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Edge of Architecture


Augustus Pugin: A Bicentennial Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

March 22nd 2012

Auguste Pugin
Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin

It would not be a surprise if you have not heard of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (pronounced, in English, pew-jin). The BBC one-hour special in January observed that Pugin was far from being a household name in the UK – even though the UK is, as one of my professors who had studied at Cambridge declared, “Pugin Country” -- where the landscape is filled with buildings of his design: Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, nine cathedrals, 100 Anglican and Catholic churches, monasteries, hospitals, barns, homes, railroad stations, and on and on. Not just the buildings, but everything inside the buildings: dinnerware, silverware, wallpaper, furniture, floor tile, jewelry, woodwork, stained glass windows. The Victoria and Albert Museum of London possesses hundreds of such artifacts and many of them can be seen online.

Born two hundred years ago, March 1, 1812, he died at age 40 just after his triumphal achievement at the first world’s fair, London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, visited by six million people, which made Gothic welcome throughout the world. You may not know Pugin’s name, but you have undoubtedly seen the influence of his Gothic Revival – wherever there is Gothic after 1840, even in America: St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York (cornerstone 1858), the National Episcopal Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (foundation 1907), collegiate gothic at about 40 colleges and universities, including Duke, Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning, Washington University, Notre Dame, Princeton, etc. Events celebrating his bicentennial appear at: the PuginSociety website.

(Ed. note: Attorney James M. Thunder will give an illustrated talk on Pugin on March 29 at the historic Octagon Museum, Washington, D.C., at the invitation of the American Institute of Architects. It is open to the public; to RSVP see http://ow.ly/9ne7I.)

I have written two articles on Pugin in his adult years. “Pugin as Businessman” and “Pugin: A Godly Man?” were published in True Principles, the annual journal of the Pugin Society of Ramsgate, England. When I have spoken about Pugin to multigenerational audiences around the country, I address some remarks to young people and their parents. I will amplify those here.

Pugin was the only child of an émigré from the French Revolution, Auguste Charles Pugin, and his well-read English wife, Catherine Welby. They had married in 1802 when they were in their early 30s. Pugin was born 10 years later, after unsuccessful pregnancies, when they were in their early 40s.

A few words about 1812, the year of Pugin’s birth: Although it was the year the second war with America began, it does not merit mention in biographies of Pugin. 1812 was 11 years after John Henry Newman was born. A year after Thackeray was born. The year Charles Dickens and Robert Browning were born. The year before explorer Livingston was born. It was during Pugin’s life that two inventions changed forever humankind’s experience of space and time: the steam engine for ships (from about 1820) and railroad (1830), and the telegraph (1830s). Before these inventions, all news required human travel (except for smoke, flags and carrier pigeons!) and the fastest human travel was by horse or sailboat.

Pugin was six when his parents brought him to France for the first time, the first of many annual trips to the Continent. Pugin became bilingual.

The father, Auguste, earned his livelihood as an illustrator – daguerreotype, the early form of photography, would not be invented until 1839. In 1819, Auguste opened a drawing school in his London home and seven year old Pugin became the youngest pupil. Pugin kept the same hours as the older students – hours that were not unusual for the young people of his day, rising at 6 a.m. and still working after sundown. It was a practice he kept throughout his life.

In the ensuing years, Auguste illustrated a large number of works that helped develop the public’s interest in authentic Gothic design, and he trained his pupils to help him execute drawings for them: Specimens of Gothic Architecture (vol. I, 1821; vol. II, 1823), The Royal Pavilion at Brighton (1826), Architectural Antiquities of Great Britain (1826), Specimens of the Architectural Antiquities of Normandy (1827-28), Illustrations of the Public Buildings of London (1825-28), Pugin’s Gothic Furniture (c. 1827), Paris and Its Environs (1829-31), Examples of Gothic Architecture (vol. I, 1831), Gothic Ornaments from Ancient Buildings in England and France (1831), and A Series of Ornamental Timber Gables, from Existing Examples in England and Wales (1st ed., 1831). The son’s drawing was precocious. His juvenilia from 1821, age 9, are breath-taking. 

On his 1824 trip to Normandy, Pugin, age 12, commenced his lifelong work in collecting antiquities. His parents encouraged this activity that required careful storage and transport, including finding a place for them in their home. You might say some children have pets but Pugin had gargoyles. Pugin’s interest in collectibles stemmed from Auguste’s method of teaching his pupils to learn through direct observation, such as by being lowered into vaults. Pugin learned this method well. He was always “hands-on.” He wanted to know the mechanics of how things worked – this included, as we will see, the foundations of buildings and theatrical sets, and later in life he would work closely with craftsmen to execute his designs whether in metalwork, woodwork, stonework, ceramics, stained glass, or whatever.

When Pugin was ill in the fall of 1825, his mother took him to the country to rest and recover. They visited the 12th century Augustinian Priory in Christchurch and the 13th century Salisbury Cathedral, both Gothic structures. Pugin was mightily impressed. These places and structures reappear in his life more than once. Two ideas come to mind at this point: first, our passions in life frequently originate in our youth; and, second, although many of us depart from the interests we have about age 13, many return to these same interests later in life.

In 1826, Pugin, age 14, traveled the 27 miles from his London home to 12th century Rochester Castle. Why? Because he had a strong interest in writing (and illustrating) a book on castles! On this excursion he arranged for a trench to be dug so he could see its foundation. A few minutes after he came out of the trench, it collapsed.

In my paper on Pugin as a businessman, I have named names to demonstrate that, from the earliest times of 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. At age 15, Pugin stopped participating in his father’s school. (Do you feel his parents’ anxiety level going up? You can’t be a helicopter parent without a phone!) Pugin explored London. Some of his explorations did not take him far from home. He spent a great deal of time in the British Museum, just 50 yards from his home, both located on Great Russell Street.

One day, a fellow from the royal goldsmiths, the firm of Rundell, Bridge and Rundell, saw him drawing in the Museum and recognized his ability. Pugin thereafter received a royal commission through the firm to design what is now called the Coronation Cup. It was inspired by a cup of Albrecht Dürer, an artist whom Pugin had been studying at the British Museum. Separately, his father had been asked to design some furniture for King George IV for Windsor Castle, work that his father turned over to Pugin. Heady stuff for a 15 year old.

In the next couple of years, Auguste had personal and financial difficulties. His brother-in-law died; a magazine for which he had illustrated closed; he had not yet obtained any return on the investments he had made in two books; his work on Examples of Gothic Architecture was going slow -- and Pugin was not helping him on this last project. Instead, Pugin had gotten into theatrical life, with people, from his parents’ view, who had a reputation for loose morals. Moreover, Pugin left “legitimate” drawing to work in stage design and, as a muscular fellow who liked physical activity, to work as a “super-flyman” doing special effects – a Hollywood/Broadway stuntman in his day. What’s more, Pugin removed some of the roof from the top floor of his parents’ rented office-home to create enough height for a model stage so he could experiment!

By October 1829, not yet 18, Pugin was producing a large quantity of authentic designs for objects and scenery and had learned how to produce stage furniture without glue or nails. And he had learned much about creating “space-within-a-space.” In November, he decided to apply this knowledge by opening a second line of work in designing and building chairs, tables and stools, metalwork, and interior fittings. He hired two woodcarvers. Within a year’s time, he had done well enough that he needed to expand his rented workspace. Full of success, he made plans to buy land in Christchurch. As a minor (until age 21), he needed his father’s permission which was denied.  Pugin took some of his money and designed and built an altar table he donated to Christchurch Priory.

Eighteen months later, in May, 1831, he bought a sailboat. He sailed regularly to Flanders and Holland to buy antiquities. On one such trip, he was shipwrecked and driven ashore. He and his crew were saved in the nick of time. (Do you sense his parents’ anxiety?) Pugin loved sailing and took to wearing nautical dress – for the rest of his life – on public streets. His parents noted, with additional dismay, that he had lost his refinement and that he was using salty language.

Despite his apparent financial success, Pugin was routinely unable to estimate his costs. Thus, he eventually accumulated debt he could not pay. He was arrested and jailed. His father, himself without the funds to pay his son’s debts, borrowed money from friends in order to have Pugin released. Pugin, to his credit, determined to pay off the debt assumed by his father.

Before he was jailed, Pugin had fallen in love with Anne Garnet, a sister of a theatrical friend. At 22, she was three years older than Pugin. (To share his Gothic passion with her, he took her to visit Christchurch.) After his release from jail, he learned that she had become pregnant. To his credit, again, he decided to marry her. But he was underage. Although he decided not to seek his parents’ permission, the law required that public announcements, “banns,” of their intent be made. They went to a poor, out of the way church, lied about his age, nervously waited while the banns were published, and then married on January 12, 1832, with him just shy of age 20.

Then they told his parents. Although Auguste and Catherine were in their early 30s when Auguste proposed, Catherine’s parents had objected. And, despite that rocky start, Auguste and Catherine moved in with her parents. With those antecedents, Auguste and Catherine welcomed Pugin and his bride to live in their home-office. A couple weeks later, the newlyweds went on a six-week trip that combined work and honeymoon. On the boat trip from London to Edinburgh, their boat was in a storm so severe that it lost four sails. After arriving in Edinburgh, they were forbidden from leaving since the city was under quarantine on account of an outbreak of cholera in that city. After eventually leaving Edinburgh, Pugin made drawings in Newcastle, Durham, York, Beverly, Hull and Lincoln. In Lincoln’s Cathedral, “hands-on” Pugin drew from a perch near the ceiling, á la Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. (What was Anne doing while Pugin drew?)

The young couple returned to London on February 26 and Anne gave birth on May 20, 1832. Seven days later, the new mother died from childbirth. Before she died, she made a highly unusual request in those days, namely, to be buried in a distant place, 78 miles away. But it showed her love of Pugin. She asked to be buried at Christchurch Priory. And she was. The child was named Anne after her mother.

So, 1832 had been a roller coaster of emotions for Pugin: love, business failure, jail, elopement, reconciliation with parents, honeymoon, storm at sea, quarantine, birth, death. There was much to come.

The young widower left the infant with his mother and went to see her sister, his beloved Aunt Selina, in Ramsgate, 77 miles southeast of London. (As an adult, he eventually made his home there. The Grange is now on the UK list of historical sites. Pugin also designed and personally paid for the adjacent church. Despite his travails, his creativity continued to erupt. He drew the first of what he termed “The Ideal Schemes.” The first set, designed in Ramsgate, was “The Chest” consisting of drawings of the medieval chest and its contents. (Later in the fall, he drew “The Shrine.”)

After he returned to his parents’ home, he accompanied them and his father’s pupils on a tour of western UK. They began in Salisbury. He visited Wells for the first time and experienced tremendous euphoria when he saw an entire, living, medieval town. His mother encouraged him to reflect on what he was seeing compared to other places he had been. Consequently, he made two drawings that commenced his first book, Contrasts (1st ed. 1836, 2d ed. 1841), in which he contrasted contemporary, ugly, dirty, industrial Britain with the beauty, nobility, integrity, harmony, and order of the medieval world.

Before their trip to Salisbury and Wells, Auguste’s hands had started shaking. He could no longer draw. As his health grew progressively worse, he was anxious about Catherine and Pugin -- worried he had too little money for Catherine and worried that what little he might have for Pugin would be squandered by him. Auguste died December 19, 1832, at age 64.

Three months later, Pugin wrote to a friend that he was giving up his theatrical pursuits and would become an architect, wholly specializing in Gothic architecture. Pugin had had the chance to apprentice himself in October, 1830, to architect Gillespie Graham. Would Pugin in fact become an architect or would this be another short-lived enthusiasm like a book on castles, stage design, custom-designed furniture? How would he become an architect? And would he succeed to support his wife and child?

Christians speak of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. I once read that one of them, perhaps Understanding, includes marshaling one’s talents and applying them to do work proper to one’s dignity and the glory of God. Here’s what happened with Pugin. Filled with self-confidence, Pugin traveled and studied Gothic architecture for the next two years, 1833 and 1834. The home-schooled young man would study architecture on his own.

But tragedy struck that could have altered his plans. Catherine, who had cared for the infant, and for her ailing husband, expired on April 28, 1833, after a brief illness at age 64. It was four months after her husband had died, two months after Pugin had reached his majority, and one month after he had decided to become an architect.

Fearing being alone and being a single father of a one-year old, Pugin married Louisa Button, five weeks later, on June 4. She was age 21 or 22 and an actress or a dancer whom he had met, like Anne, through the theatre. They would eventually have five children before her death 11 years later in 1844. She became pregnant with their first later that summer of 1833 (and Edward would be born March 11, 1834). With money from his parents’ estates, they moved to Ramsgate to be near Aunt Selina. Pugin, again to his credit, was intent on enhancing his late father’s reputation and worked to complete the drawings his father had left unfinished. (He would publish the second volume of his father’s Examples of Gothic Architecture in 1836 and would publish a revised edition of his father’s A Series of Ornamental Timber Gables, from Existing Examples in England and Wales in 1839.)

Leaving his wife and child behind, Pugin traveled solo through the Wye Valley looking, as he wrote a friend, for “the beautiful”. He went where others had gone (notably Woodsworth in 1798): Tintern Abbey. He didn’t find the Beautiful amidst its ruins. And he didn’t find it in Hereford or Worcester or Birmingham. He found it when he reached Oxford in July, 1833, coincidentally a few months after the Oxford Movement was born, in its Gothic buildings.

Selina died September 4, 1834. In about two and one-half years, from age 20 to 22, Pugin had been shipwrecked, jailed, widowed, orphaned, and had lost his favorite aunt.

Two events, one just before, and one just after, Selina’s death, were of signal importance to Pugin’s future. From May to August, 1834, he examined Gothic architecture in France, the Netherlands and Germany. Upon entering the church of St. Lawrence, Lorenzkirche, in Nuremberg, he found the Beautiful. He saw proper worship on a proper stage. He was moved to write later to a friend, “I could have repeated the song of Simeon without profanation.” That song, from Luke 2:29-32, known also as “Nunc Dimittis,” starts, “Now Lord let your servant depart in peace according to Your word. For my eyes have seen Your salvation.” He also wrote, “[W]ith what delight did I trace the fitness of each portion of those glorious edifices to the rites for whose celebration they had been erected!” When later asked about his conversion (June 6, 1835), Pugin would refer to this experience. (As an aside, Pugin’s conversion was not influenced by the Oxford Movement. His conversion occurred 10 years before John Henry Newman’s.) His parents would not have been pleased. A later biographer described becoming a Catholic at that time in England “social suicide.”

The second event occurred when Pugin was in London on business on October 16, 1834. The Houses of Parliament burned down. When the competition to rebuild them was announced some months later, the name Pugin was on the prospective bidders’ lips as the man who knew Gothic through and through.

We leave now the portrait of this artist as a young man. Age 22. Married. Two children. A credit to his late wife, father and mother and his aunt. There would be some bad times during the next 18 years -- the death of Louisa, the loss of some commissions, some wrangling with building committees who would not raise enough funds to build what Pugin deemed a proper church, blindness at age 29, objections by the parents of a fiancée, Catholics who did not like some of his views and the manner with which he expressed them, non-Catholics who disparaged his Catholicism -- but how could any of these compare to those with which he had already dealt at such a young age? 

And the future was so bright. For the rest of his professional life he would experience “flow.” See Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow (2008).  Augustus Welby Pugin would become one of the greatest artists and architects of all time.

In addition to the professional achievements summarized in the opening paragraph, Pugin would start a drawing school like his father. One of his pupils would marry his firstborn. All three sons would become architects. After his death, the craftsmen with whom Pugin worked, the builder, the metalworker, the stained-glass window-maker, all felt the loss of Pugin’s creative input and direction and his contracts, but they would flourish nonetheless. See Patricia Spencer-Silver, Pugin’s Builder: The Life and Work of George Myers (1993), and Stanley Shepherd, The Stained Glass of A.W.N. Pugin (2009) (about Hardman).
Pugin’s third wife, Jane Knill, widowed after four years of marriage at age 27, would care for their two children, and the six he had by his prior two wives, all of whom survived to adulthood. Although after his death, she left their home for nine years, she returned to it in 1861 and remained there as the grand matriarch until her death at age 84 in 1909. Pugin called her his “true gothic woman” since she so shared his Gothic passion. She spent the 57 years after his death keeping the family together and his memory alive. She was my great-great-grandmother.
James M. Thunder is a columnist for Speroforum.com and an attorney based in Washington DC who is a freelance writer on a variety of topics.

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