Augustus W.N. Pugin (1812-1852) and the Revival of Gothic Architecture ~ Seannafair Máire-Róis Bríd De Maria

by Einar on March 19, 2012

I am married. I have got a first-rate Gothic woman at last, who perfectly understands and delights in spires, chancels, screens, stained glass, brasses, vestments etc.
- Written to a friend on the eve of his third wedding.

Pugin is the Janus of the Gothic revival; his buildings look back to the picturesque past, his writings look forward to the ethical future.
- Kenneth Clarke, The Gothic Revival

I have passed my life in thinking of fine things, studying fine things, designing fine things and realising very poor ones.
- On himself, Remarks on Articles in the Rambler

Traditional architecture for two centuries before the 1836 commissioning of the new Palace of Westminster had been classical.   The new Palace of Westminster somewhat represented a break in tradition of the architecture and furnishings of its day; so why did this happen and why do I say “somewhat”?  In this essay we will explore why this happened and examine which aspects remained traditional and which dissented.

After a fire in 1834 destroyed most of the old Palace a committee invited architects to submit designs in either Gothic or Elizabethan architecture.  Traditionally architects were trained in classical architecture and this dissent from tradition caused uproar.  Carol Richardson very aptly observes that “The choice of Gothic and Elizabethan styles was both pragmatic and symbolic” ( Chapter 4 – 2008, p. 111).   The committee sought from the architects a design that would actualize Britain with the Monarch at the top and then the Houses of Lords and Commons below.  The design needed to convey the identity of the people, represent tradition but at the same time depict innovation.

The traditional Classical style had been associated with the overthrow of the French monarchy.  The Gothic (associated with religious buildings) and Elizabethan (associated with secular buildings) styles harkened to the uniqueness of the British monarchy at the time as it had both a religious and secular influence.  Barry’s plan of a perpendicular Gothic building from the Tudor period with rich details (designed by Pugin) usually found in church architecture won the competition.

Although we have said that the new Palace of Westminster was Gothic and Elizabethan in style one cannot fail to notice the symmetrical, traditional classical characteristics.  Indeed Pugin says of Barry’s designs “All Grecian, Sir: Tudor details on a classical body” (Ferrey, 1861, p.248).  This is especially evident when we look at the plan itself of the new Palace, noting how the central lobby can be almost divided in half and then the exact symmetry when you look at the side of the building as viewed from the Thames.  These steady symmetrical architectures combined with the various heights of the towers gave the building a meaning; the architecture was used in this way we can say to convey tradition as symbolised in the contemporary classical style in harmony with dissent, portrayed by the Gothic asymmetry of the tower heights.

We get a glimpse of Pugin’s dislike of Classical architecture in the previous paragraph when he comments on Barry’s design of the new Palace of Westminster.  His view is that Classical architecture is in fact the real dissenter and the real tradition is the long established Gothic or to use Pugin’s own terms “Pointed” or “Christian” architecture.  Whilst Pugin’s influence over Barry’s classical design for the new Palace proved minimal we can see evidence that he certainly compensated for this with the furnishings.  Indeed Carol Richardson describes the interior of the House of Lords “like a Gothic Aladdin’s cave” (2008, p.119)

While taking an online tour of the House of Lords on the website I am immediately struck by its resemblance to a Gothic church.  In particular I am looking at the Peers Lobby in the House of Lords chamber.  The pointed arch by which one enters the Chamber was widely used in pre- Reformation Catholic churches to show advancement to the heavens and also the resurrection of Christ.  Again we can see this symbolism in the high ceilings and windows of the Lobby.  In the structure of the pillars and columns we can note that they are decorated in opposition to a classical design which would use these features for structure only and not ornamentation.

In the actual chamber itself my first impression is to look twice as the gold centre piece bears a stark similarity to an altar in a pre-Reformation Catholic church.  The seating arrangements could also be mistaken for those of where a choir or priests sit next to the high altar in a church.  The chamber even has a make-shift rood loft, various sculptures and stained glass windows.  In the House of Lords we see that the architecture is the predominant focus as opposed to the seating arrangements as would be the case in a modern church or building of Pugin’s time.  The attention to detail that Pugin gives to the wallpapers, carvings, stained glass, floor tiles, metalwork and furniture in the Palace clearly show a dissident approach to which a classicalist would have adopted a minimalistic avenue.  These designs reveal to us that Pugin, although dissenting from the popular classical approach of his time was actually more of a radical traditionalist.

While Pugin was designing the Palace of Westminster he was also proselytizing a return to the Gothic style of architecture through his writings.  For him, the Gothic superiority of his work on the new Palace of Westminster not only represented a public statement of a wedded architectural expression but also a spiritual one.  In 1835 Pugin converted to Catholicism which explains why his furnishing designs mirror many features of a pre-Reformation Catholic church.  The reign of classicism represented to him the “current secularism and moral degeneracy” (Carol Richardson, 2008, p.121) of England and Wales and of which the Anglican Church had supported.

Pugin noted how society, its values and artefacts were all intertwined.  In promoting the dominant style of Gothic or “Christian Architecture” for the new Palace of Westminster he was in fact saying “People, let us go back to our traditional Catholic faith and henceforth to times which were moral, honest and truthful”.

With his writings as well as his work on the new Palace of Westminster we see Pugin on a mission to promote and prove that Gothic architecture is the way forward for the nineteenth century.  In his book “True Principles” he argues that architecture must have a function; it must be legible.   He incorporates these principals and moral aspect if you like into the interior of the new Palace of Westminster.  His innovative theories and his innovative work on the architecture of the Palace were revolutionary in his time.

Today Pugin is honoured as a spearhead figure of the Gothic revival movement.  His work on the furnishings of the Palace of Westminster would certainly have been seen as a dissent from the contemporary Classical architecture.  When one looks closely it is revealed that Pugin was a radical traditionalist with an agenda to create a more moral society harkening back to pre-reformation times when the Catholic religion was the chief religion of England and Wales.

Moving forward to the twenty-first century the Palace of Westminster is very much a “distinctive symbol of British government” (Carol Richardson, 2008, p111) which attributes to its common name of “Houses of Parliament”.   It is also a residence for the Queen for ceremonial purposes.  Despite some major construction work it has kept its original Perpendicular Gothic style.  Pugin and Barry have left a legacy to be proud of which holds a history of the complexities of tradition and dissent.


Carol Richardson (2008) “Pugin and the Gothic Revival” Tradition and Dissent (AA100 Book 2), Milton Keynes, The Open University, p. 111, p.118, p.121

Ferrey, B. (1978 [1861]) Recollections of A.N. Welby Pugin, and his Father, Augustus Pugin, London, Stanford (edited C. and J. Wainwright), London, Scolar Press.

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Seannafair Máire-Róis Bríd De Maria is an Irish born scholar in the field of the Arts and Humanities. Her interests are Irish Traditional music as well as rich and diverse traditions and heritage of North and South of the Emerald Isle . Her ancestors are Celts, Ulster Scots and Scandinavian Vikings. She lives in Ireland with her husband and two children and yes, her hair is indeed gingery red.

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