Books: Pugin’s Gothic genius

Two books accompanying recent museum shows

Despite similarities in the titles, editorial and contributing teams and some (but by no means all) of the illustrations, these two books have commendably little overlap in their contents. Both books accompanied exhibitions on Pugin’s life and work, and here the organisers were faced with the dilemma of how to present architectural achievement within an exhibition format.

The V&A book offers detailed discussion of Pugin’s multifarious activities, in a series of chapters by expert contributors, including architecture, writing, many areas of design such as furniture, ceramics, wallpaper, metalwork, jewellery, stained glass, textiles, even braids, and the theatre, as well as his interests as an antiquary and collector. Exhibits are denoted by a dagger symbol attached to the picture caption, so the illustrations give an idea of the exhibition, but no sense of the overwhelming impact of the more than four hundred objects that were shown. This kind of publication is essentially a compromise as far as the exhibition is concerned but it is designed to have an independent half-life, and it is a richer mixture than might have resulted from a “Life” on the same lines as those already existing for many of Pugin’s successors.

The Bard Center publication might be more properly titled “Pugin in Context”—as suggested by the title of Andrew Saint’s brilliant essay, “Pugin’s Architecture in context”—since the contents are diversified with digressions into the earlier history of the Gothic Revival and the spread of the Gothic style in the United States.

Pugin’s collaboration with Sir Charles Barry on the new Palace of Westminster ensured that his work would be familiar as a London landmark all over the world. Pugin’s hand can be detected in the working out of many solutions, particularly in the monumental buildings that proclaimed municipal maturity and prosperity—libraries and museums as well as Town halls—for which a tough and structural Gothic was appropriate. As Kenneth Clark wrote in The Gothic Revival (1928): “It changed the face of England...filling our towns with Gothic banks and grocers, Gothic lodging-houses and insurance companies, Gothic everything, from a town-hall down to a public-house...There cannot be a main street in England quite untouched by the Revival.”

Pugin’s working life spanned a period of transition, his youthful career during what is loosely termed the Regency, and his all-too-brief maturity as a Victorian. Queen Victoria succeeded to the throne when Pugin was twenty-five and he died at the age of forty, insane and worn out with overwork.

That his contribution was not more fully appreciated was due to a number of reasons, not least the intemperate nature of his writings. His conversion to Catholicism sidelined his religious buildings and, in spite of the Emancipation Act in 1829, cut him off from the Establishment and its network. Emancipation ensured that his participation in the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster was condoned, but his massive input was overshadowed by Barry’s position as the chosen architect. His critical dismissal by John Ruskin was a disaster for his posthumous reputation: “It is very necessary that all should know at once that he is not a great architect, but one of the smallest possible or conceivable of architects” was the devastating verdict fuelled by nonconformist hatred of Pugin’s religion.

The challenge of suggesting Pugin’s packed working life in limited gallery space was tackled in London with a moody and atmospheric installation, punctuated by theatrical devices for suggesting the excitement of the railway age, or soaring revived Gothic ecclesiastical buildings. Brian Sewell’s comment “a bright and cheerful sham, not in the least burdened by its ecclesiastical connections” was not entirely inapt.

This was a large and challenging exhibition, with an even larger one struggling to get out. It was successful in terms of visitor numbers, with about 75,000, and had on the whole respectful reviews. As is the nature of things in practical terms, this great enterprise spawned a smaller one at the Bard.

In a final analysis, we can appreciate that Pugin studies have been transformed in the last two years, to mention only the fact that students have easy access to nearly a thousand images, many of them in colour. If the question should arise as to who needs both these publications, the answer has to be that anybody interested in Pugin, the architecture of the period or the progress of design and technology in the first half of the nineteenth century cannot manage without them. The hardback edition of the 1994 book is already out of print.

Ed. Paul Atterbury, A.W.N. Pugin: master of Gothic Revival, (published for the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, New York, New York, by Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1995, British edition, 1996), £45 (hb), £25 (pb)

Ed. Paul Atterbury and Clive Wainwright, Pugin: a Gothic passion, (Yale University Press in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1994), £19.95 (pb)