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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Augustus Welby Pugin

Augustus Welby Pugin
A.W.N. Pugin, cope and hood, 1848-50. Victoria and Albert Museum, London
He designed them in the Gothic Revival style for use in the church he designed and built in the grounds of his house.


Altar and window at Farm Street, London


Pugin`s reputation has varied since his death. Now we are experiencing a resurgence of interest in Pugin and his works.

What did near contemporaries think of Pugin ?

At the time, his championing of the Gothic was not universally admired. Indeed often he was criticised and scorned for his passion in this regard.

Eccentric by the standards of his time. Yet his talent was recognised and allowances were made for his views and behaviour.

In the following passage written in 1901, an assessment is made by a Catholic writer of his character and his works.


"Odd to say,the characters that have most attraction seem to have been tinged with a certain eccentricity, or what may seem eccentricity to prosaic natures.

Of this pattern was the brilliant and ebullient AUGUSTUS WELBY PUGIN, a thorough artist whose gifts and aspirations were far in advance of his day. This remarkable man owed much to his French extraction.

His passionate and intolerant ardour was almost irresistible, and his exertions were aided by the sadly corrupt state of public taste and the low condition of the architecture and art then in vogue. He was a reformer long before Mr. Ruskin, though he had not the captivating style of the latter, and he always contrived to present his theories in company with the teachings and practices of his Church.

His undue extravagances, wholesale condemnation of all forms save one, the Gothic, naturally excited hostility and ridicule ; while his grotesque and scornful sayings made him many enemies. Never was prophet of a faith so reckless, so sincere, so passionately in earnest, or so regardless of his own interest where his principles were concerned. Neither Bishop nor peer, nor wealthy patron even, could make him swerve a hair's breadth where he felt that these principles were at issue.

That splendid monument, the Houses of Parliament, a perfect marvel considering the debased period in which it was erected, certainly owed its essentials to his inspiration.*(1) It might almost be said that this great pile somewhat contributed to the Catholic revival, much as Sir Walter Scott's stories helped to re-create an interest in the old religion. It seemed to suggest Catholic associations, much as a Gothic cathedral would do. All the devices with which it is so lavishly embroidered its sculptures, storied panes and dim religious light helped materially to foster this notion, to which the cunning hand of a Catholic architect and decorator had given reality.*(2)

Pugin was a thorough and determined reformer of church ornamentation, and introduced the most striking improvements in manufacture as well as treatment. To him is owing the correct treatment of brass standards, chandeliers, and coronas. With such designs and suggestions he supplied his friend Hardman, of Birmingham, who set on foot a regular manufacture, of which Protestant churches also have had the benefit. Another ally and assistant was the well known Minton, a potter, who furnished him with church tiles after his own designs. There is nothing more pathetic than his humble letter to his friend, in his closing days, when his mind was somewhat clouded. He had quarrelled with him, and he pleaded for forgiveness on Othello's ground that he was over-wrought "and perplext in th' extreme."

To Pugin, also, we owe the stencilled decoration once so " fashionable" in churches who does not recall the alternate monograms and rosettes in compartments, blue and red, alternate colours, and old English lettering? But this has become somewhat monotonous, and, as I fancy, has altogether "gone out." To him we also owe the great change in the pattern of the vestments used at Mass.

The old stiff dalmatic of French pattern is endeared to us from familiarity and long custom. But nothing can be said for it as a ceremonial garment, for the celebrant seems to move as if between boards. The flowing "Pugin robes" were more artistic, though there was the drawback that garments of this flowing, easy pattern ought to be fitted to each individual wearer. This is a serious objection, whereas the old, more rigid vestment seemed to fit every one. Many years ago these Pugin vestments fell out of favour and were interdicted, with a reprieve until the existing stock had been worn out. But they are now restored, and can be used ad libitum.

Pugin held by the principles of his art much as he did by the principles of his religious faith. They were sacred to him, not to be compromised or to be trafficked in. There is something noble, if Quixotic, in his treatment of that committee of Bishops and laymen who were planning a cathedral in London, and invited him to supply a grand set of designs. These he supplied on an elaborate scale a cathedral, convent, schools, cloisters. The drawings excited much admiration,and were fully approved, when it occurred to some one to ask some searching questions as to cost, time of execution, etc. These he put aside, but quickly contrived to collect all his drawings, then took his hat and walked away without a word ! Asked later the meaning of this behaviour, he explained: " You asked me," he said," to furnish you with designs. I did so, supposing that I was dealing with persons who knew what they wanted. The absurd questions put showed how wrong I was. Who ever heard of a cathedral being built in the lifetime of one man ?The old ones took centuries. Then how could I tell the cost? a small portion only could be built in my lifetime. If you approve of my design adopt it, and carry out all in part, or not at all." This story gives us the man as he really was, his fine spirit of independence, and his unswerving principle.*(3)

All through his vast, multifarious enterprises there was this note of pathos, arising from his strivings after a noble ideal, which the more prosaic and practical minds with whom he had to deal were persistently checking, as they were compelled to do. He complained that he was never given full play, because he was always interfered with by his employers, and used to say that St. George's was spoiled by the instructions that it was to hold 3,000 people on the floor, and, in consequence, height, proportion, everything, was sacrificed to meet these conditions.*(4)


Indeed, his treatment at St. George's and there was no reason for it but the lack of funds must have gone nigh to breaking his heart. As we look at the noble design, given in Mr. Ferrey's book with its nave soaring aloft in grand arches, its great tower at the intersection of nave and transepts, but now "tacked on " at the end we can see what has been lost. The height was cut down, and the roof "clapped down " almost on the arches, so that the place was likened to a long railway station. In the sanctuary, however, he was left a free hand, and there he created what Dr. Johnson calls an "inspissated gloom" a darkness that might be felt, or mystery, as he fancied it. Through the great rood screen figures might be indistinctly made out, flitting to and fro. The light was not dim or mummery of dormer windows which nobody can reach or look out of ? Not so, but the mere incapability of better things. I am sorry to have to speak thus of any living architect, and there is much in this man, if he were rightly estimated, which we might both regard and profit by. He has a most sincere love for his profession, a hearty, honest enthusiasm for pixes and piscinas, and though he will never design so much as a pix or a piscina thoroughly well, yet better than most of the experimental architects of the day. Employ him by all means, but on small work ; expect no cathedrals of him, but no one at present can design a better finial."

The secret or motive of this bitterness is revealed in the next sentence, where we are bidden " not to allow his good designing of finials to be employed as an evidence in matters of divinity, nor thence deduce the incompatability of Protestantism and art."

Mr. Wilfrid Ward tells a pleasant story connected with Abbe Katisbonne's conversion, which Pugin was assured took place in the Church of St. Andrea, at Rome. Pugin visited the church and surveyed it with disgust. " The story is false, he could not have prayed in such a hideous church. Our Lady would not have chosen such a place for a vision. The man could have had no piety to have stayed in such a church at all." The friend then said that Batisbonne had blamed the ugliness of the church. "Is that so ? Then he is a man of God ! He knew what chivalry was, though a Jew. I honour him. Our Lady would come to him anywhere."

And his outburst at the opening of the Oratory at King William Street was as amusing, and might cause a smile at Brompton." Has your lordship heard that the Oratorians have opened the Lowther Rooms as a chapel ? a place for the vilest debauchery, masquerades, etc. This appears to me perfectly monstrous. I give the whole Order up for ever ! Why, it's worse than the Socialists ! It is the greatest blow we have had for a long time ; no men have been so disappointing as these. Conceive the poet Faber come down to the Lowther Booms well may they cry out against screens or anything else." How diverting is this ! Equally his disgust at illmade vestments. " He a good man ! and wearing a cope like that !"

His personal adventures were strange enough such as his three marriages his mysterious love affair with Miss L., for whom, in view of her marriage, he had fashioned lovely sets of jewellery. He was an earnest, pious man, but his views were somewhat wild, his vehemence sometimes carrying him beyond what was strictly orthodox. When disappointed or crossed, he would break out into some startling pamphlet, which his friends had hard work to excuse.

As a craftsman his work was really exquisite, as was also the certainty of his eye in matters of grace or proportion. I have looked over his sketch books, which are indeed charming. His etchings in the "Pugin" missal, with the bindings of the same, might be shown in a mediaeval cabinet.*(5)

His latter days were much clouded with many troubles, anxieties, and mental gloom. He died in 1852. His so-called "Life" is an odd piece of workmanship. It was written by Mr. Ferrey, a Protestant, who had but little sympathy with him or his works, none perhaps for his religion. Mr. Purcell was then called in to supply a religious view of the man, which was done a la Purcell, but to the total wreck of the original design.

I have thus dwelt at some length on the career of this remarkable person, because he was a type of many minds at the period who were carried forward by the same enthusiasm. The enthusiasm often engendered eccentricity, of which many of our Catholic leaders had their full share. Dr. Ward in his obstreperous buoyancy had much of Pugin's character.

.
Footnotes

* (1)A painful controversy long raged as to his and Sir Charles
Barry's share in the designs ; but all familiar with the work of
the two architects can have no hesitation in giving Pugin the
chief credit, not merely of the general ornamentation and details,
but even of the structural treatment. Pugin's fertile
fancy and imagination are seen everywhere, with but little of
Barry's correct conventional methods, as displayed at Bridgewater
House, the Travellers' Club, and other works.

*(2) Everywhere a piece of Pugin workmanship can be recognised
from its beauty, certainty of touch, reserve, and perfection
of proportion. Mouldings, reliefs, are all exactly what
they should be, and where they should be. His altars, screens,
railings, pulpits to be seen at Farm Street, St. George's
Cathedral, and in his own gem of a church at Ramsgate all
reveal this rich and elegant touch

* (3)There were other stories of the kind in circulation. A
reply of his to the Bishop is pleasantly characteristic. The
Prelate wrote to him as to a church. " It must be very large,
as there is a large congregation. It must be very handsome,
for there is a fine new church close by. And it must be very
cheap, for they were very poor." So when could they expect
the design ? Pugin wrote : " My dear Lord, Say thirty shillings
more, and have a tower and spire at once."

*(4) On reading this passage Ruskin fell on him with infinite
scorn and bitterness. " Rafaelle can expatiate within the circumference
of a clay platter ; but Pugin is inexpressible in less
than a cathedral. St. George's was not high enough for want
of money ? But was it want of money that made you put
that blunt, overloaded, and laborious ogee door into the side of
it ? Was it in parsimony that you buried its paltry pinnacles
in that eruption of diseased crockets ? Or in pecuniary embarrassment
that you set up the belfry foolscaps with the
mummery of dormer windows which nobody can reach or look
out of ? Not so, but the mere incapability of better things. I
am sorry to have to speak thus of any living architect, and
there is much in this man, if he were rightly estimated, which
we might both regard and profit by. He has a most sincere
love for his profession, a hearty, honest enthusiasm for pixes
and piscinas, and though he will never design so much as a
pix or a piscina thoroughly well, yet better than most of the
experimental architects of the day. Employ him by all means,
but on small work ; expect no cathedrals of him, bufc no one at
present can design a better finial." The secret or motive of
this bitterness is revealed in the next sentence, where we are
bidden " not to allow his good designing of finials to be employed
as an evidence in matters of divinity, nor thence deduce the
incompatability of Protestantism and art."

* (5)At Farm Street Church should be noted the exquisitely
proportioned pulpit, the elegant lamp of the sanctuary, the
altar rail all in his choicest manner. I believe, too, the richly
flamboyant window was also of his designing.

(From Fifty Years of Catholic Life and Social Progress (Volume 1) (1901) by Percy Fitzgerald, pages 107 - 116)



References:

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustus_Pugin

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin 1812-1852
http://www.pugin.com/

St. George’s Cathedral, Southwark: 1841-1848
http://www.pugin.com/pugsou.htm

The Pugin Society
http://www.pugin-society.1to1.org/index.html