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The World's First Goth: Augustus Pugin

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.

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:

https://knoji.com/georgian-gothick-the-curious-origins-of-the-gothic-revival/

https://knoji.com/high-victorian-gothic/

https://knoji.com/cragside-romantic-country-house-of-a-victorian-inventor/

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Comments (12)

What do you think he'd think of the word "goth" we use as slang for gothic music lovers? That was not what he had in mind, obviously, lol:) Great article. The drawings look amazing.

Sounds like Pugin had a touch of OCD and was a little mad in the head but he built a great building.

Ranked #1 in History

Pugin never used the words Goth or Gothic because they were associated with the barbaric Visigoth tribe. Instead, he used the terms Christian or Pointed architecture. Pugin's work is a long way from modern Goth music, but the meanings of the Gothic aesthetic have changed throughout history. It can be argued that horrors movies and the Goth subculture represent the latest phase of the Gothic Revival.

Ranked #43 in History

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, you couldn't have made that name up if you tried! but I think he must have had a glimpse of the future because even though his pictures were false in a way the changes and how he reflects society actually are quite of todays society. Maybe he had a gift for seeing into the future but didn't know how far he was seeing or he could have been a time traveler! I am glad you answered with the above because it really puzzled me that a Christian would use the terms Goth or Gothic when their beliefs are connected to pagan worship.

Good job assembling the pictures. Pugin deserves more fame, I'd never heard of him before but it seems he's had quite a large influence.

Ranked #85 in History

People who think Goths are pagan, or devil worshippers, are ignorant. My husband and I got married wearing goth frock coats.

amen

Ranked #41 in History

I could always appreciate the work of this man seeing the Clock Tower at the House of Parliament thinking how those intricate designs could have adverse effects on one's thinking. An evening of staying late writing an article could already drive one restless and impulsive for lack of sleep. What more if you have stayed sleepless for days just thinking of design architecture over and again? A brilliant post as always.

Ranked #43 in History

Brenda would love to see the pics of you and hubby in your Goth coats! I bet they were stunning. My eldest son went out with a young girl for some years. She and her parents and brother were all Goths and they are all Pagans. My son went to goddess camp with them 3years running along with a couple who live on my street. We have a strong Pagan following in Nottingham with regular meetings and many of the Pagans are Goths (well new Goths, not the blood thirsty ones of days of old) They worship mother earth and all things good. Only a person believing in God would believe in the Devil.

Now I understand what you mean by Goth. These architectural styles are superb.

Interesting how the propaganda of Pugin could be so influential and rooted in Catholicism. What beautiful architecture, though. Phenomenal photographs and a very curious read on historical architecture and such a huge influence Pugin possessed. Unique and very interesting read and write. Great work, Michael.

Loved both your article and the response you gave above. I so much agree of course! brilliant work as usual. Bravo Michael!

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