He lived quixotically in the hope of seeing St Peter’s rebuilt in “a better [ie; Gothic] style”; he said,”There is nothing worth living for but Christian [again, Gothic] architecture and a boat”.
This endlessly quotable figure was Augustus Welby Pugin, who died in 1852 aged only forty, having transformed the British architectural scene. Like the older Viollet-le-Duc, he worshipped the Middle Ages. He was less of a scholar than the Frenchman, but a greater architect and designer, and unlike him, he was a fervent, Romantic Catholic, not an anticlerical atheist.
What makes Pugin of more than art-historical importance to us is that he was also one of the roots of the modern movement in architecture and design. His statement, “There should be no features about a building which are not necessary for convenience, construction or propriety”, could have come from the mouths of Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe. His principle of truth to materials was fervently believed in until the onset of Post-Modernism by generations who had forgotten that it was he who first formulated it.
At the age of fifteen, Pugin was designing furniture for the Royal Family; from 1837 he was feverishly designing Gothic churches, among which the cathedrals of Birmingham and Nottingham, for the whole of Britain. These and their imitations transformed the British landscape. In 1844 he was designing the lavish interiors for the new Houses of Parliament, and in 1851, the Medieval Court for the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace was entrusted to him A year later he was dead, of exhaustion, stress and the poisonous effects of mercury.
The major exhibition opening this month at the Victoria and Albert Museum (15 June-11 September) presents this eccentric, brilliant figure in all his aspects as designer and architect and rediscovers the history of Pugin’s crucial ideological legacy (expressed in writings such as The true principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture of 1841, published also in French in 1851) which descended through the Arts and Crafts movement. The show is also an experiment in how to present an architectural exhibition, a genre which can be disappointingly dull. The organisers, Paul Atterbury advised by Clive Wainwright, have chosen a modern British architect, John Outram, known for his interest in surface, pattern and ornament, to provide a polychrome setting in which to present Pugin’s own brilliantly coloured designs and metalwork, silver, jewellery, ceramics, tiles, textiles, wallpapers, books and theatre sets.
The visitor to the exhibition walks through a graveyard and passes from cool Georgian colours into a re-creation of half a Pugin church. A real Pugin rood screen has been brought from Norfolk and an altarpiece, designed for his greatest patron Lord Shrewsbury at Alton Towers.
The book, with the same title as the exhibition, “Pugin: a Gothic passion”, is the first comprehensive work on the man and his influence, with 300 pages, 400 illustrations and twenty essays (YUP/V&A £19.95 p/b, £40 h/b). A two-day conference organised in conjunction with the Victorian Society is at the V&A on 24-25 June. The exhibition is sponsored by Pearson, the media company.