The Nature of Gothic

3D front cover of Contrasts by A.W. PuginAnother surprise best-seller (in our modest definition of the phrase) has been Pugin’s Contrasts (or, to give it its full title, Contrasts: Or, A Parallel between the Noble Edifices of the Middle Ages and Corresponding Buildings of the Present Day). Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin published this, probably his most famous book, in 1836, when he was 24, and he died (after a period when he was diagnosed insane) at the age of forty.

During his short working life, he designed churches, including St Chad’s Roman Catholic cathedral in Birmingham and St George’s Roman Catholic cathedral in Southwark. He was also responsible for the interior decoration of the newly rebuilt Houses of Parliament, working in close collaboration with the architect Sir Charles Barry.

You might have thought that a devoted follower of medieval building style, and the effective initiator of the Gothic revival, might have been admired by John Ruskin. Sadly, it seems that Ruskin was not a fan – possibly because Pugin’s flamboyant Catholicism got in the way of any appreciation of his works. Indeed, Ruskin was as vitriolic an opponent as only Ruskin could be: in an appendix to The Stones of Venice, he mocks Pugin’s effusive writing style, and adds: ‘… he is not a great architect, but one of the smallest possible or conceivable architects’, but while ‘Phidias can niche himself into the corner of a pediment, and Raffaele expatiate within the circumference of a clay platter, … Pugin is inexpressible in less than a cathedral…’, etc., etc.

Pugin’s personal life was tragic: his first two wives died, he became engaged twice after the sudden death of his second wife, but on both occasions marriage did not follow. He married for the third time in 1848, but by 1852, his health had broken down, partly through over-work, and partly through taking medicines that contained mercury. The resulting ‘insanity’ led to his being confined for a period in the Bethlehem Pauper Hospital for the Insane – Bedlam – before his death (at home in Ramsgate) in September of that year.

Pugin may not be to your taste, but he was undoubtedly a visionary and enormously influential architect. A biography (together with that of his father, an architectural draftsman from whom he learned much) was published by Benjamin Ferrey (his father’s pupil, who lodged with the family for several years) in 1861. We have also reissued his Present State of Ecclesiastical Architecture in England, and The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture.

Caroline

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3 Responses to The Nature of Gothic

  1. Great post, Caroline.

    I’ve admired his work for some time, but hadn’t realised that Pugin had such a miserable personal life in contrast to his architectural feats.

  2. Pingback: The Built Environment | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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