A lifelong dedication to Gothic architecture: Peter Howell on A.W.N. Pugin

The final instalment in the collected letters of a revivalist pioneer


In a letter of 1833 to William Osmond, a stonemason in Salisbury, Pugin thanks him for “a most acceptable... present... in the shape of an ennormous cheddar cheese which although not strictly Gothic in its present shape may be Easily rendered more so by Cutting into 4 which will make it a Quatrefoil”. A letter like that makes one long for more, and this volume completes what must be one of the most remarkable feats of publishing and editing of recent years.

The first volume appeared in 2001, its 428 pages covering the years from 1830, when Pugin was 18, until 1842. The Collected Letters of A.W.N. Pugin, Volume 5, 1851 to 1852 covers the last two years of his life. The final letter dates from February 1852—though he did not die until September, he was too ill to write again. Appendices contain undatable letters, letters that turned up too late to be included in the proper sequence, and “additional letters to Pugin”. The enterprise of Oxford University Press in agreeing to publish all the letters, and the devotion and scholarship of Margaret Belcher in editing them, with succinct and pithy introductions and painstakingly detailed notes, are beyond praise.

Pugin’s significance, and incalculable influence, as an architect, a designer of many different types of artefact, and a writer is now securely founded on a scale of documentation provided for very few other architects. His drawings at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) are published in special volumes, the latter (edited by Sandra Wedgwood) including his diary entries. There are three biographies of him, the latest of which, by Rosemary Hill (God’s Architect, 2007), received universal acclaim.

There are lavish books on Pugin that accompanied the exhibitions at the V&A (1994) and the Bard Graduate Centre in New York (1995), together with Brian Andrews’s catalogue of the exhibition on Pugin at the Antipodes, held at Hobart in 2002. Belcher has already produced a comprehensive bibliography (1987). Michael Fisher has written books about Alton Towers, about Pugin’s work in the Midlands, and about his closest collaborator John Hardman. There are monographs on Pugin’s stained glass, his brasses and his favoured builder, George Myers. Benjamin Ferrey’s Recollections (1861) and most of Pugin’s own writings have been reprinted. The Pugin Society publishes a journal. It is also heartening that, after some years when their future was far from secure, both St Augustine’s, his church at Ramsgate, and The Grange, his house beside it, are now in safe hands and cared for.

The excited enthusiasm that Pugin shows in his earliest letters, such as the one to Osmond about the marvels of Wells Cathedral (“Gothic for ever”), is still evident in the last ones, when he was overwhelmed with work, constantly anxious about family problems and his finances, and suffering from appalling ill health. The letters are a fascinating source of information about his activities, but they give an even more striking insight into his personality. He had a gift for friendship, and a genuine sympathy for others. For example, he urges Hardman to take care of his health, and is deeply upset by his own daughter’s problems after the birth of her child. His love for his wife is often revealed. Many of the letters deal with the Medieval Court, which was a star attraction at the Great Exhibition in 1851, and he shows not just how thrilled he was by the enterprise, but how anxious he was to look after his fellow contributors.

However, he was not prepared to put up with maltreatment, and, in a draft of a letter of which he later thought better, he told his client and particular bugbear Captain Hibbert that he was “a wretch at heart & without Common humanity—honour or Christian feeling”. He had a great deal to put up with, as when he discovered that Father Costigan, the priest at St Augustine’s, had used the marble piscina in the sacristy as a urinal (this comes in Volume 4).

Many other letters deal with Pugin’s work in designing decorative details for the Houses of Parliament, and, along with the letters from its architect Charles Barry, which are quoted, they make very clear the excellent relationship that existed between the two men, and Barry’s sincere regard for his collaborator’s genius.

An event whose repercussions were strongly felt in these years was the restoration of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England in 1850. This provoked a hysterical reaction on the part of many in government and elsewh ere, which Pugin was at pains to counteract, not least by his insistence on the Catholic heritage of the Church of England. He also shows his generosity in proposing a scheme by which laymen might subsidise the new bishops.

Pugin’s first letter (illustrated in Volume 1) is written in a neat and easily legible hand, but by the time of Volume 5 his writing (often executed while travelling in trains or carriages) is nearly indecipherable: Belcher, fortunately, is up to the task. She is equally unfazed by his idiosyncratic orthography. His letters are sometimes illustrated with characteristic rapid sketches, and some of these are reproduced in Volume 5.

It is desperately sad to read in the last letter “I am perfectly well”. Pugin’s health alternated between horrible symptoms (including problems with his sight) and recoveries which he thought miraculous. Through it all he kept working as hard as he could, claiming that it was his only way of keeping going. He reported that the doctors told him he had done 100 years’ work in 40. How lucky we are to have its result. Belcher quotes Cardinal Newman as saying that the “true life of a man is in his letters”. She has done us all an invaluable service in letting us have those of Pugin.

• Peter Howell taught for 35 years in the department of classics, Bedford and Royal Holloway Colleges, and was the chairman of the Victorian Society (1987-93). He is currently writing a book on the triumphal arch from Roman times to the present

The Collected Letters of A.W.N. Pugin, Volume 5,

1851 to 1852

Margaret Belcher, ed    

Oxford University Press, 728pp, £150 (hb)