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Pugin and the Gothic Revival

Architect, designer, illustrator, devout worshipper, sailor, wrecker. All of these describe
A W N Pugin, the force behind the Gothic Revival.

Mention the name Pugin, and it’s fairly certain that Big Ben will come to mind. True enough, the Palace of Westminster – the seat of Parliament and the heart of the nation – with its famous clock tower is one of the most prominent and well-known buildings in the land. But examples of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin’s work, and more particularly of his influence, can be found across the country, and include not only impressive government buildings but modest country churches and private houses.

Green damask chasuble

Green damask chasuble, 1850, designed by Pugin for
St Augustine's Church
© V @ A Museum

Nor did Pugin design only exteriors. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has scores of examples of his designs, from encaustic floor tiles to chalices and religious vestments, and there are many more fine pieces in private hands.

Pugin, who was born in London in 1812, was the son of Auguste Pugin, an émigré Frenchman. Pugin’s father was primarily an illustrator who, in spite of the extremely high quality of his work, never quite managed to achieve the greatness he deserved. However, he passed on his artistic skills to his son Augustus, and with them a taste for the medieval, for the classics of literature, and for religion. Pugin Senior had been a pupil at the Royal Academy School, where he studied not only painting but architecture. For much of his life he ran a drawing school from his home in London’s Bloomsbury. However, during the closing years of the eighteenth century, he met the architect John Nash, and from thereon he worked as Nash’s draughtsman, interpreting his designs for the architect’s wealthy clients through expressive perspective drawings that married exquisite detail with dramatic light and shade. Together, architect and illustrator began to develop what would be the most important movement of their time in British art, the Picturesque; and it was the Picturesque that inspired the younger Pugin, and that would influence the whole of his life’s work.

Together the two Pugins produced a series of books. Amongst these, Specimens of Gothic Architecture and Examples of Gothic Architecture would become standard reference works for the Gothic Revival. Augustus Pugin had studied both classical and medieval architecture, and under his parents’ influence he had developed a strong religious bent; he came to believe that the medieval “Gothic” style was the true expression of Christianity in building.

The Gothic Revival

The term “Gothic” is used to describe the style of architecture that dominated major European building in the four hundred years or so between 1200 and 1600. It was mostly used for churches, and it is in ecclesiastical buildings from that time that the style can still be seen today. The most famous examples are to be found in Europe – the cathedrals of Beauvais and Chartres, in France, for example, or of Milan in Italy – but Britain’s York Minster, Salisbury Cathedral and Gloucester Cathedral all contain strong elements of the Gothic. Gothic as a style had replaced the Romanesque, and apart from its intrinsic beauty, its chief feature was the use of tall pointed arches between narrow supporting piers and buttresses, meaning that much more light could enter a Gothic building. However, the Renaissance saw a return to ‘Classical’ Romanesque architecture, and the Gothic fell out of fashion.

Together with George Gilbert Scott, whose works include the magnificent St Pancras Station in London, currently being refurbished, St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, and the McManus Galleries in Dundee, Pugin was the driving force behind the nineteenth-century re-awakening of interest in the Gothic. Both men had lamented the way that the British landscape was being ‘industrialised’ and saw elements of this as defining the architecture of the day. With other intellectuals, among them Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, they began to look back to pre-industrial times, when the prevailing values had been more natural, even Godly. For Pugin in particular, the medieval style of building was a more pure expression of Christian values. And so the Gothic Revival came about.

The influence of the Revival made itself felt not only in architecture but in the arts. The Arts and Crafts Movement, headed by Ruskin and William Morris, embraced Gothic’s natural and organic principles, believing that they reflected God’s handiwork. And eventually the same medieval influences would be seen in the work of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and in particular of Sir Edward Burne-Jones.


Much of Pugin’s early work had been with the theatre. The family lived close to London’s Covent Garden, and in common with many of his young contemporaries Pugin fell under its spell. Nineteenth-century theatre was characterized by spectacle, and an entire industry grew up around the design and production of stage sets. The young Pugin was drawn into the world of the theatre, and before long he had adapted the top floor of the family home into a workshop where he turned his set designs into three-dimensional models, experimenting with light and shade as his father had done with Nash’s architecture. But possibly the most important thing that Pugin learnt from theatre design was how to define and divide large interior spaces, and this valuable knowledge he put to use in his architectural work.

Throughout his short life (he died in 1852, at the age of 40) Pugin worked on several different projects at one time, and many if not most of these projects were carried out in collaboration with others. One of his most significant partners was the architect Sir Charles Barry, for whom Pugin would design the detail, both exterior and interior, to augment Barry’s basic architectural plan. One of their first joint enterprises was in Birmingham in 1833, when Pugin worked on the decoration of King Edward’s School. And two years later Pugin provided the detailed designs that led to Barry winning the competition to build the new Palace of Westminster, whose predecessor had been destroyed by fire in 1834.

Three years later he was commissioned to work on Scarisbrick Hall, near Southport in Lancashire, the home of wealthy Catholic patron Charles Scarisbrick (Pugin had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1834). The house already existed, but Scarisbrick wanted something much grander. However, part of his brief to Pugin was that the old Hall was to be retained and incorporated into the new building. The result was a magnificent Gothic creation, complete with its soaring clock tower that prefigured the one Pugin would eventually create at Westminster.

Palace of Westminster Clock Tower ("Big Ben")

Once Barry had secured the contract to rebuild the Houses of Parliament, he called on Pugin once more, this time to help him complete the project. Work began in 1840. Barry was responsible for the structure of the Palace; more important, he was also responsible for the management of the project, dealing with both contractors and client. But it was Pugin who, over the next ten years or so, used his knowledge of medieval architecture, his background in the Picturesque, and his love of the Gothic to produce not only the working plans for the whole enterprise, but also the entire decorative scheme, including carved woodwork, floor tiles and furnishing fabrics. His final contribution to the Palace of Westminster was its clock tower, whose chimes are still heard the world over every day, on BBC Radio. And the tower was to be Pugin’s final major work before his death.

In the meantime, Pugin was commissioned to design the Cistercian monastery at Mount St Bernard’s Abbey in Leicestershire. Pugin, the devout Roman Catholic, completed the design of the Abbey without making a charge. Begun in 1844, it was completed four years later, and its interior was decorated in typically Gothic style. Sadly, much of that decoration has been removed today, but this at least gives us the opportunity to see the purity in the structure of Pugin’s building which would otherwise have been obscured.

Mt St Bernard's Abbey interior

The austere interior of Mount St Bernard's Abbey © The Pugin Society

One of the few smaller private houses designed by Pugin is the rectory at Rampisham, near Dorchester in Dorset. It was built in 1846–47 for the Anglo-Catholic rector, FJ Rooke. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, who toured the British Isles in the 1950s and wrote a series of Architectural Guides, starting with The Buildings of England, said of Rampisham: “It is a fine house”. Pevsner was not noted for his excess, so this is praise indeed. And it is justified, too: Rampisham’s harmonious exterior is echoed in its interior layout, and many of Pugin’s original features still remain.

Pugin’s influence can still be seen today in the architectural landscape of Britain. But his influence on Victorian life and thinking, upon writers, philosophers and artists such as John Ruskin, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, has had a far wider effect upon British intellectual life. In looking backwards, Pugin can be said to have been a true visionary.

St Augustine’s Grange

The Grange, at Ramsgate in Kent, was designed by Pugin as his own residence. It is similar in character to the rectory at Rampisham, but if anything it is even more true to his aesthetic. It is certainly a very pure and functional design: Pugin is said to have remarked that The Grange was the only one of his designs that had not been compromised by the tightness of his client’s budget. Built of light-coloured brick and stone, it has – according to Pugin – ‘not an untrue bolt or joint’. As well as the house itself, Pugin also designed and built on the same plot of land his own church, St Augustine’s.

St Augustine's Grange (courtesy of The Landmark Trust)

The Grange was Pugin’s last house – he died there on September 14 1852 of a stroke brought on by overwork which had led to a nervous breakdown. But it’s in his short time at the Grange that Pugin the man comes alive for us today, for here we find revealed aspects of his nature well removed from architecture. For instance, far from being just a dreamer, a visionary, Pugin was also a very practical man. In his youth he had spent time at sea as part of a ship’s crew, and at Ramsgate he kept a small sailboat that he would take out to escape from the stress of his architectural practice. But that’s not all. The Grange overlooks the treacherous Goodwin Sands, and Pugin included a tower in the building’s structure from which he would watch the Sands for ships in trouble. If one was wrecked on the Sands, Pugin would hurry to launch his boat and put out to sea, to claim as much salvaged cargo as he could pick up. Ever short of funds, this was a very convenient, if rather dubious, way to supplement his income.

Today, St. Augustine’s Grange belongs to The Landmark Trust. The Trust has spent a substantial sum of money restoring The Grange, and it is available for let to holiday visitors. For bookings, contact The Landmark Trust on 01628 825925; web: http://bookings.landmarktrust.org.uk/.

Parts of the house are open to visitors by arrangement, and there is also an Open Day, held each year. For visiting details, call 01843 596401.

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