Book of the month

Ian McCormack enjoys a new study of Pugin’s desire to aid the conversion of England through the medium of Gothic art and architecture.

 

‘GOTHIC FOR EVER’

A.W.N. Pugin, Lord Shrewsbury,

and the Rebuilding of Catholic England Michael Fisher

Spire Books, 342pp, hbk

978 1904965367, £49.95

 

 

Augustus Welby Pugin was not merely an architect with a plan. He was a crusader with a vision. That is the overall impression left by Michael Fisher’s superlative new study of the man and his mission. ‘Gothic for ever!’ was Pugin’s battle-cry, and by it he signified not only his desire to foster the restoration of Gothic architecture, furnishings, and liturgical accoutrements; but furthermore his belief that Gothic had a ‘powerful moral and spiritual dimension’, and that Gothic art and architecture had the power of assisting greatly in the conversion of England, and in persuading the nation that ‘far from being a paradox, to be English and Catholic was the most natural thing in the world.’

One of the intriguing things about this book in the current ecumenical climate is that Pugin held very forthright views about the nature of Roman Catholicism in England. The screen which Pugin designed for the chapel at Alton Towers included as its largest figures the principal saints of England: St Augustine, St Chad, St Edward Confessor and St George. ‘Our ancestors were not Roman Catholics’, Pugin wrote to a friend, ‘our liturgy was not Roman but peculiar to England... we are of the old school of our Edwards Anselms Thomases Englishmen to the bone’ [sic]. The rites which he envisaged for his new and restored churches – and of which at Alton and elsewhere he was sometimes to be found acting as Master of Ceremonies, pushing around senior Catholic clerics with the same uncompromising conviction with which he frequently attacked them in print – were those of the Sarum usage.

Pugin detested the building of churches in the Italian and ‘meeting-house’ styles, rejecting the arguments of one correspondent who dared to attack him in print under the pseudonym ‘Catholicus’ with the sweeping condemnation that ‘Methodisticus’ would be a better name for one who held up Methodism as an example for imitation. It was this fearless – some would say foolhardy and even offensive – defence of his principles which led some of the Roman hierarchy to nickname Pugin ‘Archbishop Pugens’.

This is not in any sense a straightforward biography, but there is inevitably a lot of biographical material in it. Much about the lives of Pugin and those with whom his life was caught up is worthy of a wry smile, and the author excels at depicting these events in a drily witty style. There is, for example, the account of Pugin’s first recorded visit to Staffordshire, when he accidentally returned to the wrong bedroom and found in the bed ‘the thigh of a female occupant already turned in’. On a more substantial level, there is the extraordinary story of Pierce Connelly, an American Episcopalian priest whom Lord Shrewsbury took under his wing. Connelly obtained from Rome a deed of separation from his wife and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest, only to renounce his orders and return to the Episcopalian fold when the English courts rejected his bid to have conjugal rights with his (unwilling) wife restored.

Indeed, Pugin is but one of the stars of Fr Fisher’s beautiful book. There is also, of course, John Talbot, sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury, and Pugin’s principal patron and benefactor. Talbot was another fascinating character. A cradle catholic, unlike Pugin, he led an ascetic lifestyle personally, but his education and frequent travels in Europe had given him a taste for fine art and architecture. He was known locally as ‘the Good Earl’ because of his generosity and kindness to his tenants, but there was a puritanical side to him as well. His two daughters married into the European aristocracy, but Talbot himself refused to use envelopes, which he saw as a complete waste of money, and kept large parts of Alton Towers closed in order to save money which he then diverted towards church building and other Roman Catholic causes. The partnership between earl and architect was a real meeting of minds (though sometimes a tempestuous one), to the benefit of both parties and the lasting benefit of English architecture.

Pugin’s buildings themselves form the other primary focus of this book. Fr Fisher describes the work at Alton Towers, Alton Castle, St Mary’s Uttoxeter, St Giles’ Cheadle, and elsewhere, with a passion and clarity which makes them seem like living characters themselves in the fascinating story which he tells. Indeed, the whole Staffordshire region comes alive here as ‘Pugin-land’.

This is a gem of a book, and excellent value for money, despite the steep cover price. It is generously illustrated with black and white, and colour photographs, which illustrate with great clarity the colour and vibrancy with which Pugin decorated his churches. Thanks to its richness and size, it would be tempting to describe this as a coffee-table book. But that would be an insult to the depth of scholarship and the beautiful writing style which make Gothic For Ever a pleasure to possess in every sense. ND

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