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Manitoba History: Review: Rosemary Hill, God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain

by Graham A. MacDonald
Victoria, British Columbia

Number 58, June 2008

Rosemary Hill, God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain Toronto: Allen Lane, 2007, 624 pages, ISBN 9780713994995, $40.00 (hardback)

Some seventy years ago, M. S. Osborne, writing on the architectural heritage of Manitoba, noted its eclectic and derivative qualities. For the period 1880 to 1914 in particular, the main influences were mainly modified English and French styles in domestic and sacred structures but somewhat broader in range for commercial buildings. [1] Since the “Great War”, a richer set of influences have subsequently been added, reflecting the diversity of Manitoba’s settlement history. One of the derivative styles mentioned by Osborne was that of the Gothic tradition. Its influence was, he noted, present in many of the province’s commercial buildings but it was “our traditional association of Gothic with religious buildings” which was responsible “for the number of churches in the Gothic style erected during the past few years in this locality.” [2] These observations were sound and Manitobans in just about all communities will find there examples of the style in domestic, sacred or commercial contexts. Just what was behind the development and spread of this style? This is the subject Rosemary Hill has chosen to tell.

The early Victorian architect and designer, Augustus Welby Pugin (1812–1852), was what in our day we would call an obsessive and a workaholic.

In this comprehensive and well illustrated biography, Rosemary Hill has made the case that her subject should be much better known for his role in furthering the nineteenth century Gothic Revival in architecture. If Pugin was not the originator of a revived Gothic style in Europe and England, he certainly became its main and busy propagandist after 1832. It was not the only kind of revival that interested him. Pugin’s steady devotion to a more controversial enterprise, the post-1830 resurgence of the Roman Catholic Church in England, continually got him into difficulty, not just with Evangelical Protestants, but also with other schools of Catholic reform. This was particularly true of the branch that evolved out of the so-called “Oxford Movement”— those academic Anglican “Tractarians” who sought to foster greater English Church unity in a way sympathetic to Roman Catholics. Contra such ecumenical thinking, Pugin, for much of his career, seemed to advocate a return to a more genuinely English set of medieval practices applied to both church and social organization.

His style of advocacy gradually became too much for the most famous of the Tractarians, John Henry Newman, who went over to the Roman Catholic Church in 1845. The literalness with which Pugin went about his medievalism was both romantic and impractical and went vastly beyond anything Newman, and later Ruskin or Morris, ever suggested. Hill has much fun in documenting the rich veins of gossip that animated the architectural style wars among the chattering classes. Only in his very last years did Pugin start to realize that he had seriously misread the grim realities of medieval history; but by then his time was short, for he was dying from the long term effects of what Hill suspects was syphilis. (456, 492) After 1868, following legal efforts by his son to gain greater recognition for his father’s contribution to such important structures as the new British Parliament Buildings, Pugin largely vanished from public memory. Most people today recognize the Big Ben clock tower on the Thames at the Westminster Parliament, but few know who designed it.

Biographical studies of Pugin have been few. Hill’s excellent and detailed study approaches his life in rigorous chronological fashion, with due regard for family origins and parental influences. As with Ruskin, the accidents of birth were significant, for both the educational opportunities presented and the strong guiding hand of the parents. The father, Auguste Charles Pugin (1767–1832) was a Paris-born designer and illustrator with strong interests in architecture. Unsympathetic to the French Revolution, he came to England in 1792, but maintained important continental connections. Unlike the nominal Catholic father, his mother, Catherine Welby, was a determined Protestant, much influenced by Carlyle’s friend, the radical preacher Edward Irving. She was the ordering but supportive influence in the life of her only child. Nevertheless, quite early her son rejected the virtues of Protestant preaching and plain church architecture.

Young Pugin benefited from domestic education, local and continental travel and attendance at his father’s drawing school in London. A transforming event came in 1825 when he was sent to Salisbury for the country air to recover from illness. The great cathedral was a revelation, as was his later discovery at Salisbury of the old Sarum rite of English Catholicism as practiced by the 11th c. Bishop Osmond. Upon returning to London, Pugin was soon preoccupied with drawing castles and prowling the streets of London, looking at buildings, and spending less time in his father’s school. By 1829, he was working as a carpenter at Covent Garden and he then established a furniture business oriented towards older styles.

This initial work in design and theatre stage effects encouraged Pugin to take up a somewhat bohemian way of life, but this phase was brief owing to the death of not only his first wife Anne, in May of 1832, but of his father in December of that year, and his mother in the spring of 1833. Possessed of a child, he had responsibilities, an inheritance and was now motivated to carry on his father’s design work. Ever the man in a hurry, Pugin remarried in 1833 and tried to put some order into his life. The stage was now more or less set for the most creative decade of his life. Of fundamental importance was his conversion to Catholicism in 1835 and his developing relationship with a patron, the Catholic nobleman of Staffordshire, John Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury. By means of the Earl’s deep pockets and congenial eccentricities, Pugin was able to pursue theoretical and practical aspects of Gothic architecture and design in sacred, domestic, institutional and commercial contexts.

He joined the architectural firm of James Graham and Charles Barry in 1836. His relationship with Barry would extend beyond the grave, but at the start, he helped Barry obtain the contract for the new Parliament buildings on the strength of his own drawings. The same year saw publication of his manifesto against the Regency style, Contrasts, in which he compared the virtues of historic Gothic with recent and contemporary structures. He also built an alarming home, by Victorian standards, at St. Marie’s Grange, near Alderbury, a house that one might consider a template for everybody’s favourite scary mansion from the House of Usher to the façade of Hitchcock’s “Psycho House.” Commissions started to follow and with formal Catholic emancipation in 1839, commissions for sacred and institutional work started to flow in succession from fellow adherents. He made contacts with romantic Catholics in France, such as the Comte de Montalembert and became part of his circle. Following Contrasts came The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture in 1841 and An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England in 1843. Other literary works would flow from his pen.

As Hill makes clear, however, the way for Pugin was never smooth. He often bit off more than he could chew in his multiple roles of architect, designer, consultant and writer: “Designs for cathedrals made in five and fortyminutes” quipped Punch in 1845. His diplomatic skills were far from well honed and he did not always balance the erratic impulses and lapses in taste of his various patrons with his own professional ambitions. More problematic, he sometimes found influential segments of old England ranged against him, as when he lost the contract for repairs and alterations to Oxford’s Balliol College on what, from Hill’s discussion, must be considered grounds of pure prejudice. (283-6) It was not just mounting Protestant anxiety with which he had to contend. After 1845, he found himself increasingly at odds with the ultramontane wing of the English Catholic reformers, such as Newman, who looked to Rome for leadership rather than to some romanticized and revived version of an English “Gallican” church favoured by Pugin. Amidst such tensions, a vast amount of work continued to pile up, additional to his work on the New Westminster Parliament, all mixed with the seemingly constant turmoil in his private life.

Pugin had suffered from recurring bouts of illness, but following his third marriage in 1848, he finally seemed to achieve some personal stability accompanied by some recognition at the Great Exhibition of 1851 where his Medieval Pavilion was a great success. It is true that there were still forces ranged against him. Hill writes that Ruskin, now on the crest of his own fame, attacked Pugin as an architect and on historical grounds. Pugin, as usual, had little time for critics: “Let the fellow build something himself” he replied. (458-9) To be sure, however, Ruskin did not uniformly condemn him, admitting to his great skills as a designer and miniaturist. [3] In 1851, Pugin seemed to be on the verge of great things, but by February 1852, his behaviour had become erratic and he suffered a severe attack of madness requiring a lengthy confinement. This was followed by other complications and on 14 September, he died.

Hill refers to Kenneth Clark’s lucid 1928 study of the Gothic Revival where he remarked that “if Ruskin had never lived, Pugin would never have been forgotten.” [4] Clark later stated that even in the 1920s many people in Oxford were still falsely attributing to Ruskin, work inspired by Pugin and Butterfield. [5] Why should this great lapse in memory have occurred? In part, it was surely the lack of theoretical depth in Pugin’s published work compared with the more systematic work of mainstream architects and the stylistic flare of other longer-lived Victorians such as Morris and Ruskin. His lack of credentials and religious persuasion helped keep him in the background, serving others more powerful, such as Charles Barry. However, if he lost many of the private battles of the day, he won the war of taste through diffusion. His constant promotion of Gothic ideas before 1852 rather quickly impressed itself on the public imagination and on the minds of architects. With the assistance of bodies such as the Cambridge Camden Society, builders took the essentials of his ideas across England and to the far reaches of the Empire wherever British Isles immigrants were to be found. Homes, churches and public buildings proliferated in the style and continued to do so until the end of World War I. Indeed, its imprint has never entirely vanished to this day as evidenced in many a new Canadian suburb experiencing nineteenth century revivals of the cookie-cutter kind.


1. Osborne, M. S., “The Architectural Heritage of Manitoba” in R. C. Lodge, ed., Manitoba Essays. Toronto: Macmillan, 1937, vol. 74, pp. 78-832.

2. Ibid., p. 81.

3. Ruskin, John, Works (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1903–1912), vol. 9, pp. 437-439; vol. 12 pp. 88.

4. See Kenneth Clark, The Gothic Revival, 3rd ed. Introduction by J. Morauant Crook. London: John Murray, 1995, p. 144.

5. See Clark’s letter to Michael Sadlier, July 1949, reproduced, Ibid. 1-5.

Page revised: 15 May 2016

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