The Amazing Architect Behind Big Ben - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Amazing Architect Behind Big Ben
Big Ben, London (Peter Nadolski/Shutterstock)

Augustus Welby Pugin (1812–1852) is in the news these days in the United Kingdom because he designed the iconic London Clock Tower, popularly known as “Big Ben,” whose scaffolding has now come down after five years to reopen this spring.

In terms of architectural history, Pugin was the Gothic Revivalist, as chronicled in the 2007 biography written by Rosemary Hill, titled God’s Architect: Pugin & the Building of Romantic Britain. In addition to Big Ben, Pugin designed the Houses of Parliament (for which he made 2,000 drawings), six cathedrals in the U.K. and Ireland, about five dozen Catholic and Anglican churches in the U.K., Ireland, and Australia, and additional types of buildings — and everything in them, including candelabras, tables, chairs, wallpaper, floor tiles, chalices, stained glass windows, etc. The display of his wares — and of his genius — in his “Medieval Court” ensemble at the 1851 Great Exhibition was a huge success. The young Queen Victoria toured it twice.

Soon after I joined the newly created Pugin Society, located in Pugin’s hometown of Ramsgate, U.K., I started speaking and writing about him. In the past 25 years, I’ve delivered richly illustrated talks at the American Institute of Architects, Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Notre Dame. I’ve published seven essays, with several more in preparation. What I want to do here is, first, focus on Pugin’s youth, when it was not at all clear that he would be able to support himself and his family, and, second, briefly address his legacy in America.

The Life of a Victorian Architect

Pugin was one of about 10 boys, at any one time, who studied illustration in his Protestant French immigrant father’s home studio in London. It was typical of boys to apprentice with their fathers or other men. As I wrote in 1999:

[F]rom the earliest times in his life, Pugin was meeting, traveling with, working alongside, and living in the same neighborhood as serious students of, and men established in, the businesses of art, portraiture, architecture, theatre, publishing, bookbinding, lithography and literature.

Charles Dickens, born the same year as Pugin, lived in the same neighborhood.

When Pugin was 15, he quit his father’s school. But he didn’t just roam London. He continued to draw for his father’s books for pay. And he spent a great deal of time in the British Museum, 50 yards from his home. One day, the royal goldsmiths saw him at a table there imitating a drawing of Albrecht Dürer, and they commissioned him, age 15, to design a jewel-studded coronation cup.

Augustus Pugin's sketch of “Place Royale, Paris” (Wikimedia Commons)

Augustus Pugin’s sketch of “Place Royale, Paris” (Wikimedia Commons)

What would Pugin do with his great talent? One line of work he tried was stage design, but that did not go very far. He also tried furniture design and manufacture. At the age of just 17, he had enough work to hire two helpers. The creative end of the business went exceedingly well, but the financial end went exceedingly badly. He went to debtors’ prison. His father, without the funds to pay his son’s debts, embarrassingly solicited funds from his own friends.

Take a look at the major events in Pugin’s life from 1831 through 1835, ages 19 through 23, to see some of his trials and tribulations:

Summer 1831: He was shipwrecked.

 Fall 1831: As noted, his father got him out of debtors’ prison.

Spring 1832: He eloped with a woman three years his senior who was pregnant. His parents agreed to let the couple move in with them. While on their honeymoon, the city the couple was visiting was placed under quarantine.

 May 27, 1832: His wife died in childbirth, leaving him a single father with a newborn.

 Fall 1832: He drew the first of his imaginative, gothic Ideal Schemes (this work continued through 1835) for no pay.

Sept. 1832: With his father’s students and his mother, he visited Wells, U.K., where he made drawings, for pay, for his father. He was overwhelmed by the city’s ensemble of medieval buildings. In their conversations, his mother encouraged Pugin, then age 20, in the ideas that would become his illustrated book four years later: Contrasts or a Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, and Similar Buildings of the Present Day; Shewing the Present Decay of Taste. The book, small but highly influential, was self-published in 1836, with a second edition released in 1841.

 Dec. 19, 1832: His father died.

 Feb. 1833: He decided to become not just an architect but a Gothic architect. He would engage in self-study. There was, however, at the time, limited consumer demand for Gothic architecture so he created the demand!

 April 28, 1833: His mother died.

 June 1833: Pugin, a widower with a one-year-old child, remarried.

 Summer 1833: He undertook a tour of the U.K., searching for “the Beautiful.”

 Summer 1834: He undertook a self-study tour of European Gothic architecture.

 Sept. 4, 1834: His father’s sister Selina, his favorite aunt, a resident of Ramsgate, died.

 Oct. 16, 1834: Pugin was visiting London and saw the Houses of Parliament burn to the ground. He would end up making drawings for two different architects for their competition to win the government contract to design the replacements.

 April 1835: He moved into the first building he designed — his home, St. Marie’s Grange, in Salisbury.

June 6, 1835: He was received into the Catholic Church. One modern commentator called this decision “social suicide.” Catholics were very small in number and oppressed. There were no large migrations of Catholics into the U.K. until the potato famine started in 1845. Thousands of Anglicans followed St. John Henry Newman into the Church, but Newman did not convert until 10 years after Pugin, in 1845.

There would be more obstacles and tribulations. Pugin had periods of blindness. His second wife died. (He remarried. Not only did his third wife care for his six children by his two previous wives, but they also also two more children.) He had some sort of mental breakdown, was hospitalized for several months, and died at age 40 soon thereafter. After his death, he would be given no credit for the designs he did for the Houses of Parliament. The credit would all go to architect Charles Barry, who was knighted for his work.

As demonstrated in my introduction, however, many good things happened during his life. The demand for his services became huge. In the age before photography, Pugin marketed his services with his drawings. (RELATED: Historic English Church Engulfed in Inferno)

Augustus Pugin, “Sketch of a Gothic Church and Monastery” (Wikimedia Commons)

Augustus Pugin, “Sketch of a Gothic Church and Monastery” (Wikimedia Commons)

What other good things happened? One is that Pugin and a neighbor made many successful rescues of foreign sailors and their cargo from distressed ships off the coast of their Ramsgate homes. Pugin paid for their shelter, nursing care, clothes, and food until they could return to their home countries.

Another good thing is that, like his father, Pugin had apprentices, one of whom married his eldest daughter and another of whom was his eldest son. His two other sons also became architects.

Pugin’s widow would live to 1909, keeping his memory and his family intact. The church in Ramsgate that Pugin built with his own money would be named a shrine in 2012, the bicentennial of his birth. His home in Ramsgate was purchased by the U.K.’s Landmark Trust and is available for overnight stays.

Pugin’s International Legacy

Now let me turn to his legacy in America, although it is a country to which he never traveled and for which he designed no buildings. Pugin’s global influence has been captured in the 2016 book Gothic Revival Worldwide: A.W.N. Pugin’s Global Influence. In the United States, the public became so enamored with Gothic architecture that there is a Gothic chapel, built in 1889, near Jefferson’s 1826 classically inspired rotunda at the University of Virginia.

Hundreds of Gothic churches of all denominations and Gothic synagogues were built throughout the United States. Just a small sampling includes:

New York City: St. Patrick’s Cathedral (built 1858-1878), St. Thomas More Catholic Church (built 1870 as Episcopal Church of the Beloved Disciple), Riverside Church (1930)

Philadelphia: Christ Memorial Reformed Episcopal Church (1887)

San Francisco: St. Francis of Assisi National Shrine (1874), St. Dominic’s Catholic Church (1928), Grace Cathedral (1934)

Los Angeles: Immanuel Presbyterian Church (1929), First Congregational Church (1932)

Savannah: St. John the Baptist Cathedral (1876, rebuilt 1900), Congregation Mickve Israel (1878)

Baton Rouge: St. Joseph Cathedral (1853)

Buildings other than churches were also Gothic, including Denver’s Paramount Theater (1930), the Tribute Tower office building in Chicago (1925), and the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey (1880).

“Collegiate gothic” architecture became the rage on campuses like Princeton and Duke. Examples of this style on the University of Notre Dame’s campus include the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (1871-1888), the South Dining Hall (1927), the law school (1930), St. Liam Hall (1936), and Cushing Hall (1936). Two American architects pre-eminent in Gothic design were Patrick Charles Keely (1816-1896) and Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942).

Pugin also has a familial legacy in America. One of his grandsons, James Augustus Thunder, was a high school and college classmate of James Joyce, emigrated to America, and married a native of San Francisco who was descended from a father-and-son pair who had fought 125 years earlier with the Continental Army during the Revolution. All three of their sons served during World War II. One son landed on Iwo Jima, which he chronicled in the book The Pacific War and Battle of Iwo Jima: Recollections & Essays: by a Seabee Lieutenant, and died in 2010. I tell my audiences that Pugin was my grandfather’s grandfather.

Augustus Pugin, “Plate and Spoon,” displayed at the Snite Museum of Art in June 2022 (James Thunder)

Augustus Pugin, “Plate and Spoon,” displayed at the Snite Museum of Art in June 2022 (James Thunder)

The Pugin-designed, Minton-made dinner plate and silver serving spoon held by the Snite Museum of Art of the University of Notre Dame (soon to become the Raclin Murphy Museum of Art) is one of only a few Pugin artifacts on display outside the United Kingdom, Ireland, or Australia.

The man behind London’s iconic Big Ben didn’t only lived a unique life as an artist — he also left an architectural legacy that can be seen in cities across America. Pugin might not be a household name, but his works are beloved by many. 


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