Thursday, 1 March 2012

Happy Birthday, Pugin!

Augustus Welby Northmore - one is tempted to add "and all stations on the Northern Line"_ Pugin is two hundred years old today. The most influential architect and polemicist of the Gothic Revival, he died in 1852 worn out by his very considerable labours and insane. The above illustration served as the frontispiece to one of his books, "An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England" (1843). It depicts many of his churches grouped together in one bird's eye view perspective.

Pugin's essential contribution to the Gothic revival seems to me to have been to recognise the structural logic of Gothic ornamentation. Under his influence what had been a somewhat light and even frivolous fantasy style in its earlier "Strawberry Hill" phase became something much more serious and earnest. Such was his polemical zeal that Blessed John Henry Newman, no less, did not scruple to remark, "Mr. Pugin is a bigot."

To Pugin Gothic alone was the true Christian style of architecture. Like the earlier revivalists, Pugin valued the architecture of the middle ages for its associations. He differed from them in his choice of associations. Here I would suggest that the key difference between Pugin and his admired medieval predecessors was that he was self-consciously designing and building in a style where what they built simply manifested a "style". The frontispiece above clearly shows him as a post-renaissance designer for no medieval architect could have produced, let alone conceived, such a drawing. Perhaps it was as well that he could and it is arguable that Pugin's arrival on the scene was providential. A convert himself, Pugin played a key role in providing architecture for the Catholic Church in England during the stirring years of the "Second Spring" following Emancipation, the period of the Oxford Movement converts, of immigration from Ireland and leading up to the Restoration of the Hierarchy.

In addition to his church work Pugin also provided the gothic designs for the new Palace of Westminster but perhaps his greatest bequest to posterity was the architectural proclamation of the revived Church which was carried on by his son and by other architects like Hansom. A host of churches across the country declared that the Catholic Church was "back in business" in England. The revived medieval style so abruptly halted three centuries earlier by both Renaissance and reformation, I fancy, spoke for the Church and said something like "As we were saying before we were interrupted..."

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