Friday, October 22, 2010

Fr. Anthony Symondson Reviews Volume Three of The Collected Letters of AWN Pugin

The Collected Letters of A. W. N. Pugin: Volume 3: 1846 to 1848, edited by Margaret Belcher, Oxford University Press, £126.

Reviewed by Fr. Anthony Symondson, S.J.

One of the most remarkable feats of modern scholarship is Margaret Belcher’s edition of the collected letters of A. W. N. Pugin, the Victorian architect. Scrupulously edited and annotated, they are not only indispensable for the study of Victorian architecture and ecclesiastical life of the period, but reveal Pugin in his own, sometimes raw, words. The third volume (the longest so far) brings the record to 1848.

The years 1846-8 find Pugin at the zenith of his work and influence. His two major churches – St Giles’s, Cheadle, and St Augustine’s, Ramsgate – are finished; the first part of the House of Lords is open; and he makes his only visit to Italy. He also married for the third time. His bride, Jane Knill, brought happiness after four years of misery, poor health, and disappointment following the death of Louisa, his second wife, in 1844, leaving him with six children and the burden of running an expanding practice with little assistance.

Much of his correspondence was with the colleagues who executed his work. With Myers, his builder, Hardman, his metalworker and glass-painter, Crace, who executed his domestic furniture, wall paper and diapering, and, less so, Minton, his ceramist. Much of this correspondence is professional, associated with architectural projects, but some is personal and discloses the good terms of friendship established by Pugin with them; the same applies to his clients. Hardman took an interest in Pugin’s welfare, knowing how he drove himself, and it was he and Lord Shrewsbury who urged him to go to Italy for a month to recuperate after the intense exertion of working on Cheadle and the House of Lords.

This took place in the spring of 1847 and, predictably, Rome was vilified. This was ill-received and a vivid account was written by James Gillis describing the lamentable impression Pugin made. ‘Marshall the convert with whom he went about a good deal declares he was in perfect misery all-day long – Then he went out in the morning & was tortured by the Paganism of the churches here, at his hotel he was Encompassed by Protestants talking treason & scoffing at religion – That in the stir out after Sunset for fear of Stilletos – On one occasion he suffered his pocket to be picked without resistance in church fearing the revenge of the thief – but their crowning joke is their having found him at his devotions in the Confessional of St Peter’s & upon congratulating him upon being able to pray in so Pagan a temple, he assured them that he was returning thanks that there were 5 cracks in the cupola of the Church.’

‘Ever since I left Rome I have been delighted with Italy,’ he wrote to Lord Shrewsbury from Florence, ‘… I have seen 3 of the finest gothic altars in Christendom & one of silver about 12 feet high – as for the stained glass there is nothing so good on our side of the alps - & the sacristies are full of Gothic shrines reliquaries chalices &c. I am in a perfect mine of medieval art …’. If anything, his enthusiasm intensified in Perugia, Bologna, Venice and Milan.

Pugin met Newman in 1846 at a reception at Alton Towers after the consecration of Cheadle, in company with the massed ranks of clerical and lay Catholic leaders celebrating the revival of Catholicism in England. But, on practical grounds, nobody indighted Pugin’s reputation as a liturgical designer more than Newman. In 1848, after preaching at the newly-consecrated St Thomas’s, Fulham, he delivered the coup de grace on the efficiency of Pugin’s altars and the functional competence of his churches.

‘Mrs Bowden’s new Church at Fulham is very pretty,’ he wrote to Miss Giberne, ‘but it has the faults of Pugin. In details Pugin is perfect but his altars are so small that you can’t have a Pontifical High Mass at them, his tabernacles so low that you can scarce have exposition, his East windows so large that every thing is hidden in the glare, and his skreens (sic) so heavy that you might as well have the function in the sacristy, for the seeing of it by the Congregation.’ Pugin did not attend the consecration and came to fear Newman’s antipathy.

In Jane Knill Pugin found a ‘first-rate Gothic woman at last, who perfectly understands and delights in spires, chancels, screens, stained glass windows, brasses, vestments, etc’. She befriended his children, bore him two more, and, Myers confided to Hardman, made ‘the governor’, ‘Very Cosy … and as fat as a seal’.

Every few years an immaculate volume of Pugin’s letters is published by the Oxford University Press, sparsely illustrated in monochrome on art paper, which is a model of how letters should be edited and presented to the public. Three have appeared so far, volume 4 is promised next year, and more are expected to bring the record to the year of Pugin’s death in 1852. They are not only a monument of scholarship but, through the extensive footnotes, set Pugin’s life in the context in which he lived, devoid of bias. Not least, the Second Spring of English Catholicism is reflected as it actually was through Pugin’s engagement with the protagonists. Victorian studies as a whole owe Margaret Belcher a debt that will never be repaid.

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