By Julian Holder
God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain.
By Rosemary Hill. Penguin, 2007. £30
A W N Pugin, John Ruskin, and William Morris still form the holy trinity for the rise of Modernism. For this we have to thank the progressive theory expounded by Nikolaus Pevsner in his Pioneers of the Modern Movement. Without Pugin we’d have no Ruskin, without Ruskin no Morris and without the three of them none of the social critique of architecture which led to Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier. Or so the theory went.
In recent years Ruskin and Morris have been the subject of major biographies – now it is Pugin’s turn. In a short working life of 25 years, as well as writing his powerful polemics, he not only designed such famous monuments of the early Gothic Revival as St Giles, Cheadle, the Grange at Ramsgate (AJ 13.07.06), and (with Sir Charles Barry) the Houses of Parliament – but also 18 churches, two cathedrals, three convents, two monasteries and a number of schools.
So central does he appear to Victorian architecture that it comes as a shock to be reminded that he died in 1852. But it comes as still more of a shock to read that Pugin – so pious, committed, and evangelical for the cause of Gothic – probably died from syphilis caught during his early years spent working in London’s theatreland.
Hill’s magnificent biography not only paints this fuller and franker picture of the saviour of Sir Charles Barry – standing over him while he completed the design of the Houses of Parliament clock tower – but reclaims him from what historian Sir John Summerson derided as the ‘pioneer hunters’: those who only valued him for planting the seeds of Modernism.
Pugin is revealed here to be what he truly was. Not one of Pevsner’s ‘pioneers’, nor a progressive architect of the Victorian age (whose committees and institutions he disdained), but an artist of the Romantic period. If his closest 20th-century equivalent is Le Corbusier – whose reputation is also as much that of a polemicist as an architect – his nearest significant contemporary is Wordsworth. Though politically poles apart, both men marked crucial turning points in the development of their own art forms, placing emotion and fantasy over reason and rationality.
Pugin was born in to the medieval fantasy world of Walter Scott’s novels and never quite escaped. Nor did he want to. Hill suggests that his immersion in this world was as much the result of ignorance as it was of choice.
An obsessive father who took him on sketching tours of medieval churches, together with a poor education, ensured he never read the next chapter in the standard histories of architecture – the Renaissance. Is he also a case of magnificent arrested development? Little wonder his rediscovery in the 1880s gave the Arts and Crafts Movement so much more to think about.
Julian Holder is an architectural historian in Manchester
Review - Book - God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain.