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God’s Architect

Review by: Dominic Janes, Birkbeck College, University of London

Rosemary Hill, God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

Speed and energy were powerful cultural themes in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. The A. W. N. Pugin (1812-1852) that emerges from Rosemary Hill’s impressive biography was a man who drove himself to a premature death from overwork. He is presented as bridging the world of Regency flamboyance and that of early Victorian drive and seriousness. The importance of this biography lies not so much in its establishment of the exceptional role of Pugin and the decorative arts, but of their centrality to the British experience during this period. Hill analyses his importance in terms of his ‘application’ of other’s ideas. She writes that ‘purely as a theorist he has no “long-term” significance at all’ (p. 247). That his legacy was and continues to be powerfully constitutive of Britain may be demonstrated by the fact that the Houses of Parliament in general and its Clock Tower in particular, are perhaps the most internationally recognised architectural icons of the nation. It is no accident that the giant alien destroyers in Roland Emmerich’s Hollywood smash-hit movie Independence Day (1996) hover menacingly over Pugin’s handiwork, just as they do over the Pyramids of Giza and the Eiffel Tower. Pugin’s work is, as it were, so prominent as to be visible from space. 

That the frame that houses ‘Big Ben’ was ‘essentially’ Pugin’s design has ‘never been seriously disputed’, says Hill (p. 481). And it is indeed remarkably similar to the clock tower that Pugin designed in about 1838 for Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire (plate 58). Yet, public recognition, save for when he was selected as one of the panel appointed to buy works from the Great Exhibition of 1851 for the nation (and so to form the basis of what would become the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum), was notably lacking. Charles Barry was knighted for his services as architect of the rebuilt Palace of Westminster whilst Pugin went under-paid and over-criticised when he was not simply being ignored. A social outsider, Pugin emerges as something of victim and Hill extracts a certain amount of pathos from these circumstances. Charles ‘who could not design a doorknob in the medieval style’ Barry, visited Pugin in the last year of his life and drove the dying man to ever more work. In a state of confusion and exhaustion Pugin wrote to John Hardman, his manufacturing contractor and close friend, that ‘I render all the designs for finishing his bell tower & it is beautiful & I am the whole machinery of the clock’ (p. 482).

The sense that Pugin was the ‘machinery of the clock’, but was fated to be fêted with faint praise as the designer of peculiarly devout casings, has led Hill to lend her voice to the movement which has, over the last few decades, rehabilitated both Victorian taste and the importance of Pugin to its formulation. The success of this process, when combined with the care with which Hill has synthesised the recent researches of various academic experts, has resulted in critical acclaim and the award of the Wolfson Prize for history and the James Tait Black Prize for biography.

This biography, perhaps like all works of its type is, therefore, a work of advocacy and an attempt at empathy. And, in so far as is possible (bearing in mind that the majority of Pugin’s correspondence consists of hastily written letters on matters of design and construction) we get to see the world through Pugin’s eyes. And this is perhaps the chief reason for reading this volume rather than, for instance, for its analytical engagement with his works. Hill’s analyses of Pugin’s designs and writings are not particularly detailed, but she does emphasise widely-recognised but important facts, such as the evolution of his thought beyond the nationalistic English decorated gothic style with which he is popularly associated. Hill also makes very clear the divisions within the Roman Catholic community and highlights the fact that he found his most substantial receptive audience among Anglicans. The rise of ultramontanism, as illustrated by the act of Wiseman in having Pugin’s medieval-style vestments cut back into the shape sanctioned by Rome, meant that Pugin might perhaps, had he lived, have come to see Anglo-Catholicism as a more congenial spiritual home. Being as passionately interested in the visual aspects of worship as he was, he would have fitted perfectly into the emerging movement of Anglican ritualism.

On the other hand, whilst many Anglo-Catholic ritualists advocated lives of celibacy and renunciation, Hill’s Pugin was a man who grew up amongst the theatres of Covent Garden and never shook off their heady atmosphere of sensuality, and indeed, it may be, the venereal diseases thereto appertaining. Indeed, Pugin emerges as a raging romantic, replete with intense emotions, strong lusts, apocalyptic fears and sentimental longings, who exhausted not only himself, but his wives, lovers, friends and enemies. It is here that this book might have been an even more substantial achievement had it further developed the theme of Pugin the artist.

In 1842 J. M. W. Turner exhibited his painting Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth. This was supposed to have been painted after he had been lashed to a ship’s mast in just such a terrifying storm. Pugin too, watched storms wrecking ships on the notoriously dangerous Goodwin Sands off the coast from Ramsgate where he lived out his last years. His response was to buy a vessel and use it to earn money from salvaging cargoes from stricken ships. Like Turner he was keen to harness the tempests of his time to earn money and make a reputation. But as an artist, his obsessively precise detailing suggests not so much a romantic embrace of the deluge, but of terror at the possibility of dissolution and decay. Hill gives a vivid, and indeed alarming, picture of daily life at the Grange, his home in Ramsgate, with its bell-ringing and quasi-monastic processions. She clearly shows us that ‘to live at the Grange was to inhabit his vision and live by his rules’ (p. 326). But even as he struggled to realise a state of perfect design for living, so the syphilis, or if not syphilis some terrible form of mental illness, ate away at his body and mind. If Hill is correct, Pugin’s legacy was powerfully constitutive of modern house design and, thus, to a degree, of the contemporary household. Perhaps we should not just be ready with our admiration: we should also be rather worried.

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