Modern lives look prim beside the turbulent existence of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. Distractions and misfortunes proliferated throughout his career: shipwreck (he was in his own boat, trading antiquities as a teenager, and barely escaped drowning), bankruptcy, three marriages, several tumultuous love affairs, children conceived out of wedlock, and a series of uncertain commercial ventures. He was a passionate convert to Catholicism, at a time when anti-Catholic feeling ran high. He swore loudly and often, devised his own peculiar costume (nautical, more or less), and wasn't too careful about personal hygiene. No one thought he was a gentleman, a fact that didn't trouble him in the least. His erratic behaviour eventually turned into insanity, probably resulting from syphilis caught during his rowdy years in the theatre as a young man. These complications could not chill his exuberant flow of invention, or exclude him from centres of prestige and power. Dazzlingly precocious, he was designing furniture for the king in Windsor Castle at the age of 15. Towards the end of his short life (he died in 1852, at the age of 40), he was almost single-handedly responsible for the decoration and furnishing of the Palace of Westminster, impressing his personality on the heart of the political establishment. Big Ben, that icon of British identity, was an expression of Pugin's imagination. The famous clock tower, named after the great bell inside, was built according to his directions. It has become his best-known legacy, though it hardly represented his real achievement as a designer. He planned dozens of houses and churches (many now demolished or unrecognisably altered), three cathedrals and a Cistercian monastery. Many of his buildings were startlingly original and graceful, and any traces of condescension towards their idiosyncrasies have long since passed. But his most potent influence lay in his reconfiguring of the domestic ideal.
LRB 20 September 2007 | PDF Download