eirenic and self-effacing" man (66), very different from his volatile and fiery architect. But his estates were entailed, and family tragedies meant that the succession was far from assured. Personally abstemious, to the point of not liking to waste money on postage, the Earl channelled all his resources towards his building projects, and Pugin would sometimes have to plead for more funds — for a stone roof for the south porch at St Giles', Cheadle, for instance, when the Earl thought a cheaper timber one would do (179-80). There were controversies, too, and a scandal involving the Irish-American Pierce Connolly and his wife — a couple whom the Earl had befriended, and whose separation in order to devote themselves to Catholicism led eventually to Connelly's bitter attacks on the "'detestable enormities' of Rome" (71). This helped to reinforce the anti-Catholic and also anti-Tractarian feeling of the period. Such background usefully supplements and further contextualises Rosemary Hill's biography of Pugin. But it did nothing at the time to shake either the earl's or Pugin's vision of a "catholic England."

Projects for the Earl of Shrewsbury

Alton Towers, the Earl of Shrewsbury's principal seat. Pugin was still working on it when he died, and the Earl himself died soon afterwards.

The Connollys had been invited to stay at Alton Towers, and Chapter 3 examines the extent of Pugin's work on this iconic residence. No one who is interested in the Towers (other than as the mere backdrop to the popular theme park in its grounds) can afford to miss this full and detailed account of what he did here. It is all the more important now that much of the work has been lost. Fisher's illustrations really come into their own in this chapter, the historic ones giving a glimpse of its past grandeur. Equally welcome is his next chapter, on "St Mary's, Uttoxeter: the first 'True Principles' church," rightly described by Pevsner as "almost totally altered" (290). More easily overlooked than Alton Towers, it was nevertheless highly significant in the history of the Gothic Revival: simple as it was, aisleless and with just a little bell-cote, it had all the features needed for celebrating the English Catholic Rite, and was the first new church built with this in mind. As a result, it was both "widely imitated" (109) and highly controversial. The Earl and his wife were present for the opening, at which the choir of Alton Towers Chapel sang — a great occasion to mark a true milestone.

Left: The schoolhouse that Pugin built as part of the St Giles' project. Right: The interior of St Giles' at Cheadle, glorious and glowing in every detail, referred to as "the Gem" by Shrewsbury himself (qtd. 205).

Subsequent chapters deal in equally impressive detail with the ambitious scheme for St John's Hospital and the remaining parts of the medieval Alton Castle (Chapter 5); St Giles' in Cheadle, Pugin's best preserved "gem," with its associated school and convent (Chapter 6); St Wilfrid's College and Chapel in Cotton (Chapter 7); and St Mary's Church in Brewood which, with only a small contribution from Shrewsbury, was again complemented by a priest's house and a school (Chapter 8). A church was not an isolated space for Pugin. It was dedicated to worship, of course, and set aside from the mundane by its ancient and dignified rites and rituals, but it was also to be the focus and inspiration for the lives of all those ministering to and living in the community. This was true of his own church, St Augustine's at Ramsgate, too, which he built at his own expense. As for Alton, he even drew up plans for a Gothic railway station: "I think it will make a picturesque building," he wrote to the Earl (159). The commission went elsewhere and resulted in an Italianate building; but Pugin's Station Lodge on the other side of the road gives an idea of what it might have looked like.

Communities, however, even the religious ones at the heart of each individual mission, were not always what the idealistic architect wished them to be. If the second priest at Cheadle proved a disappointment, reputedly preferring horses to his parishioners, so did the first group of Catholics at St Wilfrid's, the last church that Pugin built for the Earl. Before it was even finished, the Wilfridian brothers for whom the complex was originally intended were persuaded to merge with the Oratorians — "no lovers of Gothic," as Fisher says drily (236). This set the scene for the controversy over rood screens that agitated Pugin so much towards the end of his life. Trivial as the issue may seem now, it had wide implications then. Fisher explains: "the real point at issue was whether Renaissance Italian or Medieval English ideas were to prevail in the Catholic Church in England, and Pugin believed that in fighting for screens he was fighting for the whole Gothic principle" (237). The Oratorians moved away from Cotton only a year after St Wilfrid's had opened, leaving the whole future of the costly premises in doubt. In this case, Pugin was cheered by later developments: the St Wilfrid's buildings were taken over by another religious community. "Things have taken a wonderful turn," he wrote to his third wife Jane (qtd. 238). Later, and right up until 1986, the premises would be used by a Catholic school.

Finer Points

A chalice similar to, though not the same as, the one made for St Giles by the Hardman firm and illustrated in Chapter 6 of Fisher's book.

While Pugin's vision spread out widely to embrace whole communities, it also honed in on such small details as the base of a candlestick, or the inscriptions on church and chapel bells. Here was a man passionately engaged in and informed about all aspects of his work, at every level: "His zeal, his innate diligence, his resources, his invention, his imagination, his sagacity in research, are all of the highest order," wrote John Henry Newman to Ambrose Phillipps, one of the Earl's and Pugin's Catholic convert friends — and Newman said this even while criticising Pugin's singleminded adherence to the Gothic cause (qtd. 237). A particularly useful section of the chapter on St Giles deals with its metalwork, often elaborate but sometimes designed with chaste simplicity, several of the objects being very beautifully illustrated here. Little wonder that at St Giles's opening service, "[f]oreign visitors in particular were amazed that such a comprehensive range of applied arts could have emanated from a single mind" (214).

Pugin's Legacy

In view of the enormous spread of Pugin's talents, as well as the intensity of his vision and the publicity he generated, it is hardly surprising that his work produced such a profound effect on others. Fisher's last chapters focus usefully on his whole legacy in this part of the world. Chapter 9 contains a memorably melancholy description by the novelist Mary Howitt of a visit to the chapel at Alton Towers after the deaths of the Earl and his heir. But this is followed much more happily by an account of the works in this area of Pugin's eldest son, E. W. Pugin. As well as an abbey church near Stone, the younger Pugin built his earliest secular building, Burton Manor, in Stafford, and another residence, Aston Hall, at Aston-on-Stone. Both were designed very much along the lines of his father's Grange in Ramsgate. Even though work was now going to other Catholic architects, notably Charles Hansom (architect of the beautiful Catholic Cathedral in Adelaide, Australia), E. W. Pugin also designed a fine new church of St Austin's at Forebridge, Stafford, and St Gregory's in Longton. In this way, the name "Pugin-land" came to have further relevance for this part of the Midlands.

The older Pugin's designs had also gone out to Australia in his lifetime. Especially pleasing in this chapter is the information that Denny, who had supervised so much of his work in Staffordshire, eventually joined forces with William Wardell in Australia, and then worked independently there. Clerks of Works are the unsung heroes of the architectural profession, and it is good to know that Denny, like a few others, was able to make a name for himself in his own right.

In his last main chapter, Chapter 10, Fisher reminds us of Pugin's followers among Anglican architects, including George Gilbert Scott, G. F. Bodley, and Richard Norman Shaw, and all of whom built or restored churches in the area. Particularly fascinating is the discussion of the Anglican Church of All Saints' in the small village of Leigh, on which Pugin himself collaborated with an architect called Thomas Johnson (1794-1865). Wonderful though it is to learn so much more about Pugin's activities in this part of the world, it is also good to know of local talent, and of Pugin's involvement with it. As it happened, Johnson was much influenced by the Ecclesiologists. Fisher reminds us that John Ruskin upset Pugin by trying "to rid Gothic of its Catholic associations" (286), and points out that the Cambridge Camden Society's attack on "The Artistic Merit of Mr Pugin" in the Ecclesiologist of January 1846 was most likely written by Alexander Beresford Hope, one of the society's founders — himself a Staffordshire man. But, at ground level, here was Pugin contributing designs for chancel furnishings to someone supposedly in the other camp. Apparently without having any idea of Pugin's input, Pevsner calls All Saints' "an astounding masterpiece" (173). In the end, of course, Pugin succeeded in giving Anglicans and Nonconformists alike "a certain picture of what an English church should be, and that vision was unmistakably a Gothic one" (305).

"Gothic For Ever"

Fisher's brief concluding chapter, "Gothic For Ever," brings us up to date on the preservation and restoration of the legacy. After a period of reaction against it, the Gothic Revival is now fully understood and appreciated. One proof of this is the restoration programme now in place for Alton Towers. Another is the appearance of books like Fisher's — meticulously researched, beautifully written, fully illustrated on glossy paper, altogether a pleasure to have and read. Helpful features here are the numbered references to the illustrations, the full complement of scholarly notes unobtrusively added at the end, and the glossary of ecclesiastical terms. Slips are very few and far between, and extremely trivial — the photograph of Station Lodge, Alton, referred to as 3.17 rather than 3.18 on p.159; a comma in the wrong place in the quotation from Newman on p.237, and a full stop where there should be a comma at the bottom of p.188. But perhaps these are worth noting if a paperback edition is in the offing. A lighter and smaller-sized edition would certainly make it easier to carry round "Pugin-land" — to which there could not possibly be a more scholarly or enjoyable guide.

Related Material


(Book under review:) Fisher, Michael. "Gothic For Ever": A. W. N. Pugin, Lord Shrewsbury, and the Rebuilding of Catholic England. Reading: Spire Books, 2012. 339 pp. with many illustrations. Hardback, £49.95. ISBN 978-1-904965-36-7.

Pevsner, Nikolaus. Staffordshire. Buildings of England series. London: Penguin, 1974. Print.

Last modified 15 November 2012