David Frazer Lewis
Victorian Architects Series
Liverpool: University Press, 2021
Paperback. viii +160 pp. ISBN 978-1800348646. £30
Reviewed by Jacqueline Banerjee
The Victorian Web
Published on behalf of Historic England, and bearing the imprint of the Victorian Society, this book could hardly have come with better credentials. Moreover, it was commissioned from the architectural historian who for four years edited True Principles, the peer-reviewed journal of the Pugin Society. As a contribution to Historic England’s new Victorian Architects series, it is just what it should be: a compact overview of Pugin’s works and the man and ideas behind them. It also examines his reputation. Without special pleading – conceding, for example, that Pugin and Sir Charles Barry collaborated even on the details of the Houses of Parliament – Lewis nevertheless establishes the astonishing scale and continuing relevance of Pugin’s achievement in both architecture and design.
The book is sensibly divided into four main sections. The first of these, “The house of God”, deals with Pugin’s church-building, starting with St Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham, begun in 1841. Here, Lewis gives a brief definition of the “Use of Sarum”: “the distinctive form of worship practiced by English Catholics, the medieval liturgy of the Diocese of Salisbury, which had been used over most of southern England until it was banned after the reign of Mary I”, and which involved “several vested deacons, censing of many altars, cross-bearers, suspended lights, and numerous acolytes bearing candles” . St Chad’s was not Pugin’s first church (that was St James’s, Reading, begun in 1837), nor even his first Gothic Revival church (that was the Church of the Assumption at Bree, County Wexford, begun in 1838), but his revised design for St Chad’s was ready by 1841, and Lewis explains that it was the first one to make full provision for such rituals.
Lewis is good at picking out the telling detail, and at the same time relating it to the much larger context. What does the rough granite of Pugin’s County Wexford churches have in common with the knapped flint of St Augustine’s, Ramsgate, for instance? Here, Lewis can call on the architect himself: Pugin explained in his Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England, in 1843, that the “ancient builders” adapted “their edifices to localities”, so that “they seemed as if they formed a portion of nature itself … growing from the sites in which they were placed” [qtd. p. 30]. As throughout, the illustrations clinch Lewis’s case. It is hard to imagine his atmospheric view of Kilarney, for example, without Pugin’s St Mary’s – just as, later, it would be hard to imagine Cobh without his son Edward’s cathedral there. This chapter is particularly useful on Pugin’s work and influence in Ireland, although, of course, there is much about St Giles in Cheadle and his other well-known English churches. There is also a welcome discussion of the churches he designed for Australia, which seem not to belong to the landscape there at all: here, Lewis suggests, the idea of harmonising with the locale had been overridden by the architect’s commitment to both the Catholic and Gothic Revivals, and his desire to plant them, even if rather incongruously, in new territories. Pugin was driven, but not inflexible. In planning St Mary’s Cathedral, Newcastle, for instance, and his later churches, he would take into account the needs of congregations following more contemporary forms of Catholic worship.
After the “house of God” comes the “house of man”, and chapter two deals mainly with Pugin’s own homes, and his country houses, once again including their interiors. The first, the house that he designed for himself and his second wife Louisa and their young family, was St Marie’s Grange near Salisbury (1835), and, for all its eccentricities and failings it proved to be a useful seedbed for his ideas. Certainly, the books and print collection that he gathered around him in his library there greatly influenced his future design work – not so much in particular detail, Lewis hastens to add, as in spirit. This spirit would feed through into the Arts and Crafts Movement that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century. Pugin’s work on the Bishop’s House in Birmingham, Alton Towers in Staffordshire, Scarisbrick Hall in Lancashire, and others, is usefully described, but inevitably his own last home, The Grange in Ramsgate, takes pride of place. This was built only nine years after the earlier Grange, in 1844. Yet Pugin had packed so much into those intervening years that he was now well known – so much so that he was bothered by the architectural sightseers descending on what was, after all, a private abode. Here again, his influence was tremendous: the sturdy brick-built house with rooms of different character and purpose opening off its spacious central hall and landing, and dictating the external form of the building (including its very windows), was, says Lewis, “the heart that would pump the blood of Pugin’s domestic principles into the suburbs and villages of Britain” . Out went the extra staircase for servants, in came the casual, and often noisy, intermingling of the middle-class family home.
The third chapter deals with Pugin’s designs for educational establishments. Again, there is hardly any need to push the case for his influence:
The quietly radical notion that environment played a role in education, with its implication that the Gothic, especially, gave the greatest encouragement to Christian character, would become a dominant idea in the design of universities in the English-speaking world. It generated countless ivy-covered Gothic quadrangles over the next hundred years, from Glasgow to Melbourne to Princeton. [87-88]
However, Pugin’s meticulously prepared designs for rebuilding and extending Balliol College in Oxford, complete with tower and battlements, oriels, feature chimneys and so on, caused a furore there in 1843. They were firmly rejected, depriving him of his one big chance to contribute to the Oxford streetscape. Only ten years later, though, William Butterfield built a new chapel at Balliol based closely on Pugin’s designs. By then, there was no escaping his influence. Pugin left a more direct mark on the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge, which he restored in the late 1840s. Students of Sir George Gilbert Scott will understand his own restoration practices better after reading this chapter: Pugin had no compunction about removing late medieval work if it contradicted whatever clues were left from even earlier work, and Scott would follow suit in many a project of his own.
As Pugin’s failure at Balliol indicates, his was not at all a simple success story. Lewis confirms that, in general, his architectural career was a fraught one, with schemes that were dear to his heart, for Balliol and Downside Abbey in Somerset, for instance, going unrealised. “I have passed my life in thinking of fine things, studying fine things, designing fine things, and realizing very poor ones”, the beleaguered architect wrote poignantly [qtd. p. 112]. But his built and written work was already having its effect. It would continue to influence other architects, including major ones like Scott and Butterfield, long after his untimely death at forty.
The climax of this book comes in the fourth chapter, with its discussion of the Houses of Parliament. As indicated earlier, Lewis deals calmly with the difficult question of who deserves more credit here – Barry or Pugin. He points out that even Pugin’s best-known work, the iconic clock-tower that we usually call Big Ben, “showed the hand of both architects” , and this, he says, is true throughout. Noting that Pugin’s wonderful Gothic detailing was constantly subject to Barry’s scrutiny, Lewis concludes that this detailing ended up enlivening, to just the right extent, what would still have been a stately and impressive building without it – albeit perhaps “a little dry” . This might be going too far: the Palace of Westminster, stripped of its detailing, would be not so much dry as positively dull. However, Lewis allows himself to promote wholeheartedly Pugin’s influence on design education. While superintending wood-carving for the interiors, he assembled a whole collection of medieval artefacts and casts to inspire his craftsmen, and then ensured that these items were kept for future study. Lewis also notes that at this time Pugin designed a Gothic showroom for the decorator John Crace in fashionable Wigmore Street. His entrepreneurial streak was again in evidence at the celebrated Medieval Court at the Crystal Palace. By such efforts, as well as through this one great showpiece in Westminster, he single-handedly raised the profile of medieval design, and the traditions, culture and spirit that it embodied, right across the board.
Pugin’s own profile is now very high. In our own times, he has been well served by some outstanding scholars. These include Rosemary Hill, with her biography, God’s Architect : Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain (2007); Margaret Belcher, with her many years of work on Pugin’s Letters (2001-2015); and Gerard Hyland with The Architectural Works of A.W.N. Pugin : A Catalogue (2014). Moreover, the activities and publications of the Pugin Society, founded in 1995, have attracted a whole new generation of “Puginites”. Lewis’s book is not a comprehensive guide: Londoners who have made pilgrimages to St Peter’s, Woolwich, or been to admire Pugin’s East window at William Wardell’s Our Ladye Star of the Sea in Greenwich, will be disappointed to find no mention of them here. But he treats the main works perceptively and in context, and follows Pugin’s developing vision in all its different manifestations. This succinct account provides an excellent all-round and up-to-date entry into an architect whose high ideals still inspire us today.
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