God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain

Witnessed by vast crowds, the Houses of Parliament burned to the ground in London in 1834. Coming shortly after the passage of Catholic emancipation and the Great Reform Bill, the fire seemed to symbolize the passing of England?s old order. Yet the government looked back as it planned a new seat, calling for designs in ?Gothic or Elizabethan style.? The commission turned Gothic Revival from a dilettantish taste into the Victorian age?s major style — the neoclassical had associations of revolution and republicanism. This strange turn of events is best understood through the short, eccentric life of Augustus Welby Pugin (1812–52). Son of an émigré French draughtsman, Pugin designed his first church at 9 and received his first royal commission at 16. Converted to Catholicism in his 20s, he found an idealized aesthetic world in medieval Christianity. He also found a lot of work, designing in short order 2 cathedrals, 3 convents, 2 monasteries, 18 churches, and a clutch of houses and schools. He talked major manufacturers into reviving medieval techniques for tiles, ironwork, carpentry, and textiles. He was a ?50 horsepower of creation,? in the words of Charles Barry, who won the commission for the new Houses of Parliament thanks to Pugin?s drawings. The long frenzy of work, and a case of syphilis, drove Pugin mad shortly after he finished the designs for Big Ben. Pugin was nearly forgotten for a century, and Rosemary Hill?s new book completes the long job of restoring his reputation. I can?t imagine a more successful biography of an architect or a more enjoyable appraisal of the aesthetics and theology of the early Victorian era.