“A magnificent biography, as sumptuous and intricate as anything Pugin built . . . a properly glorious monument.”—John Carey, Sunday Times
God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britainby Rosemary Hill
Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (18121852) was one of Britain’s greatest architects, and his short career one of the most dramatic in architectural history. Born in 1812, the son of a French draftsman, at 15 Pugin was working for King George IV at Windsor Castle. By the time he was 21 he had been shipwrecked, bankrupted, and widowed. Nineteen years later
Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (18121852) was one of Britain’s greatest architects, and his short career one of the most dramatic in architectural history. Born in 1812, the son of a French draftsman, at 15 Pugin was working for King George IV at Windsor Castle. By the time he was 21 he had been shipwrecked, bankrupted, and widowed. Nineteen years later he died, insane and disillusioned, having changed the face and the mind of British architecture in works as revered as the House of Lords and the clock tower at Westminster, known as Big Ben.
God’s Architect is the first modern biography of this extraordinary figure. Rosemary Hill draws upon thousands of unpublished letters and drawings to re-create Pugin’s life and work as architect, propagandist, and Gothic designer, as well as the turbulent story of his three marriages, the bitterness of his last years, and his sudden death at 40. It is the work of an exceptional historian and biographer.
“A very remarkable book about a very remarkable man . . . This book will interest not only those who delight in architecture, but also anyone who is interested in the Victorian Age.”—A. N. Wilson, Daily Mail
“An excellent and detailed biography . . . Pugin changed the face of England forever. This book can be recommended for its disciplined but convincing championship of the most important English architect of the nineteenth century.”—Peter Ackroyd, The Times
“Rosemary Hill has written a superb study of this true romantic and tragic original. It is scholarly, but intimate, warm and readable too, immediately becoming the standard work.”—Stephen Bayley, Observer
“This is surely the best biography of a British architect yet written: an enthralling book.”—Simon Bradley, Evening Standard
“One of the great biographies of our day.”—Michael J. Lewis, A. A. Files
“Rosemary Hill is a wonderful writer. She has not only given us Pugin's storythe life of a hugely important British artistshe has placed his work in a rich and intelligently explained cultural context.”—K. Anthony Appiah
"Rosemary Hill's book is the first modern biography of Pugin, and it is a considerable feat both in its painstaking original research and the way in which Hill, deals with architectural history, relating Pugin personally to his buildings, justifying brilliantly her biographical approach."—Fiona MacCarthy, The New York Review of Books
“As a lucid work of architectural history and as the readable biography of a most protean and brilliant man, it is worthy of the best of his buildings.”—Colm Tóibín, Irish Times
- Yale University Press
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God's ArchitectPugin and the Building of Romantic Britain
By ROSEMARY HILL
Yale University PressCopyright © 2007 Rosemary Hill
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAuguste Charles Pugin
In the 1820s, when Auguste Pugin ran a drawing school, he liked to amuse his teenage pupils, and no doubt himself, with stories of his early life, his aristocratic connections and his hair's-breadth escape from the French Revolution. One of his pupils was Benjamin Ferrey, who later became an architect and, in 1861, wrote the first biography of the Pugins, father and son. Ferrey set down as much as he could remember of what Auguste had told him some forty years before.
The elder Pugin was born in France, in the year 1762; his birthplace is unknown, but he was descended from a family of distinction, his ancestor being a nobleman who raised a hundred soldiers for the service of Fribourg ... in 1477. Pugin witnessed many of the fearful scenes in the French Revolution, and it is said that he fell fighting for the king, and was thrown with some hundred bodies into a pit near the Place de la Bastille, whence he managed to escape by swimming across the Seine, flying to Rouen, and embarking from that place to England.
It is hard to imagine who could have said all this other than Auguste himself, but it has the ring of a tall tale, unaccountable in some details,suspiciously familiar in others. There were several variations: that he had fought a duel, that he was in fact 'le Comte de Pugin', that he had rowed across the Channel with some friends. Auguste was not in any serious sense an impostor. If he allowed the boys in the drawing school to think he was the Comte de Pugin he never made any attempt to claim the title. It is clear, however, from his wife's letters and his son's later efforts to trace the family history that he led them to believe that the Pugins were of the nobility and had been ruined in the Revolution. He concealed many facts about his origins and elaborated others. A humorous man, sceptical about politics, uninterested in religion and no snob, he simply realized, like many exiles, that given a fresh start it was easier to rise in the world if one implied that one had, in fact, come down. The legend of the émigré Count wandering the streets of London in his tricorn hat, with his muff and gold-topped cane, was handed on by his pupils and passed into myth. It became entwined with the romance of the Gothic Revival, where history and fiction mingle easily. Among the possessions still preserved by Auguste's descendants is a ring said to bear the secret sign of the Scarlet Pimpernel. What emerges from the surviving records is as follows.
Auguste Pugin was born in Paris in 1767 or '68 in the parish of St Sulpice, one of seven children of Joseph Nabor Pugin and his second wife, Marie Marguérite Duchène. Pugin is a French Swiss name, originating from Fribourg, and Auguste may well have been distantly related to the hero of 1477. By the mid eighteenth century, however, it was a tenuous connection. Fribourg was then, in all but name, French. The frontier was open and many of the Fribourgeois had settled in France. Most, including Joseph Pugin, came as mercenary soldiers. Swiss mercenaries had fought in France since the Middle Ages and they had a reputation for courage and bravado in keeping with the spirit at least of Auguste's anecdotes. Under Louis XIV they were formed into regular regiments and acquired their distinctive uniform with the tricorn hat. By 1789 there were eleven Swiss regiments in the regular French army. In addition to these there were the Swiss guards, the elite corps who served the King personally.
Joseph Nabor, who described himself at the time of his first marriage in 1752 as the son of Jean-Claude Pugin, a labourer, had, like many of his countrymen, become a soldier in hopes of improving his fortune. Later, he settled in Paris and became a 'Suisse de l'ambassadeur de l'empire'. 'Suisse' described both his nationality and his job in the household of the Imperial Ambassador. He was a 'huissier', something between a guard and an usher, a sort of military footman who would have stood at the door, announcing visitors and showing them in. Joseph's first wife must have died some time during the next fifteen years and at the time of his second marriage Joseph was performing the same function on the staff of the Prince de Salm Salm.
Both his wives were Parisian. The first, Marie Anne Carmentrar, was the daughter of a tinsmith. Of the parents of the second, Auguste's mother, there seems to be no trace. Her sister, however, was the wife of one Michel Dufort, a 'fruitier oranger', or fruit and butter seller, also of St Sulpice. Elsewhere in the archives there are references to a number of Pugins. Many of them must have been related. They are listed as retired soldiers, household guards like Joseph, a goldbeater, two French polishers, a post office official, a cloth merchant and one notary. They represent in essence the solid petite bourgeoisie, the class that Louis-Sébastien Mercier described in his great portrait of the city before the Revolution, Le Tableau de Paris, as the happiest. He thought them the most productive and contented of the eight ranks into which he divided society, and, ironically in the light of Auguste's later elaborations, the least socially pretentious.
The Paris of the 1780s, in which Auguste reached adolescence, was a hectic, teeming city. Mercier found it in many ways exasperating, light-minded and narcissistic. One aspect of Parisian life that irritated him particularly was the obsession with fashion. He railed against the craze for hats and elaborate headdresses, the latest so tall that they had to be made with built-in springs so that they could be lowered to get into a carriage. Among those who fed the rapidly succeeding passions for clothes, carriages and interior decoration were the editors of a small fortnightly magazine, first published in November 1785, Le Cabinet des Modes. It is here, in April the following year, that Auguste first becomes visible in history, making his debut as an illustrator with a drawing of a fashionable carriage, the 'vis-à-vis à l'Angloise'. In May he drew four designs for hats as delightful and impractical as anything Mercier describes, with feathers and enormous brims.
Auguste became a regular contributor to the Cabinet, providing drawings, engraved for publication, of luxury goods. His pictures of waistcoats in 'spring yellow' velvet, of panelled boudoirs, elegant shoe buckles and costumes 'à la Turque' are all that remains of this part of his life. That he was working at eighteen suggests financial need as much as talent. As the months passed the perspective in his work became noticeably steadier and the line stronger. Who taught him to draw or whether he had anything so formal as lessons is not known, although there were a number of schools of design in Paris, notably the Ecole Royale, which were free to pupils. By now Auguste seems to have been moving on the fringes of the commercial art world, for it was about this time that he met the painter Louis Lafitte. It was to be a lifelong friendship. Lafitte later married one of Auguste's sisters and, like Auguste, went on to greater things, but at this time his family were among the 'artisans obscurs' with whom the dissolute but charming painter Simon Mathurin Lantara would lodge.
The Cabinet des Modes bubbled on happily over the next few years. After the storming of the Bastille it appeared several days late, with apologies for the delay 'due to circumstances too well-known and unfortunate' to need explanation. In November Auguste published a fold-out plate of an elegant salon interior hung with blue taffeta. Then at the beginning of the next year the Cabinet changed hands. It ceased to credit the illustrators and Auguste disappears, once more, from view. The Cabinet kept up with the changing times, offering outfits with tricolours and a costume for a 'femme patriote en négligée'. Gradually, however, events overwhelmed it. The quality of the paper declined and in the dark days of February 1793 its cheery little light was snuffed out.
By then Auguste had left Paris. Exactly when he went and whether alone or not remains a mystery. The mutable city was changing once again in the greatest upheaval it had ever known; everyone was on the move, while in the background could be heard 'the dull roar of a vanishing world, the distant noise of a crumbling society'. Chateaubriand remembered that: 'Those who had lost sight of one another for twenty-four hours could not be sure of ever meeting again. Some took the road of revolution; others made plans for civil war; others set off for Ohio, sending on ahead plans of country houses to be built among the savages ... all this cheerfully and often without a sou in their pockets.' Louis Lafitte won the Prix de Rome in 1791, the last artist to receive it from Louis XVI, and left for Italy. His departure may have prompted Auguste to make his own way out of Paris. Whatever his reason for crossing the Channel, he was in London on 27 March 1792, when he enrolled in the Royal Academy Schools. On 20 April France declared war on Austria. Nearly a quarter of a century of conflict in Europe followed. It was almost thirty years before he saw Paris again.
One of the more believable parts of Auguste's story is his assertion that he found his early days in London difficult. He never learned to speak English fluently and probably knew none when he arrived. Neither can he have had much money. Yet he was an engaging, gregarious young man, still in his early twenties, well used to the ways of a big city and with some proven ability as an artist. He had, too, a gift, which he passed on to his son, for falling easily into conversation with anyone who interested him, and a great directness and warmth of manner. It was typical of him, many years later, when writing a bread-and-butter letter to his landlord about repairs to the family home, to conclude, 'I am sure you will hear with interest that your house has been a very successful one to me having met with a great deal of encouragement professionally, since I am in it ... wishing you ... every success and happiness you deserve.'
There was by now a significant émigré community in London. Auguste met, or already knew, the engraver Paul Condé and together they drank tea in Soho (a centre of émigré life), talked of art and followed 'les chemins de l'académie'. A reproachful letter from one of his sisters in Paris, complaining that he has made no effort to keep in touch, suggests that Auguste settled down quickly and suffered little from homesickness. The Academy, then in Somerset House in the Strand, was the focus of English artistic life and taste. Classes were free but entry was competitive. Auguste must have produced a sufficiently impressive portfolio to gain his letter of admission. Once accepted, his studies would have included lectures on painting, architecture, anatomy and geometry, life classes and drawing from casts and models. He enrolled just a month after the death of the Academy's first President, Joshua Reynolds, whose influence was still pre-eminent in the English view of art. This was the classical, Enlightenment view, that the artist was to represent a higher truth, transcending what Reynolds called the 'little and mean' world of direct sensory experience. The most highly regarded genre - in theory, though in practice it was the least popular - was history painting, idealized, heroic scenes. There were already, however, signs of a change of taste, of romantic sensibility, a different view of nature and of what was suitable subject matter for art. It was apparent in the growing popularity of landscape painting and in the rising taste for watercolours by Thomas Hearne, Michael 'Angelo' Rooker, Paul Sandby and many others, which favoured more evocative, emotional depictions of nature, emphasizing light and shade over line and form.
At the Academy Auguste would have encountered this view of art not so much in the painting classes as in the lectures on architecture. The professor was a watercolour painter, Thomas Sandby, who, through his teaching, effected a revolution in architectural drawing. He encouraged his students to make not merely plans and sections of a design but to create an imaginary portrait of a building as it would look in its setting. With this 'perspective view' patrons might begin to imagine how they would feel about living in it or walking past it, to consider qualities more abstract and subjective than elevations alone could convey. Unrolling one of his great teaching drawings, 'The Bridge of Magnificence', Sandby told the students to consider 'how much more Picturesque than a Geometrical Elevation' such a perspective was and how much better calculated to show their designs to advantage. The effect was instant. The 'powerful impression the sight of that beautiful work' made on the young John Soane was typical. The perspective became an established feature in architectural drawing. It called for something of the illustrator's skill as well as an ability to paint in watercolour, and these were talents which many architects lacked. Thus a new profession emerged, one that suited Auguste precisely, and it was there that he was to find his niche in England, as one of the first generation of architectural perspectivists.
Some time over the next two years he got a job as a draughtsman, working for John Nash. Nash went on to become one of the most successful architects of his or any other day. To him we owe some of the most characteristic buildings of late Georgian England - the Brighton Pavilion, Regent Street, Regent's Park, All Souls, Langham Place, and Buckingham Palace. In the early 1790s, however, things were not going so well. Nash was in his forties and already had one, disastrous, career behind him. At a time when divorce was rare and expensive he had instituted proceedings against his wife in particularly sensational circumstances. He had also been bankrupt. Later he wrote his rackety early life out of his autobiography, claiming that he had lived as a private gentleman on his estate in Wales for many years before discovering that he had a talent for architecture. It was a less ambitious tale than Auguste's but one more seriously calculated to deceive. In the 1790s, when both of them were trying to put a respectable front on an obscure background, they must have had some fellow feeling. Certainly both had a flair for self-dramatization.
Down in Carmarthen, where he was rebuilding his career, Nash had taken a lease on the local theatre. This allowed him to indulge his passion for acting and to mingle on easy terms with the local gentry. In 1795 Charles Mathews, on the verge of a career as one of the greatest comic actors of his day, found himself appearing there. He acted with Nash in The School for Scandal. The scenery, which he thought 'capital', was painted by Auguste. Auguste later claimed to have been the original of Mathews's popular character, M. Mallet, a comic French émigre´. In fact Mallet was based on an episode Mathews witnessed in America. It seems more likely that the inspiration went the other way and Auguste took something of his own flamboyant style from 'the very finest part' Mathews ever had, an Englishman's idea of a Frenchman, 'almost serious, perfectly tragic in some scenes' and at the same time richly comic.
Over the years that followed Auguste made different kinds of drawings for Nash, but his special strength - which he later put at the disposal of other architects and engineers - was the evocative perspective view. He bodied forth and glamorized designs, setting them in perfect light and modulating them with subtle shadow, refining details. He flattered and improved them so much that his pupil Ferrey felt in many cases they 'might in strictness claim him as their author', a remark that has prompted more than one fruitless attempt to reattribute the works of Nash and others to Auguste. In fact he never developed a career as an architect. The occasional garden building, gateway or little villa was as far as his talents or his luck ever took him in that direction. It was in the interstices between art, design and architecture that he found his place, primarily as an illustrator. Auguste's fate was always to be close to great events, but never at their centre. When taste or fashion turned a corner, when a peace treaty was signed or a monarch crowned, he was usually there, no more than a figure in the crowd but near the front and holding a pencil. Now his introduction to Nash put him instantly in touch with the most advanced aesthetic theory of the day.
Excerpted from God's Architect by ROSEMARY HILL Copyright © 2007 by Rosemary Hill. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Rosemary Hill is a writer and historian, and has published widely on 19th- and 20th-century cultural history.
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