With the bicentenary of Charles Dickens being well and truly celebrated this year, we are in danger of overlooking the 200th year of the birth of one of the country’s greatest designers and architects, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. I well remember attending a reception at the House of Commons in a room which had undoubtedly been designed by him in the Gothic Revival style of his work. Pugin was the son of Auguste Pugin – a French draughtsman – who, as a young man had fled his home country because of the revolution and settled down as a refugee.
He met and married Catherine Welby of Lincolnshire and settled in a house in Bloomsbury, where Augustus was born. As he grew his father taught him how to draw, which stood him in good stead for his future profession. In 1831 and only aged 19 years of age, he married his first wife Anne Garnet. It seemed to be the fashion to marry young in those days, when life expectancy was not as long as it is today. Anne tragically died a few months later giving birth to their daughter.
Augustus married twice more in his lifetime to Louisa Burton and Jane Knill, who bore him a further six children. In co-operation with his father between 1821 and 1838 they published a number of books on Gothic Architecture which remained as valued reference books on this subject for many years.
Following the destruction of the Palace of Westminster in 1834, Pugin was employed by Sir Charles Barry to submit interior designs for Barry’s entry into the competition to select an architect for the new building. Pugin also supplied drawings to another entrant James Gillespie Graham. His designs led him to work with Sir Charles Barry on the interior of King Edward’s School, Birmingham. In 1834 Pugin decided to become a Roman Catholic, and while it did affect some of his commissions he received many others for the building or refurbishment of many Catholic churches, particularly in Ireland and in one instance, in far off Australia. About this time he purchased land at Laverstock near Salisbury, Wilts, where he built a house for his family. Unfortunately, he started to suffer from bouts of depression which affected his work and led to financial problems. This was partly relieved by a legacy from his aunt, Selina Welby, who lived in Ramsgate, and he and his family took up residency there. He continued to suffer from depression and in 1851 went into retreat thinking that he was about to die. In the following year he was admitted to Bedlam, a dreadful place for those suffering with mental afflictions, but his wife was able to have him removed and taken to a more comfortable institution. After a few weeks he was able to return to his home in Ramsgate.
We will always remember Augustus Pugin the great architect of the Gothic Revival in this country when we gaze on St Stephen’s Tower, part of the Palace of Westminster, and hear the chimes of Big Ben or even looked round the interior of the great palace. His work can also be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum as well as many churches and public buildings up and down the land. He died at the early age of 40 years on September 14, 1852. However, his two sons, EW Pugin and PP Pugin, continued their father’s work in the architectural firm of Pugin and Pugin.