Monday, 5 January 2015

The Genius of AWN Pugin : 1
Saint Edmund's College Ware (UK)

In 1812 was born one of the most important figures in the history of architecture and the decorative arts: Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin.  

The son of the French √©migr√© Augustus Charles Pugin (who himself was an architectural draughtsman and topographical watercolourist), AWN Pugin is arguably the greatest British architect, designer and writer of the nineteenth century.  Pugin was responsible for an enormous quantity of buildings, and also for countless beautiful designs for tiles, sacred vestments and paraments, metalwork, furniture, wallpaper, stained glass and ceramics.  Some of his best known work includes the magnificent interiors of the Houses of Parliament, the church of St Giles, Cheadle, in Staffordshire, and his own house, The Grange, in Ramsgate (Kent), together with the nearby church of Saint Augustine, which he built and paid for himself and where he is buried.

Through his buildings, designs, and particularly his forceful and witty writings, such as Contrasts (1836) and the True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841), he made people think in a new way about what architecture was.   Pugin taught that only a caring and "good" society can raise buildings that are truly honest and beautiful.  For him, Gothic architecture was the greatest style of building, and therefore the Middle Ages, the period in which these buildings were conceived, must be the closest man can get to a perfect society.  Pugin's beliefs and ideas have implications beyond his own immediate preferences, and so for many reasons he was, and is, therefore, hugely influential, both on other architects and designers of the Gothic Revival throughout the Victorian era and also on many subsequent architects, theorists and writers.

The above paragraphs were adapted from the website of The Pugin Society.

Shrine of Saint Edmund in the Collegiate Chapel at Ware (UK)
Image :

There are so many architectural and liturgical jewels which Pugin created in his short life, but in this post we wish to discuss a detail to reveal the layers of Pugin's creativity, rather than give an overview of his achievements. We look at the photograph included above of a shrine in the Chapel of Saint Edmund's College, Ware, one of the last buildings designed by Pugin and completed in 1853, after his death.

This is a shrine to the patron of the College, Saint Edmund. An elaborate reliquary is the centrepiece of the shrine, situated in a reredos above the altar. Most obviously, this shrine is decorated in a beautiful and tasteful manner. The stonework of the reredos is enhanced with polychrome work and gilding, down to the finest detail. In several places, in the script Pugin favoured, is the letter " E " for Saint Edmund and around the base of the reliquary, with its alternating panels of blue and red, Saint Edmund is honoured with the words : Hail, flower and comeliness of England. The angels, which adorn eight of the nine carved recesses are all treated differently and have so much more vigour that the statues of the baroque (we will pass over without mention the genre of plaster statue).

But the shrine is also a study in ingenuity. In a shallow alcove, set-off from the main part of the chapel, the reredos sits into a large arch : it does not protrude from the wall. It might be a window behind that, but, of course it isn't. Pugin has skilfully used different forms of arch to create a reredos in this space, giving the impression that it was an afterthought, but an ingenious one, filling a blank area in the chapel. A further master touch was the use of curtaining of rich dark red velvet in the central recesses of the reredos. It gives the impression of the curtained stage of a theatre. The arches here are distinctly different and free of the structural ornament which the other arches have; their shallow slope becomes the foundation from which further archwork springs. But their form, together with the curtains, also gives the impression of a substantial space behind the shrine, although in fact there is none at all.

The curtains, of course, may be drawn across the Reliquary, if desired, during the celebration of Mass or during Passiontide.

This Shrine is a small example of the many wonders which flowed from the creative mind of AWN Pugin.

Below are some other links descriptive of Pugin and his work: