To Heaven by Gothic
Michael Fisherconsiders Pugin’s vision of an English Catholic Church
Givepaper and pencils to any group of people and ask them to do a quick sketch of a church. Most, if not all, will draw a building with pointed windows and doorways, a tower and possibly a spire – in other words a Gothic one. The person responsible more than anyone else for fixing this idea in people’s minds was Augustus Welby Pugin (1812–52), whose 200th anniversary is being widely celebrated this year. Best known, perhaps, as the designer of the stunning interiors of the Palace of Westminster, Pugin was the architect of over one hundred churches and cathedrals, the author of eight major works on architecture and design,
and the foremost exponent of the Victorian Gothic Revival.
Fitness for purpose
Son of a French émigré Auguste Pugin and his English wife Catherine Welby, Pugin was raised an Anglican, but his studies of medieval architecture (notably Salisbury cathedral) and the Sarum Liturgy for which English churches had originally been designed, convinced him that Gothic was not so much a style as a principle, uniquely expressive of the Catholic Faith which had been the faith of England for a thousand years before the advent of ‘the sacrilegious tyrant Henry and his successors in church plunder’. Protestantism had attacked both the faith and its physical surroundings. The Renaissance had dealt another blow. Neoclassical architecture, much loved in eighteenth-century England, was indeed doubly damnable, for it was foreign to these shores, and it had its origins in the pagan cultures of Greece and Rome. Fitness for purpose was one of the ‘true principles’ of what Pugin called ‘Pointed’ or ‘Christian’ architecture, with every feature of a church – including its furnishing and decoration – expressing some aspect of the faith upon which it was built. How could you celebrate Mass in something that looked like a temple dedicated to Apollo or Mithras?
A ‘perfect revival’
In 1835 Pugin became a Catholic, and his work thereafter was principally for Catholic patrons, the most important of whom was John Talbot (1791–1852), sixteenth earl of Shrewsbury, for whom he built the magnificent church of St Giles’, Cheadle (Staffordshire), popularly known as ‘Pugin’s Gem’. Even before it was completed in 1846, St Giles’ attracted the attention of architects and scholars from all over England and from overseas. The rich stencilling on the walls made George Gilbert Scott – already a convert to Puginian Gothic – drool at the mouth, and he greatly admired the stained glass. ‘It will be a text book for all good people’, predicted Lord Shrewsbury, and so it was. Described by Pugin as a ‘perfect revival’ of a parish church of the time of Edward I, it was expressive of an English Catholicism which, though in full communion with Rome, had its own customs and traditions. ‘Our ancestors were not Roman Catholics’, Pugin wrote in 1842 to his friend Clarkson Stanfield. ‘We have had an English church from the days of
Blessed Austin. Our liturgy was not Roman but peculiar to England... We are of the old school of our Edwards, Anselms, Thomases, Englishmen to the back bone’. St Giles’ was, moreover, a parish church, set at the heart of the community, with its ‘heaven-pointing spire...forming a beautiful and instructive emblem of a Christian’s brightest hopes’. It was through parish churches, Pugin believed, that the faith of the nation was to be sustained and nourished through sound teaching and uplifting worship centred, of course, upon the Mass. This message surely has relevance for our own time too.
Support and resistance
Pugin enjoyed the support not only of Lord Shrewsbury, but also of Bishop Thomas Walsh (1779–1849), vicar apostolic of the Catholic Midland District, who also believed that churches built and furnished in medieval English style would help persuade John Bull that there was nothing essentially foreign or un-British about being Catholic. On the other side there were some Catholic clergy who did not see why they should abandon their Italianate vestments and altars at the whim of an upstart convert who dressed and spoke like a sailor. Rood-screens, which Pugin thought indispensable, were viewed by some as irrelevant and anachronistic, along with sedilia, Easter sepulchres, two altar lights instead of the Tridentine ‘big six’, the Blessed Sacrament reserved in a dedicated chapel rather than at the high altar, full Gothic chasubles instead of fiddlebacks, and Old English surplices instead of lace-edged cottas. His greatest enemies were the Oratorians, with their love of all things Italian. Newman, who joined the Oratory in 1847, thought that Pugin’s rigid attachment to fourteenth-century English Gothic and the Sarum Rite was little short of fanatical, yet the Blessed Sacrament Chapel at St Giles’, Cheadle, brought him to his knees. ‘I could not help saying to myself, Porta Coeli’.
Influence on Anglicans
It is hardly surprising that Pugin’s ideas resonated loudly with Anglicans who were conducting their own researches into medieval architecture and liturgy, seeking to give outward expression to the theologicalideas ofthe OxfordMovement and to re-order churches according to the long-neglected Ornaments Rubric in the Book of Common Prayer. These were principally the Oxford Architectural Society and the Cambridge Camden Society. Pugin designed the Camden Society’s seal, and he became a close friend of John Rouse Bloxam (1807– 1891), Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, whom he regarded as ‘an English Catholic brother – separated in externals but united in soul’. It was through Bloxam that Pugin came to build his only complete Anglican church, St Lawrence’s, Tubney (Berkshire), under the patronage of Magdalen College. Disappointed by the negative attitudes of some senior Catholics to his vision of a revived Gothic England, Pugin was delighted to see ‘Oxford Men’ visiting Lord Shrewsbury’s huge private chapel at Alton Towers, where the Old English Liturgy with all its accoutrements could be celebrated with impunity.
Praise from a Catholic propagandist such as Pugin could, however, be embarrassing, particularly after some prominent ‘Oxford Men’ followed John Henry Newman on the road to Rome, reinforcing the suspicion that popery and Puseyism were but two sides of the same coin. The Camden Society broke with Pugin in 1846, but this did not deter individual Anglicans from seeking him out as an architect and designer. Among Pugin’s notable Anglican patrons was Henry Alford (1810–71), the noted hymn-writer, for whom Pugin carried out the extensive restoration of St Mary’s church, Wymeswold (Leicestershire), furnishing it with stained glass windows, a proper baptistery, screen, and chancel stalls where the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer could be properly be sung. At the same time (1844–6) Pugin undertook the restoration of the chancel at All Saints’, Leigh (Staffordshire) the incumbent of which was none other than Richard Bagot (1782–1854), Bishop of Oxford, whom Pugin had praised for refusing to condemn the Tracts for the Times in general and the infamous Tract XC in particular. Amongst noted Anglo-Catholic clergy who commissioned altar- vessels to Pugin’s design was Fr William Bennett of ‘Popery in Pimlico’ fame who had a chalice made identical to one designed for the Catholic Bishop Wiseman, while Fr Arthur Wagner installed nine windows to Pugin’s design at St Paul’s, Brighton, including a huge seven-light east window depicting the genealogy of Christ.
While praising men like Alford and Bloxam, commending the Ecclesiologists’ publications, and conceding that the Book of Common Prayer was in places ‘exceedingly Catholic’, Pugin saw only too clearly that there were anomalies. For every Anglican priest who held a Catholic view of the sacraments, there were half a dozen who did not, and in 1842 he was scandalized by a report of gross sacrilege having been committed at (of all places) Leeds parish church, recently restored by Camdenian Walter Farquhar Hook, when consecrated Elements remaining after communion were allegedly disposed of down the drainpipe of the sacrarium instead of being ‘reverently consumed’ in accordance with the Prayer Book rubric.
The restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850, and the consequent growth of ultramontanism, meant that Pugin’s dreams of an English Catholic Church in communion with Rome yet preserving its distinct traditions of worship could never materialize. Perhaps the Ordinariate is a latter-day variant. Nevertheless, his ideas of what a church should be, and how it should be used, profoundly influenced other architects, Catholic and Anglican, for the remainder of the nineteenth century and beyond. Without Pugin there would been no Gilbert Scott, no Bodley, no Comper, no Dykes Bower. He died in 1852, just six months past his fortieth birthday, his doctors having told him that he had packed a hundred years into forty: an understatement, for his career as architect, designer and Gothic propagandist spanned a mere sixteen, from 1836 to 1852.
In an age blighted by liturgical minimalism and theological reductionism, we still need Pugin to remind us that worship should lift the soul heavenwards, and that art and architecture should have a spiritual as well as an aesthetic role. Describing himself as ‘a builder up of men’s ideas as well as material edifices’, Pugin – who, it should be remembered, was a layman – found time within his busy schedule for daily Mass as well as Matins and Vespers. For this too he deserves to be remembered.ND
Illustrations:* A.W.N. Pugin. The earliest known
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