On the 200th anniversary of Pugin’s birth, the visionary architect’s final creation needs funds for repairs.
In danger of disrepair: St Augustine’s Abbey Church, Ramsgate; the east window and altar; Pugin’s stained glass; and altar figures, visited by Clive Aslet
By Clive Aslet
7:30AM GMT 05 Jan 2012
What a year 2012 is for anniversaries. There is a rich crop of bicentenaries dominated, so far, by Dickens, but including, as well as Edward Lear and Robert Browning, architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, a figure of volcanic energy who died, a lunatic, at the age of 41. Despite his early death, possibly caused by mercury ointment he rubbed on his eyes, although conceivably by syphilis, Pugin did almost as much to shape our idea of the Victorian age as the great storyteller himself.
It was Pugin who designed the Gothic detail of the Palace of Westminster: not only the crockets and statues on the outside, but every detail of the interior, from the throne in the House of Lords to the inkwells in the House of Commons Library – not to mention the Lord Chancellor’s wallpaper that proved so expensive to reproduce for Derry Irvine. It was an epic achievement, demonstrating that the style of the Middle Ages could be adapted for any 19th-century need.
Before Pugin came to prominence in the 1830s, the Gothic Revival had been an antiquarian affair, a style to titillate the imaginations of Regency aesthetes, in whom ivy-covered ruins and rusty armour roused a frisson of pleasurable gloom. Almost single-handedly, Pugin gave it a new seriousness. What he called Pointed or Christian Architecture became a moral crusade that went global, carried to every part of the world where English was spoken and cathedrals were built, from Brisbane to Bombay.
The Victorian city, with its neo-Gothic town halls, railway stations, commercial buildings, warehouses and monuments, was built on his precepts. His ideas became so entrenched that, in the 21st century, even architects who have never read a word of Pugin would subscribe to his two great principles: that every detail of a building should serve a purpose, and that ornament should be confined to the decoration of structure.
Despite his fixation with Gothic, Pugin was, in some ways, a surprisingly modern figure. A keen sailor, he flouted convention by wearing rough clothes, and had a boisterous manner that more genteel contemporaries considered coarse. Extraordinarily for the period, he consumed most family meals in the kitchen, while his many children romped around the house with a freedom that would have appalled other Victorians.
Pugin also understood the arts of spin, propagandising his ideas through books and pamphlets. But he was also devout in a way that would strike us now as extreme. A Catholic convert, he believed that everything had been wrong with England since Henry VIII changed the national religion. He longed for a return of the great pre-Reformation Age of Faith, when monasteries dispensed charity to the poor, lords welcomed travellers beneath the hammer-beamed roofs of their halls, and church spires, not factory chimneys, soared over towns. He tried to realise his vision in, of all places, Ramsgate.
Not only did Pugin build a house, The Grange, at Ramsgate – note the monastic name – but, incredibly, given that he had to pay for every penny of the construction himself, a church. It is, as you would expect, one of his finest works, hard on the outside (it is built of the local material, flint) but, as its priest Fr Marcus Holden puts it, “a revelation of God’s glory within”. It is enriched with delicate stained glass, beautiful carving and a font that was originally made for the Medieval Court of the Great Exhibition.
Pugin also established a school, which he was forced to give up after a rival (and richer) Church of England congregation opened another to spite him. He died before fulfilling his ambition of founding a monastery: that was left to his son to erect.
Together, The Grange, St Augustine’s Church and St Augustine’s Abbey form the completest expression of what Pugin believed a revived Middle Ages could be – an inspiring testament to his genius, faith and hard work. Unesco should celebrate this anniversary by making them a World Heritage Site.
Until the end of last year, the Abbey was still used for its original function. But the premises seemed too big for the dozen or so monks who were left, and they have found a new home. This ought to provide some architecture-loving Maecenas with a unique opportunity to unite monastery and church and display both to the public. Seven years ago, the Landmark Trust magnificently restored The Grange, which can be hired for holidays; to some, this seemed a bold move, given the size and uncompromising style of the property, but it became one of the most popular in the portfolio. However, the church has been little seen; the monks, who entered by means of a tunnel, rarely opened it to the public. The Abbey was all but impenetrable.
Under the energetic guidance of Fr Holden, that is set to change. Repairs have also begun to the church. No longer do parishioners need to avoid certain pews when it is raining: the leaking roof has been mended. The heating and electricity supply are back on. This Christmas, Pugin’s organ – a particularly fine one – was played for the first time in many years, to accompany a choral mass sung in Latin: the church is establishing a reputation for music, which attracts both professional singers and worshippers from beyond the local community. The plan is now to restore the church to the condition in which Pugin left it. This will entail improving drainage, remaking roof tiles, repairing stained glass and replacing the chancel screen. Last year a grant of £110,000 was made by English Heritage, but the final bill could reach £1 million.
Catholic congregations sometimes make even those in the cash-strapped Church of England look princely – and the Isle of Thanet is a particularly deprived area. But Fr Holden is ready for the fund-raising challenge. He sees St Augustine’s becoming a place of modern-day pilgrimage, not just to pay homage to what Pugin did, but to explore the larger meaning of the place, which is what attracted him here. “Thanet was originally a holy island. It was where St Augustine landed to convert the English to Christianity.” The story is told through the stained glass.
Visitors will also respond to Pugin’s titanic personality. Although he hated the architecture of the seaside resort – and low-church Ramsgate responded by attempting to parade a burning effigy of the Pope past his door, being only prevented by the police – he loved the sea. From the tower of The Grange he would scan the storm-tossed Goodwin Sands for shipwrecks, sailing out in his lugger The Caroline to rescue the sailors and claim the wrecks. In gratitude, one crew gave a lamp in the form of a silver ship to the church. In time, that was stolen and replaced by a silver-plate version. That has also been taken, and the new incarnation is made of gunmetal. It tells a story of its own.
Walk a mile or two along the famous Ramsgate Sands and you come to Broadstairs. Dickens spent his holidays there, but did not like what he knew of Pugin, who was too censorious for his taste. But the novelist would have approved of the way he kept Christmas – every year The Grange had a Christmas tree – and particularly Twelfth Night, which coincided with Pugin’s wedding anniversary. Guests were given characters to act. There was a huge cake with St George and the Dragon fighting on top of it. The whole evening was kept afloat by Pugin’s exuberance. But the evening stopped at 10.30pm prompt. It was then time to make the house shipshape again, and back to work, designing doorknobs for MPs and reshaping the Victorian world, the next morning.
For information about the Pugin Society’s celebrations of his bicentenary, visit www.pugin-society.1to1.org
Clive Aslet is editor at large of Country Life