Augustus Pugin

Portrait of Augustus Pugin

Augustus Pugin was an English architect, designer, artist and critic with French and Swiss origins. He was born on 1st March 1812 in Bloomsbury, London, England and died on 14th September 1852 in Ramsgate, Kent, England aged 40.

Major Works

St Chad’s Cathedral Birmingham, England (1839)
St Aidan’s Cathedral Enniscorthy, Ireland (1843)
St George’s Cathedral, Southwark, London (1848)
Interiors and concept of Palace of Westminster (or Houses of Parliament), London, England (Largely completed by 1860)

Biography

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was born on 1st March 1812 in Bloomsbury, London, England. His father was the architect Augustus Charles Pugin who had travelled to England to escape the French Revolution and married the English girl Catherine Welby, from Denton, Lincolnshire. Catherine, his mother, took him to services in Hatton Garden, London to hear the Scottish Presbyterian preacher Charles Irving speak but he was disgusted by the coldness of this version of Christianity. He was educated at Christ’s Hospital, London and was taught drawing by his father.

1821: His father begins publishing a series of volumes of architectural drawings which he does until 1838. The first is called “Specimens of Gothic Architecture”.

1825: He works in his father’s office and goes with him to France in 1825 and 1827.

1830: He develops an interest in sailing and commands a small merchant vessel which allows him to import furniture and carvings from Flanders. He is shipwrecked on the Scottish coast near Leith, Edinburgh and meets the architect James Gillespie Graham who tells him to give up the sea and become an architect instead.

1831: He is interested in the theatre and receives a commission to design the sets for a production of Gaetano Donizetti’s opera “l Castello di Kenilworth” (Kenilworth Castle) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. He marries his first wife, Anne Garnet but she sadly dies a few months later due to complications in childbirth, leaving him with a healthy daughter.

1832: He meets the Earl of Shrewsbury, John Talbot, who is a Catholic and admirer of his architectural style. Talbot asks him to design ideas for alterations and additions to his home Alton Towers in Staffordshire.

1833: He marries his second wife Louisa Button and they move to Salisbury in Wiltshire.

1834: He converts to Catholicism and works on the restoration of John Halle’s Hall in Salisbury. The Palace of Westminster, the seat of Parliament, burns down in October and Sir Charles Barry asks Pugin to help him with designs for the competition to rebuild it. He had already worked with Barry on the interior design of King Edward’s School, Birmingham. Pugin also helps James Gillespie Graham with his entry as Pugin himself is not allowed to enter being a Catholic. The Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel organises a committee, chaired by Edward Cust who states the new building should be in the Gothic or Elizabethan style. Barry wins the competition and the commissioners appoint Pugin to assist in the construction of the interior of the new Palace.

1835: He buys half an acre of land in Alderbury, near Salisbury, on which he builds the Gothic Revival family home which he names St Marie’s Grange. 

1836: He publishes “Contrasts” a work which argues for the revival of the medieval gothic style. Each plate in the book shows an 1830 building with its 15th century equivalent.

1837: His architectural practice is thriving with commissions for designs for Catholic places of worship including St Chad’s, Birmingham and St Georges Cathedral, Southwark, London. He designs Scarisbrick Hall in Lancashire.

1838: He is invited to Ireland by the Redmond family in County Wexford. Greater religious tolerance means that Catholic churches can now be built there and he goes on to build several in the island including St Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney. The King Edward’s School Birmingham interiors are completed.

1839: St Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham is completed.

1840: The first stone of the new House of Parliament in London is laid on 27th April.

1841: He publishes “True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture” which is roundly criticised by John Ruskin who is in favour of the classical styleThe business moves to Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, London as the capital is more lucrative for his architectural practice than Salisbury. He sells St Marie’s Grange at a loss although he had already bought land at West Cliff, Ramsgate in Kent where he builds himself another house and builds St Augustine’s church nearby at his own expense.

1843: He makes drawings for Balliol College, Oxford which convey the spirit of the Oxford Movement. 

1844: His wife Louisa dies after the recurrence of an old illness which upsets him terribly. She is buried in St Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham.

1846: St Giles Catholic Church in Cheadle, Staffordshire is completed as is the work at Alton Towers.

1847: He visits Italy which reinforces his dislike of the Renaissance and Baroque architecture although he is impressed by the medieval buildings. St Thomas of Canterbury Church in Fulham, London is completed.

1848: Pugin marries his third wife Jane Knill in one of his buildings, St George’s Cathedral, Southwark, London. The first Catholic Bishop of New South Wales in Australia, John Bede Polding, had met Pugin at the opening of St Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham and he was instrumental in getting him to design religious buildings there. St Stephen’s Chapel in Elizabeth Street, Brisbane has its foundation stone laid.

1849: He never actually visits Australia but in February Polding blesses the foundation stone of St Francis Xavier’s in Berrima, New South Wales.

1851: St Francis Xavier is completed. John Ruskin’s “The Stones of Venice” is published in which Ruskin writes in the appendix “he is not a great architect but one of the smallest possible or conceivable architects” and his fame begins to diminish.

1852: In February Charles Barry visits him in Ramsgate and Pugin supplies detailed designs for the Palace of Westminster clock tower. (Often known as Big Ben but more correctly the Elizabeth Tower). Pugin has a complete nervous breakdown on a train to London with his son Edward and is unable to recognise anyone. He is taken to Kensington House private asylum. In June he is transferred to the Royal Bethlem Hospital (known as Bedlam). In September his wife takes him back home to Ramsgate.

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin died on 14th September 1852 of “convulsions followed by coma” at his home in Ramsgate. He is buried in his church St Augustine’s next to The Grange.