Friday, September 19, 2008

Critical Review of Rosemary Hill's Recent Biography of AWN Pugin: God's Architect

The following article appeared in Issue 40 of Ecclesiology Today, the journal of the Ecclesiological Society. The text of the article is reproduced in full here for the New Liturgical Movement, by kind permission.

The article-review was written by Fr. Anthony Symondson, S.J., a specialist in the English gothic revival period who intends to provide an important counter-point to the way in which Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin is approached.

Rosemary Hill, God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain

Reviewed by Anthony Symondson, SJ

‘Strange as it may appear to some,’ wrote Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-52) in a letter published in The Tablet on 2 September 1848:

‘Rome has been, and ever will be, the corner and key-stone of pointed architecture [his italics]. Every Gothic church throughout the world was erected when the signet of the Fisherman was the talisman of Christendom, and the foundation of every vast abbey and mighty cathedral is based on the Rock of Peter.’

Pugin’s letter was written in defence of rood screens at a time when he was disillusioned by the coolness of Catholic bishops and clergy towards his aims. He was dismayed by the adoption of Italianate architecture, devotions and worship by Newman, Faber and many of the converts to Rome and their ill-disguised distaste for medievalism and the Gothic style.This dispute is well known but what is rarely emphasized is their point of unity.What made these factions one was a common loyalty to the Papacy; what divided them was the style and form in which their fidelity was expressed. Papal Catholicism was the foundation of Pugin’s perception of faith, held by him as strongly as the ultramontane convictions of the Italianizing party.

Pugin was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1835 at the age of twenty-three; he died seventeen years later in 1852 at the age of forty, exhausted, broken and mad. His early experience of religion was Presbyterian in a charismatic form under the influence of Edward Irving. He declared that he ‘had crowded a century’s work in forty’ and had transformed British architecture in nineteen by moving the revived Gothick style from a picturesque, ornamental, literary form into one informed by scholarship and the structural logic of Gothic. No architect had more influence on the Gothic Revival than him; scarcely a medieval or new Victorian church escaped the consequences. When the vicissitudes of Pugin’s life are considered the acceptance of two factors is necessary in order to understand him: his youth and his consent to receive Catholicism not merely as a vehicle of taste and architectural opportunity but as revealed truth. The two were inseparably associated and to divorce or reduce one at the expense of the other is to distort the fundamental motivation of his life, work and principles. Archbishop Ullathorne, writing to Ambrose Phillips de Lisle on 10 October 1852, said ‘I wish very much to see something written about Pugin to show how completely his genius sprang from and was directed by religion’.

With the exception of Michael Trappes-Lomax’s study of Pugin, published in 1931, Pugin’s religion has been an embarrassment to his biographers. If you want to learn more of Pugin the Catholic, read Trappes-Lomax, if only because Pugin is given a voice; his words are quoted extensively and maintain the narrative drive. Benjamin Ferrey did not welcome Pugin’s Catholicism and reflected the mid-Victorian prejudices of the year of its publication: 1861. Phoebe Stanton’s short book on Pugin is valuable for being an architectural inquiry and for paying attention to his work in Ireland, in 1971 something of a revelation. Surprisingly, Pugin and her excellent articles are not included in the select bibliography, though there are unattributed references to her theories. While God’s Architect is not an architectural study, Rosemary Hill has accomplished the fullest and most complete modern biography so far published; it will be hard to supersede and is likely to be regarded as the orthodox view of Pugin for the foreseeable future. I have never before read a book about an architect as substantial as this more quickly and with such pleasure; when finished I experienced a palpable sense of loss. Pugin’s religion is, however, seen as part of a greater whole rather then the driving force of his life.

Pugin is, by now, a familiar Victorian architect due to Pugin: a Gothic Passion, the exhibition mounted by Clive Wainwright and Paul Atterbury in 1994 which caused a sea-change in the public appreciation of his work. It was a controversial exhibition that presented Pugin in terms of the applied arts at the expense of architecture and began a subtle process of secularising his life, work and influence on the development of the Gothic Revival. Despite a central display of church plate and other religious artefacts (some of which were not designed by him but were manufactured by Hardman in his style) the emphasis was more on his early years as a theatrical designer, his principles of design, his furniture and ceramics, his influence on the later Arts and Crafts Movement and his perceived, if erroneous, role as a precursor of the Modern Movement.

God’s Architect is partly a fruit of this enterprise. It was then that Hill began research on a biography of Pugin and Wainwright’s views had a strong influence on her in the early stages. The problem with Wainwright in relation to Pugin was that he was an atheist who had little sympathy with and no understanding of Pugin’s religious views and their powerful motivation on his understanding of the Gothic style and social reform. In his lectures we had Pugin the sailor, the pirate, the womaniser, his supposed lack of interest in Catholic doctrine, his misreading of Catholic politics, his eccentric dress, his functional principles, his influence on the applied arts, his role as a proto- High Victorian. Pugin the Catholic was played down, Pugin the character emerged; a secularist, post-Christian understanding of Pugin was established.

Engaging though God’s Architect is to read it is under-girded by a sequence of questionable angles that motivate Hill’s thesis and fit Pugin’s life into a pre-determined pattern. These I want to address...

To read the remainder of the article-review, please read it here. (PDF document)

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