Palace of Westminster

Pugin: The Mad Genius of the Gothic Revival

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812 – 1852) was an English architect and propagandist. Although the Gothic Revival began before Pugin, no single person did more than he in accelerating its influence, progress and ascendancy as the National Style of Victorian Britain. Pugin’s father, Augustus Charles (1769 – 1832), was a refugee from France who came to London in 1792, becoming a draughtsman for the architect John Nash, one of London’s great town-planners and a leading light in the Picturesque movement. Augustus Snr. married the beautiful but austere Presbyterian Catherine Welby, ‘the Belle of Islington,’ in 1802, and their only child was born on March 1, 1812. A delicate child, Pugin attended the ‘Bluecoat School’ (Christ’s Hospital, Newgate Street), as a day-boy, where he demonstrated an intellectual capacity that was matched only by his energy, one master remarking that ‘he would learn in twenty-four hours what it took other boys weeks to acquire,’ a resource that would soon allow him to pack a vast amount of work into a tragically short life. He also exhibited a natural talent for drawing, and he assisted his father in the books on Gothic architecture which he edited for Nash in the early-1820s, including Specimens of Gothic Architecture, The Edifices of London, Examples of Gothic Architecture, and Ornamental Timber Gables. Nash disliked the style, but was obliged to supply to demand. Before the age of twenty, Pugin was designing furniture for Windsor Castle, and for a while he was interested in theatrical set design, notably working on a production of Scott’s historical romance Kenilworth in 1831. He also had a passion for the sea (at one time even owning and commanding a merchant smack trading with Holland), and preferred to wear the casual dress of a sailor. After losing his first (of three) wives after only two years of marriage, he converted to Catholicism in 1834, perhaps due more to architectural than theological reasons, his other passion being ‘Christian’ (that is Roman Catholic) architecture, the opulent ‘Second Pointed’ style of the late-thirteenth and early-fourteenth-centuries.


After his conversion, Pugin built himself a house near Salisbury which he called St. Marie’s Grange where, in 1836, he wrote and self-published his radical book on national morality and religious architecture, Contrast; or, a Parallel between the noble edifices of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and similar Buildings of the present day: showing the present decay of Taste. The title says it all; while Cardinal Newman still favoured a Utilitarian approach to church-building, Pugin argued, with the fervour of the pulpit and the subtlety of a saloon bar rant, that such ‘an absence of Catholic feeling among its professors’ was an outward sign of the spiritual decay of the nation, illustrating his point by juxtaposing engravings of an ancient building or town scene with a modern one, hence ‘contrasts.’ The book appeared as the Gothic Revival was steadily gaining credibility. While scholars and politicians fretted in public about how to express this new age, combined with a growing interest in the preservation of ancient monuments (soon to reach its peak with the publication of Ainsworth’s immensely popular romance, The Tower of London in 1840), the public seemed generally receptive to Pugin’s argument that pointed arches were suddenly ‘holier’ than round ones. The British Critic however responded that Contrasts ‘betrays an utter want of either soundness or fairness in its pretence at argument,’ which was largely true, while an anonymous Irish journalist penned a satirical little ditty upon the matter that ran:

The Catholic Church, she never knew –

Till Mr. Pugin taught her,

That orthodoxy had to do

At all with bricks and mortar.

Pugin would later publish more balanced pieces on the subject, such as True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841), written after Pugin was appointed Professor of Ecclesiastical Antiquities at St. Mary’s College, Oscott in 1837; An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England; and The Present State of Ecclesiastical Architecture in England (both written in 1843), as well as numerous lesser books and pamphlets.

Pugin Contrasts

From 1836 onwards, Pugin was working with Sir Charles Barry on the Houses of Parliament. Barry was no expert on Gothic detail, and Pugin therefore designed almost all of it, from the façades down to the inkstands, while also simultaneously working on numerous designs for new churches, houses, ironwork, tiles and all kinds of furniture. He always worked alone, once claiming that if he employed a clerk ‘I should kill him in a week.’ In addition to the Parliament building, his finest work is generally agreed to be the church at Cheadle in Staffordshire (1841 – 46), Nottingham Cathedral (1842 – 44), and St Augustine’s Church, Ramsgate (begun in 1846, and left incomplete when he died), the latter of which he funded himself, and which stands by his own house. It is here that his ideals are perhaps most perfectly expressed.

The Shrine of St Augustine of Canterbury, Ramsgate
The Shrine of St Augustine of Canterbury, Ramsgate

Pugin was never either physically or emotionally strong, and was often plagued by depression, self-doubt and despair, becoming increasingly violent and irrational towards the end of his life. He was particularly undermined by a destructive attack in the Ecclesiologist in 1846, leading him to doubt, if not disown, much of his work, which he would measure against his ideal and always find wanting. ‘I have never had the chance of producing a single fine ecclesiastical building, except my own church, where I am both paymaster and architect; but everything else, either for want of adequate funds or injudicious interference or control, or some other contingency, is more or less a failure,’ he wrote in Some Remarks in 1850.

Pugin was effectively insane from 1851. He died of a stroke on September 14, 1852 and is buried in his church of St. Augustine. We might almost view Pugin as a prophet, a Blakean figure with some unusual ideas about the relationship between moral and aesthetic value which he not only believed with a passion, but succeeded in convincing the Victorians. His designs became the basis for the generation of ecclesiastical buildings that would follow his own, and his tragedy is that he never recognized his own seismic impact on British architecture and national identity.

This piece was first published in the Routledge Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, edited by Chris Murray (2003)

Selected Works

Contrasts; or, A Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, and Similar Buildings of the Present Day; shewing the Present Decay of Taste: Accompanied by appropriate Text. Salisbury: for the author, 1836.

The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture: set forth in two Lectures delivered at St Marie’s, Oscott, by A. Welby Pugin, Architect, and Professor of Ecclesiastical Antiquities in that College. London: John Weale, 1841.

The Present State of Ecclesiastical Architecture in England. London: Charles Dolman 1843.

Some Remarks on the Articles Which Have Recently Appeared in the ‘Rambler’, Relative to Ecclesiastical Architecture and Decoration. London: Dolman, 1851.

Further Reading

Clark, Kenneth. The Gothic Revival: An Essay in the History of Taste. London: Constable & Co., 1928.

Clarke, Basil F.L. Church Builders of the Nineteenth Century. London: SPCK, 1938.

Eastlake, C.L. A History of the Gothic Revival in England. London, 1872.

Ferrey, Benjamin. Recollections of A.N. Welby Pugin and his Father Augustus Pugin. London: Stanford, 1861.

Ferriday, P. ed. Victorian Architecture. London, 1963.

Hitchcock, H.R. Early Victorian Architecture in Britain. 2 vols. New Haven and London, 1954.

Houghton, Walter E. The Victorian Frame of Mind 1830 – 1870. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1957.

Macaulay, James. The Gothic Revival 1745 – 1845. London: Blackie, 1975.

Muthesius, S. The High Victorian Movement in Architecture. London, 1972.

Pevsner, Nikolaus. Some Architectural Writers of the Nineteenth Century. Oxford, 1972.

Scott, George Gilbert. Remarks on Secular and Domestic Architecture, Present and Future. London, 1857.

Stanton, Phoebe. Pugin. London: Thames and Hudson, 1971.

Summerson, J. Nash. London, 1952.

Trappes-Lomax, Michael. Pugin: A Medieval Victorian. London: Sheed & Ward, 1932.

Watkin, David. English Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.


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