Thursday, 1 March 2012

Happy birthday Augustus!

One couldn't let today pass without a quick reference to the fact that today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin.

So, happy birthday, Mr Pugin!

He was, of course, along with Mr Joseph Potter, one of the architects of Oscott College, notably the chapel and other interior and exterior features (including the outdoor statues of Our Lady on the front terrace and the Sutton Lodge, the latter being the first image of Our Lady on an English highway since the reformation!). Oscott was one of Pugin's earlier works; only later came St Chad's, St Giles, and, of course, the Houses of Parliament. There are literally hundreds of buildings and items in his portfolio, one of which is one of our own churches, Sacred Heart, St Ives, which, though is many miles from its original location, and significantly, and unfortunately, altered from the original design, is something to be proud of!

I have a great admiration of Pugin. Born and brought up in London in a staunchly non-conformist household, he converted to the Catholic faith in the mid-1830s, and employed his zeal and enthusiasm in the Catholic, and Gothic, revival movement, recently brought about by the Catholic Emancipation Act, which removed most of the institutional barriers against Catholics in our country a decade previously.

The sedia in St Giles, Cheadle, designed,
of course, for the Sarum use. 
Kicked of by the strains of Blake's poem, Jerusalem, there was a intellectually violent rejection of the status quo: increasingly squalid living conditions, rapid industrialisation and consequent de-humanisation of society, decadence, social inequality, urbanisation, and, of course, King George IV.

Pugin was a spear-head of the Gothic-revival movement, which sought a return to the simple times of the mediaeval period, before the reformation, before the 'enlightenment'. The popular architecture summed up for Pugin the decadence of society. It was plain, boring, and all for show. The romanticism of the nineteenth century, which extended far beyond architecture, and even strayed into theological schools, for me, defines that oepoch. Indeed, we can learn something from it, as we know from the scriptures, a good housekeeper takes our from his treasures what is new and what is old. Indeed, we can say that Pugin laid some significant seeds for the second Vatican Council!

Pugin was controversial, even in his own time. What were these exotic creations he was coming up with, taken from a time long past, and made real for us today, using modern methods, and modern artistic talent? Pugin, for me, represents a movement which sought to restore what was being eroded from man's dignity by the 'progress' which he failed to realise was rotting his very soul. Perhaps, in our own era, we can learn some lessons from Pugin and the other romantics.

It cost him dear, however. Pugin's personal life was deeply troubled. He was widowed three times during his short life, and suffered many physical and mental illnesses, and died at the tender age of 40. Not wishing to question Providence, I do wonder what other marvels Pugin may have left us if he had lived a little longer. The good Lord obviously wanted him to design a few gothic stencils for the heavenly rood screen.

Happy birthday, Mr Pugin, and thank you.

The most important thing, of course, is that Pugin's works are
not for the museum. As he would of wished, they are still
alive and well today. I wonder what the Catholic Church
would have been like in our country without him. Much
more impoverished, I suspect.

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