Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who was a leading light in the Gothic Revival in early Victorian England, is particularly known for his work on the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.
He was born in 1812 in London and had very little formal education, but his father ran a school of architectural draughtsmanship from the family home and he absorbed a huge amount of knowledge as a result, especially as regards medieval architecture. He also travelled widely in Europe, where he greatly impressed by the great cathedrals that dated from the Gothic period.
After undertaking a number of commissions, including for the design of furniture at Windsor Castle, Pugin got to know Charles Barry and James Gillespie Graham, both of whom showed interest in the competition to design the new Houses of Parliament following a disastrous fire in 1834 that had destroyed most of the old complex of buildings that had served this purpose previously.
Barry and Graham both asked Pugin to supply designs for internal decorations and furnishings in the Gothic style. When Barry was awarded the commission in January 1836 Pugin continued to provide drawings as Barry prepared his estimate for the task.
By September 1844 the structures were largely in place, and Pugin was invited by Charles Barry to work on the internal fittings of the new House of Lords. This work was to occupy him for much of the rest of his life, especially as the commissions he had been receiving for working on churches and other religious buildings started to fall off at around this time.
Pugin and Barry had an excellent working relationship and the net result is a fusion of their ideas. Pugin designed furnishings, tiles, metalwork, wallpaper and stained glass, and oversaw their production by trusted allies. All the fittings, apart from the frescoes and statues, are Pugin’s work. It is unfortunate that the original stained glass was lost during World War II, but the remainder, which forms the backdrop to the annual Queen’s speech to Parliament, is as designed by Pugin. The illustration above is of the royal throne and surrounds in the House of Lords
Pugin continued to work on other parts of the Palace of Westminster, including the House of Commons, including designing items, such as gas lamps and umbrella stands, for which no medieval examples could serve as a model. It is thought likely that the design of the “Big Ben” clock tower was based by Barry on that designed by Pugin for Scarisbrick Hall in Lancashire.
Pugin was only 40 years old when he died in 1852. The cause of death may have been mercury poisoning, especially as Pugin suffered a complete mental breakdown in the months before his death and this is a common symptom of over-exposure to mercury. A possible source of mercury was the wallpaper with which he had close contact during his work at Westminster and elsewhere.
© John Welford