Augustus Welby Pugin, the charismatic leader and promoter of the Gothic Revival, best known to the public for his work on the interiors of the new Palace of Westminster, was one of the most important architects of the nineteenth century. The key reviver of the arts of the Middle Ages, he was not only an architect but also a consummate designer of furniture, wallpaper, fabrics, encaustic tiles and stained glass. Further, he was a powerful propagandist as a writer, as witnessed for example in his Contrasts (1836) and The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Art (1841). His output both as an architect and designer was huge. His bold insistence on his True Principles – fitness of style and materials to site, revealed and honest construction, and the concept of form following function, made him immensely influential. For Pugin, these principles were best shown in the pre-Reformation Gothic architecture and design of the Middle Ages, and he inspired many other nineteenth-century architects, as for example George Gilbert Scott, George Edmund Street, and William Burges, to work in the Gothic style. His principles, in a more general sense, could however also be said to have a wider application.
Surely no-one left has his mark on East Kent, specifically at Ramsgate in the Isle of Thanet, so tangibly as Pugin. He revelled in the ancient Christian history of the Island, and in the fact that it was close to Ramsgate, at Ebbsfleet, that St Augustine had landed in 597. Hence he wished to build a church there, driven by his Catholicism (he converted in 1835) and entirely at his own expense, for the use of Catholic parishioners, and to dedicate it to St Augustine. To accommodate his family of six children, and eventually his third wife and a further two children, he first had to design a house - The Grange, very close to the church. The house, innovatory in plan and appearance and setting a new template for domestic architecture, together with the church, and its exquisite detailing, make an unforgettable statement of his vision and beliefs. In the sitting room at The Grange he set in stained glass a replica of a celebrated map of the Isle of Thanet by William Elmham, dating from the very early fifteenth century. He also added a quotation, which ran round the map, in Latin, and which was quaintly translated as ‘Tenet’s round Ifle, compafs’d with water round/Fruitful and neat, the like’s not to be found’ [sic].1 In his church, described by him as ‘my own child’,2 he designed a window showing King Ethelbert and Queen Bertha of Kent, and after his death a magnificent window, depicting St Augustine’s mission in England, was installed above his tomb.
Not only was St Augustine a central figure to Pugin, but also he relished being near the sea, and bought a substantial Deal lugger, Caroline - ‘she is just six inches longer than my studio’3 - to earn some extra income and to help save mariners and cargo from the perils of the nearby Goodwin Sands. Nautical life had always meant a great deal to him. He identified strongly and enthusiastically with the area, collecting histories of East Kent sites, and recording scenes in pencil and watercolour locally. His wife Jane reported in 1849, ‘Augustus went sketching the Kentish churches almost all this summer, many days walking 18 or 20 miles besides taking 5 or 6 coloured sketches.’[sic]4
Pugin was aged only forty when he died at home in Ramsgate in 1852. His life in which Ramsgate played a very significant part, had been turbulent and hyperactive, and he had achieved an extraordinary amount in such a short time. His oldest son, Edward (1834-1875), a talented but controversial figure, also left his mark architecturally on the area, and well beyond, but that is another story.
This article was published: 9 April 2023.
As listed in endnotes, plus:
Hill, Rosemary, God’s Architect; Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain,2007, London; Penguin/Allan Lane.
Lewis, John, The History and Antiquities Ecclesiastical and Civil of the Isle of Tenet, in Kent, 1736, second edition, volume 1, p.60. ↩
Powell, John Hardman, Pugin in his home, edited with introduction by Alexandra Wedgwood, 2006, enlarged edition, p.26. ↩
Belcher, Margaret, The Collected Letters of A.W.N. Pugin, volume 4, letter to John Hardman, p.44. ↩
Pugin, Jane, ‘Dearest Augustus and I’; the Journal of Jane Pugin, edited with introduction by Caroline Stanford, 2004, p.56. ↩