Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Review: The Collected Letters of A. W. N. Pugin, Volume 4

The following book review has been written by Fr. Anthony Symondson, S.J., who is the author of various books and writings on sacred architecture.

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The Collected Letters of A. W. N. Pugin, volume 4 1849 to 1850

Edited with Notes and an Introduction by Margaret Belcher

Oxford University Press, £142.50

‘I am so sick of passing my life doing miserable buildings & getting abused for them afterwards,’ wrote A. W. N. Pugin dejectedly to John Hardman in 1849, ‘that I want to employ the few years of life left to make at any rate good designs, it is horrible to be taunted on all sides for buildings in which everything is cut down to the Last shilling – give me an employer with money & I will work for him – but no more poor jobs.’

This quotation is taken from the first letter in the fourth volume of Pugin’s Collected Letters for the years 1849-50. For the last ten years admirers of Pugin’s work have enjoyed the monumental endeavour of the publication of his correspondence, impeccably edited by Margaret Belcher. This constitutes one of the major achievements in the literature of the Gothic Revival. The present volume is not only the longest of the series so far published but also the most detailed in the range of Pugin’s work and preoccupations. In comparison with the success of his earlier years it records a professionally bleak period marked by the ebbing away of significant architectural commissions and their replacement by designs for stained glass, church furniture and metalwork, precious and base. The furnishing and decoration of the New Palace of Westminster dragged on. ‘To be architect to one grate or one fireplace’ was, so he assured Hardman, worse ‘than keeping a fish stall – for one may get a few shillings by a deal in whiting.’

No critic could be more savage in their estimation of his work than Pugin himself but he resented criticism because few knew the constraints under which he was sometimes forced to work. Accusations of thinness of structure, weak elevations, and poor materials were made regardless of circumstances. Even the consecration of St Augustine’s, Ramsgate, on 14 August 1850, disappointed him. ‘The church was blest this morning,’ he informed Hardman, ‘& mass sung, the altar Looked wretched, we had nothing, the weather dreadful, a heavy gale from the N. blowing everything into the church the moment a door was opened. … I have been a great fool ever to begin such a Large work without better materials to work it, the chairs &c Look beastly - & building has lost immensely inside by the benches …’. St Augustine’s crippled Pugin for the rest of his life; in the meanwhile, Mrs Pugin had to endure a course of cod liver oil which did little for domestic contentment. Yet here his beliefs, as an architect and Catholic, converged. In 1850 he had mellowed and wrote to John Rouse Bloxam, inviting him to Ramsgate, saying that ‘The interior of the church is most solemn & would delight you much’.

These were the years of reversals of Pugin’s principles not only by wary bishops but by zealous converts seeking authenticity in Baroque Catholicism. Of these the main culprits were the Oratorians who were disliked and feared by Pugin. ‘I never looked on a Puritan with half the disgust that I do on Oratorians, they are the worst enemies of religion that England has seen for many a day … we have never had such miserable prospects never so low in hopes.’ While in return Newman deplored Pugin’s ‘haughty and domineering tone’. It is, perhaps, ironical that the brass furniture on Newman’s coffin was designed by Pugin years before and made as a standard design by Hardman. Moreover, in 1849 Newman had bought Gothic church metalwork from his firm.

Pugin’s stained glass was used by many architects, including Carpenter, Butterfield, and Woodyer, among others, but the return was ‘nothing’; ‘the windows neither pay me nor you’, he observed to Hardman. Nevertheless, he was able to buy his boat, the Caroline, which gave him endless pleasure and he illustrated another of the letters to Hardman with the yacht in full sail. Today Pugin’s glass is regarded as one of his greatest achievements.

The survival of the Hardman archive has enabled the greater part of Pugin’s surviving letters to be preserved. But there is other correspondence, including personal letters to Jane, his wife, Crace, his decorator, architects, his clients and sundry correspondents, including bellicose letters to the press. He welcomed the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850. In 1849 he published Floriated Ornament, the most beautiful of his books, and towards the end of 1850 collected material for his treatise on Screens.

All of this activity was accomplished against the background of domestic security and comfort, the birth of his youngest child, Margaret, and the marriage of his eldest daughter, Anne, to J. H. Powell which further cemented the link between Pugin and Hardman. Pugin’s artistic touchiness found full expression in his letters, many written in a towering rage, and they are invaluable not merely for shedding light on his work but also his life and times. In the copious footnotes, which are marvels of scholarship, we further discover Pugin as he really was, rather than as the subject of prejudiced assumptions.

-- Anthony Symondson SJ

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