What an achievement!
This book weighs in at 498 pages of text, plus another 100 with gazetteer and references. Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin is best known as the apostle of the Gothic Revival, his polemical books Contrasts and The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture were responsible for the polychrome gothickry that spread over Victorian Britain, from churches to villages, Parliament to St Pancras. Yet, despite the “three cathedrals” and many churches to his credit, he was a designer rather than an architect, and no constructor, but reliant on George Myers, a mason turned master builder.
What Pugin could and did do was decoration. Turrets, finials and tracery without, tiles, wallcovering, fabrics and stained glass within. Exuberant yet controlled, brilliantly coloured pattern flowed from his fingers to cover every item and surface, as par excellence in the House of Lords. Such is the effect at Westminster that Pugin is often named as architect in place of Sir Charles Barry, who created the structure but had no skill in embellishment. Indeed, were it for nothing else, Pugin would be renowned for the iconic clocktower that houses Big Ben.
Personally, he was a bundle of eccentric contradictions. The son of a French émigré illustrator, he was educated with his father’s pupils and never learnt to spell. His first passion was for the theatre, whose large spaces, fly lofts and scenic effects marked his imagination. The 1820s were a heyday of popular medievalism, when Scott’s Waverley novels and their clones dominated. Into this mix came religious emancipation and a revival of English Catholicism, just after the deaths of Pugin’s parents and first wife (he was 20). In 1835 he joined the Catholic Church, inspired by dreams of the past derived from bare ruined choirs. In one respect, this biography is mistitled, for though Pugin’s faith was central to his life, one gets little sense of a relationship with God. Rather than prayer or confessional, his devotions were in plainchant and processionals, and splendid tombs were more to his taste than theology.
He was, nevertheless, quite crazy. His manic scribbling and constant travelling indicate a hyperactive personality compounded by a domestic tyranny imposed on wives, children and employees. His knowledge was deep yet narrow: he may not have heard of the Renaissance until well into his career, yet he was arrogantly opinionated. His speech was coarse and his clothes none too clean, which did not deter several young women from responding to his courtship. Two at least were prevented by their families, but one became the third Mrs Pugin. Intensity and charisma must also account for the warm professional partnerships with Myers, tile-maker Herbert Minton and manufacturer John Hardman, and for the way Pugin charmed his many friends and patrons.
So his influence burgeoned after his death the following year, aged 40. Suddenly, hyperactivity collapsed into insanity which Hill, speculatively but convincingly, ascribes to syphilis. Mercifully, he was dead within six months. His legacy is undeniable but enigmatic. Hill establishes her reputation as a very skilled biographer. A week to spare? This tome will absorb you beyond measure!