About Pugin > Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin
There are a mere handful of iconic structures in the world that are universally recognisable and instantly identifiable with a particular country; buildings like the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Taj Mahal, and the Palace of Westminster, seat of the British Houses of Parliament.
The Palace of Westminster is a pre-eminent symbol of England and its greatest nineteenth-century building. It is filled with richly magnificent furnishings, all designed with consummate brilliance and all in the Gothic style, seen at the time to epitomise England’s national character. That idiom extends right down to the clock on the Prime Minister’s desk and even the inkwells and door keys. This huge program of design for the interior furnishing was incredibly accomplished in just a few short years by a giant of architecture and design, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–1852).
Pugin played a seminal role in the development of nineteenth-century design. In 1888 the great English Arts and Crafts architect John Dando Sedding remarked that: ‘We should have had no Morris, no Street, no Burges, no Webb, no Bodley, no Rossetti, no Burne-Jones, no Crane, but for Pugin’, here citing a galaxy of influential English architects and designers. He is widely known as the father of the mature phase of the Gothic Revival. This earnest, initially archaeologically-based movement, which marked a return to designing in the manner of the High Middle Ages (1150-1550), has been described as ‘one of the greatest social and artistic forces of the Victorian age’.
For Pugin, the monuments of the Middle Ages were products of a society that he had come to consider was more socially just and spiritually integrated than his own. As a consequence, by a kind of reverse osmosis, he passionately believed that by reviving the physical fabric of the Middle Ages the social and spiritual fabric of England would be regenerated. This social vision, not an aesthetic one, was the engine that powered his phenomenal output.
In a mature professional career of around fifteen years, Pugin produced uncountable thousands of original designs for architecture, furniture, carved stonework, metalwork, jewellery, ceramics, stained glass, tiles, textiles, wall-paper and flat decoration. A significant number of buildings and objects were destined for Australian clients like Bishop Willson of Hobart Town and Archbishop Polding of Sydney.
Many of his churches were revolutionary in their form and in their use of colour and decoration, recreating a vision that had not been known in England for over three hundred years. To furnish these buildings he helped found metalworking, stained glass and textile firms which would re-establish manufacturing and decorative skills that had been lost for centuries. For these and other firms he designed objects that are now highly prized for their intrinsic excellence and their significance in the development of nineteenth century design. Yet even more than his myriad own works, his many books and articles wrought a fundamental change in attitude towards architecture and the decorative arts, and beliefs about truthfulness in construction, the honest use of materials and the form of a building bearing a relation to its function have endured to the present time.
Pugin was one of those extraordinary creative geniuses, like a Mozart or a Leonardo da Vinci, whose prodigious output seems almost beyond human comprehension. At just forty, completely drained in mind and body, he died. Of the effects of his fertile inventiveness and unstoppable industry he had remarked to a friend, ‘I have done the work of a hundred years in forty, and it has worn me out’.
Throughout Australia there is not a city, town or village which does not bear some evidence of the impact of the Gothic Revival in which Pugin played such a fundamental role, from a great cathedral like St Patrick’s in Melbourne, larger than any completed in nineteenth-century England, down to little gabled Gothic boxes with corrugated iron roofs, a pointed door in the facade and a couple of pointed windows in each side wall. As well as this general pervasiveness of the Gothic there is an important body of works by Pugin himself, although he never came to Australia.
Many of these latter were items ordered from the Birmingham firm of John Hardman & Co., of which Pugin was the chief designer. Thus, the pioneering Catholic bishops, Francis Murphy of Adelaide, James Alipius Goold OSA of Melbourne, and Charles Henry Davis OSB of Maitland, acquired church metalwork and splendid embroidered silk vestments, and parishioner Acton Sillitoe purchased a three-light stained glass window for the chancel of St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point, in Sydney. Fine examples from Murphy’s, Goold’s and Davis’ orders have survived, but regrettably Sillitoe’s window lasted less than thirty years, perhaps damaged beyond repair in one of the furious storms that occasionally lash Sydney.
Two Catholic bishops were responsible for the bulk of Australia’s Pugin heritage, including all his buildings, and this came about through their personal relationship with him. They were Robert William Willson (1794–1866), first Bishop of Hobart Town, and John Bede Polding OSB (1794–1877), founder of the Australian Catholic hierarchy and first Archbishop of Sydney.