UA1-WA:P1-p3 Pugin on Gothic

Notes on a question from the course notes: What, in Pugin’s view, was the overwhelming advantage of Gothic over other architectural styles?

Augustus Pugin (1812-52) is known for his design of the Gothic interior and exterior ornament of the Houses of Parliament in London, amongst many other buildings in his short working life. He was a key figure in the Gothic revival in Victorian England. He also seems to have polarised opinion among his contemporaries and historians ever since.

“…by a nimble shift of emphasis from styles to principles … Pugin freed the Gothic Revival building from the stigma of being a deception” (1).

Trying to do some fast-yet-effective research, I was stopped in my tracks by that sentence in the course textbook. “A nimble shift of emphasis”. In my reading, that makes Pugin sound like a rather shady character, using some sleight of hand to distract us from his own nefarious agenda. A showman? A conman? I’m sure that’s very unfair. It must be unfair (to the textbook and to Pugin). But most things I’ve read have a similar sense of hesitation or reserve.

Going further in the textbook I learnt Pugin believed that both humanity and architecture had fallen into poor ways. He espoused ‘the cause of truth over that of error’, the need for ‘sincerity’, that ‘there should be no features… which are not necessary for convenience, construction, or propriety;… all ornament should consist of enrichment of the essential construction of the building’ and ‘have a meaning or serve a purpose’. Rather than building shallow copies, shams of historical architecture, methods should be revived, materials respected and emphasis placed on underlying principles of construction. Further, ‘it is in pointed architecture alone that these great principles have been carried out’. (All quotes are from Pugin, as given in Honour and Fleming pages 663-664). A link to Pugin’s conversion to Catholicism is mentioned, the general purpose of integrity and truth seems very current today – but this doesn’t tell me why pointed (aka Gothic) architecture was the answer.

A paper by Michael Bright (2) gave the background and contemporary context needed. One aesthetic theory dominant in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was the Pragmatic – artwork with the practical functions of pleasing through beauty and instructing through symbolism, thereby eliciting a response in the viewer. Architecture has the further underlying function of providing shelter. A example of this is the pinnacle on a flying buttress. A practical function is the addition of weight and strength to the structure. A symbolic function is a reference to the Resurrection through vertical lines.

A second aesthetic movement of the time was the Expressive, revealing the artist’s feelings and thoughts. Pugin believed that a true revival and restoration of Gothic architecture must be through the ‘restoration of the ancient feeling and sentiments’ (quoted in Bright, page 156). A building is a collaborative effort of architect, commissioner, craftsmen and more, and thus can express the beliefs, religion, customs and environment of an entire society. This introduces the idea of a building or other work of art expressing the values, worth and morality of the artist.

Pugin believed that the architecture of the middle ages was superior because of ‘faith, the zeal, and above all, the unity’ of those who designed and built (quoted in Bright, page 158). Pugin deplored the Renaissance, the Reformation and the classical (to Pugin ‘pagan’) revival. Also, if an architecture was to be a true expression and reflection of a man and society it should be consistent and truthful, not a mishmash of conflicting styles and symbols.

For Pugin pure Gothic was an expression of faith, of Christianity, of morality. This explains the “overwhelming advantage” of Gothic. It also explains some of the ambivalence to the man, who in his idealism and zeal could be intolerant, inflexible, petulant and abrasive. “The canons of Gothic architecture are to him points of faith, and everyone is a heretic who would venture to question them” (John Henry Newman, quoted in Bright page 160).

Other oddments about Pugin:
* he was aware of the gap between his theories and ideals and the physical buildings – due to financial constraints and the interference of others;
* he abhorred inconsistency in design, but the Houses of Parliament, one of his most memorable, loved and painted achievements, was a collaboration and mix of styles. Kenneth Clark wrote that he preferred the pseudo-Gothic of the Houses of Parliament above a classical style “itself… an imitation of antiquity”. “Barry’s design is beautifully related to the bend of the river, and Pugin’s Gothic pinnacles melt into the misty London air”. (3)
* There is debate about the extent to which Pugin’s writings influenced John Ruskin. Both were concerned that a building should be designed to meet its purpose; that symmetry purely for appearance was absurd; that there is a strong link between the value of a work and the morality of the designer and builders. However Ruskin attacked Pugin in his writing, was vehemently Protestant and anti-Catholic, and had different attitudes to workers among other differences.
* Bright suggests that Pugin was more open than Ruskin to the use of machines, appreciating the time they could save. “We should not, he [Pugin] tells us, cling to the old because of its antiquity or reject the new because of its novelty, but should judge all according to sound principles.” (4). Kenneth Clark believed that the major creative impulse of the period was in engineering – using new materials, transforming building. I like that Pugin, in all his zeal, was not entirely closed to the new. To me any building that looks back to an “authentic” past risks being inauthentic itself. To ignore perversely the changed context of the building compromises it. Through evolution or revolution, intelligent, informed, thoughtful, selective use of new materials and techniques is my preference. This is particularly important to a weaver. Many weavers find great pleasure in the beautiful reproduction of traditional patterns, but for me they should be reinterpreted, made personal, be renewed by the weaver – or architect/designer/craftsperson – or risk stagnation. Every “rule” is subject to question, to ongoing testing, to change.
* the mention in a quote above about the “canons of Gothic architecture” takes me back to my earlier struggles with the concept of the canon of Western Art (see 28-April-2013). It’s good to read about an example of the canon in flux.
* there are ten or more buildings designed by Pugin still standing in Australia. (see

(1) Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King, page 663.
(2) Bright, M. (1979) A reconsideration of A. W. N. Pugin’s architectural theories. Victorian Studies. 22 (2), pp. 151 – 172.
(3) Clark, K. (1969) Civilisation London: British Broadcasting Corporation, page 330.
(4) Bright, op. cit. p. 170.

Additional reading
Andrews, B. (1999) Mr Pugin the Bigot. Paper read to the Newman Society, Hobart, Sunday 31 October 1999. [online] Available from [Accessed 13 June 2013]

Yates, N. (1987) Pugin & the medieval dream. History Today. 37 (9), pp. 33-40.

UA1-WA:P1-p3 Pugin on Gothic
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part one: Classical and religious art.
Project three: Religious art.
Topic: Pugin on Gothic

2 Responses to “UA1-WA:P1-p3 Pugin on Gothic”

  1. 1 Lorie J. Crane June 21, 2013 at 5:03 am

    the earliest evidence of the pointed masonry arch appears in late Roman and Sassanian architecture, mostly evidenced in early church building in Syria and Mesopotamia , but occasionally also in secular structures like the Roman Karamagara Bridge .

  1. 1 UA1-WA:P1-p3 Project 3 Review | Fibres of Being Trackback on June 29, 2013 at 1:20 pm

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