The World's First Goth: Augustus Pugin
Keywords: Gothic Revival, Middle Ages, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, A.W.N. Pugin, Contrasts, St Giles's Church, Cheadle, New Palace of Westminster, Houses of Parliament
The Gothic Revival was one of the most significant movements in the history of western architecture. It began as a whimsical style that celebrated a romantic notion of the Middle Ages, but initially there was no real understanding of genuine medieval buildings. That was all changed by an architect named Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin.
Pugin was a Victorian. He had studied Gothic from an early age and had a greater knowledge of it than perhaps anyone in the world. He converted to Catholicism at the age of 22 and became almost a religious fanatic. He had a nostalgic admiration for the Middle Ages, which he called the 'Age of Faith' and he was convinced that Gothic was the only style fit for a Christian country.
Pugin published a series of furious manifestos. The first had the fabulous title 'Contrasts, or a parallel between the noble edifices of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and similar buildings of the present day; shewing the present decay of taste' (1836). He set out the book as a series of contrasting images. Each page shows a scene from the Middle Ages and one from the present. The implication is that architecture has deteriorated and so has society. In fact, all the images are imaginary; the book is a piece of propaganda.
Pugin’s vision of a medieval town is idyllic and picturesque. The corresponding image shows the same town in the 19th century. Comparing the two images reveals what Pugin is suggesting about Victorian architecture and Victorian society. The church spires are decaying or have been replaced with factory chimneys. The Gothic church in the foreground has been Classicised (Pugin felt it was blasphemous for a church to be built in the Classical style because it was invented by a pre-Chrisitian, i.e. ‘pagan’ civilisation). The medieval bridge has been replaced with a cast iron one. The town wall has been replaced with blank warehouse façades.
In the foreground there is a prison and a lunatic asylum, which implies that the loss of faith has resulted in crime and insanity. There are some very clever details too. The bridge now has a toll bar: it is an image of a society dedicated to commerce and industry. This illustrates the idea that Christian virtues are disappearing. As I said, this is pure propaganda, but Pugin was influential. He was regarded almost as a religious prophet.
Pugin was appalled by the effects of the Industrial Revolution. He wanted to retreat into the Middle Ages. He was devoted to reviving Gothic architecture and medieval society. That was a great leap for the Gothic Revival. It was no longer just a decorative affectation, a plaything of the rich; it became a spiritual and political crusade. A huge programme of church-building began. The Gothic Revival spread around the country in the form of new parish churches. Virtually every city, town and village in Britain has a Gothic Revival church. It changed the face of Britain.
Pugin’s masterpiece was St. Giles’s Church at Cheadle in Staffordshire (1846). This is a very correct interpretation of Gothic because Pugin had a deep understanding of medieval architecture. Inside, every surface is saturated with ornament: sculpture, patterning and gilding. It exemplifies the Victorian obsession with decoration, but forms an overpowering vision of the Middle Ages, the Age of Faith. It’s a sacrificial offering to God.
A turning point for the Gothic Revival came in 1834 when the old Houses of Parliament were destroyed by fire. It was decided that the replacement should be in the Gothic style, because by then Gothic was felt to be an indigenous, uniquely British style.
Charles Barry won the competition to design the new building, but the truth was he didn’t have much skill in the Gothic style, so he hired Pugin to produce the Gothic detailing. Now Pugin saw this as a chance to prove that Gothic was suitable for a great national monument - not just churches - and he poured all his energies and fanatical enthusiasm into the building. He designed everything from the furniture and floor tiles up to the façade.
Pugin believed that decoration should reflect purpose, so he designed the rooms to match the hierarchy of government. This is the House of Commons, where the MPs sit.
The House of Lords is much richer. The Queen’s throne (c.1850) is shrine-like with fabulous gilding. This is a triumph of the Gothic Revival. Pugin was incredibly prolific; he worked on this building for the rest of his life. In fact, he worked himself to death by the age of 40 and died insane from the strain of trying to convert Britain to the Gothic style.
For more information on the Gothic Revival, see: