Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Pugin the Glazier: A Review by Fr. Anthony Symondson, S.J.

Recently I mentioned two titles of Spire Books, including The Stained Glass of AWN Pugin by Stanley Shepherd, published at the extraordinarily reasonable price of £34.95.

I believe our readers will be very interested in the following review, recently published in The Mass of Ages, a publication of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales, written by one of the contemporary experts on the gothic revival, Fr. Anthony Symondson, S.J. of Farm Street, London.

We are delighted to present it here in full by permission of The Mass of Ages.

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Pugin the Glazier

by Fr. Anthony Symondson, S.J.

The Stained Glass of A. W. N. Pugin,
by Stanley A. Shepherd,
Spire Books, £34.95

It would almost be impossible to imagine the cathedrals, churches, monasteries and convents of England, Catholic and Anglican, without stained glass windows. Equally, it would almost be impossible to find them untouched by the influence of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. The only exceptions are remote, unrestored churches, or neo-Classical and modern ones, and not all of them. The reason is that this early-Victorian tyro rediscovered from first principles the art of stained glass, medieval techniques of embroidery, hand-raising in precious metalwork, forging in base metals, carving in wood and stone. This endeavour was entirely conceived in Gothic terms and his life was devoted to re-creating the ‘real thing’. Pugin’s work culminated in the Medieval Court of the Great Exhibition of 1851 which received 170 prestigious medals, was lit by stained glass, and was several times visited by Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort.

For many years after the Victorian age drew to a close all but the most discerning vilified Victorian stained glass as hideous, bad and worthless, and some of it is. Pugin’s work is an exception that set a standard which demonstrated that his principles of design were not only true but beautiful. Without Pugin the Gothic Revival would not have developed as it did, nor would the artistic achievements of the late-nineteenth century have come into being. As John Dando Sedding, the Arts and Crafts Movement church architect, observed, ‘we should have had no Morris, no Street, no Burges, no Shaw, no Webb, no Bodley, no Burne-Jones, no Crane, but for Pugin’. And to this galaxy I would add no Bentley. Pugin’s influence culminated as fully in Bentley as it did in Bodley, as the matchless church of the Holy Rood, Watford, witnesses. While at Westminster Cathedral the building methods and workmanship are equally indebted to Pugin’s experiments of the 1840s.

Since the pioneer work of Martin Harrison in the 1980s it is less easy to dismiss Victorian stained glass and now we have Stanley Shepherd’s magisterial study of Pugin’s glass. Divided into two parts, the first examines Pugin’s working methods, the foundation of the Hardman Glass Workshop, windows for churches, chapels, domestic and secular buildings, style, relationships with clients and developments in stained glass after Pugin’s death in 1852. The second is composed of a detailed gazetteer, reinforced by bibliographical references, of his entire work in England, Ireland,Wales, and abroad. There are useful appendices composed of a catalogue of windows in date order, and an analysis of their cost.

The book is lavishly illustrated by photographs of Pugin’s windows in colour taken with great skill by Alastair Carew-Cox and, with the occasional exceptions of large windows difficult to photograph, are of outstanding quality. No record of Pugin’s glazing achievement is more complete and, despite a few surprising omissions, such as the rose window in the chapel of St Peter’s College, Wexford, and minor works which can be corrected in a later edition, it is unlikely that it will be superseded.

Early precursors of revived stained glass designed on an archaeological basis included David Evans and the Catholic Joseph Hales Miller. Pugin’s early work was made by O’Connor, Wailes, Warrington and, best of all, Willement, with whom he had difficult professional relationships, and all of whom produced glass independently. His revival of stained glass was as turbulent as his other endeavours and reflects the workings of a perfectionist sensibility made more fastidious by artistic touchiness born of frustration in the pursuit of a consistent ideal. These tendencies characterize many architects but in Pugin they were heightened by half-Gallic intensity. But it was John Hardman & Co, a firm that only employed Catholics, that came to make most of Pugin’s windows and whose records are among the most extensive of any nineteenth-century firm. They form the principal foundation of this study.

Although much of Pugin’s glass recaptures the spirit of the Middle Ages, especially in using heraldic colour and draughtsmanship, it should not be seen simply as pastiche or as an attempt to precisely copy the work of the medieval past. He restored the medieval qualities of texture and colour to the glass itself, but his work was distinctive of the early-Victorian age and should be judged on these canons as much as on his versatility in re-capturing the Gothic language of architecture and technique.

The gazetteer, arranged by counties, forms the bulk of the second half of the book and it is here that its origin as a thesis is most evident. Some may find the descriptions dense but they are invaluable for their thoroughness and in the use of wide references from Pugin’s letters, correspondence from his clients, Hardman himself, and contemporary criticism.

Printed on heavy art paper, The Stained Glass of A. W. N. Pugin is a handsome volume but not as handsome as it would have been in the hands of a professional book designer. Spire Books has one of the best lists of architectural books currently in print but the time has come when a higher standard of format is required and the taint of desktop publishing exorcised. This, for its length and quality of colour plates, modestly-priced work will remain the standard source of reference for Pugin’s stained glass for years hence and forms not only a major tribute to his achievement but also to the meticulous care, interpretation and attention to detail of Shepherd’s scholarship and lucid prose.

Originally published in The Mass of Ages

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