This book is the final volume of the letters of Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-1852), the man most responsible for the nineteenth-century Gothic Revival. He designed Big Ben,the Houses of Parliament, six cathedrals, sixty churches, monasteries, convents, homes for retirees and construction workers, and more, as well as everything inside and out of these structures: gargoyles, doors, floor tiles, candelabras (or Pugin's term "coronas"), crucifixes,altar linen and vestments, chalices,stained-glass windows, umbrella holders - everything.
Augustus Welby Pugin
This book is the final volume of the letters of Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-1852), the man most responsible for the 19th century Gothic Revival. He designed Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, six cathedrals, 60 churches, monasteries, convents, homes for retirees and construction workers, and more, and everything inside and out of these structures: gargoyles, doors, floor tiles, candelabras (or Pugin’s term “coronas”), crucifixes, altar linen and vestments, chalices, stained glass windows, umbrella holders—everything. In an inventory taken before 1994, 1,100 of his chairs were extant in the Houses of Parliament.
A self-taught architect, Pugin died at age 40 after a working life of only 15 years. This volume includes his formal letters to editors (e.g., March 9, 1851, to the Tablet and Catholic Standard), 50 letters concerning his March 1851 An Earnest Address, on the Establishment of the Hierarchy following the pope’s re-establishment of the hierarchy in 1850 that had resulted in anti-papal riots, 25 on his newly published A Treatise on Chancel Screens and Rood Lofts, 225 on the Houses of Parliament with the House of Commons to open in February 1852 (he made over 2,000 drawings), and over 100 concerning his stunning marketing success, his “Medieval Court” filled with examples of his work, at London’s 1851 “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” to which came six million people, equivalent to a third of the population of Great Britain. The young (age 32) Queen Victoria visited Pugin’s Medieval Court twice.
Margaret Belcher, the editor of all five volumes, died in November 2016 at the age of 80. She was a retired Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. She authored a highly regarded chapter on “Pugin Writings” for the book published in conjunction with the 1994 Pugin exhibition, with its 400 artifacts, at the Victoria & Albert Museum. She devoted six of her 11 pages to explaining why Pugin’s first book, self-published in 1836 at age 24, Contrasts; or, a parallel between the noble edifices of the middle ages, and corresponding buildings of the present day, shewing the present decay of taste (1836, 2d ed. 1841), was more than a work of architectural history or criticism, but was a work of literature. And she devoted three pages to the Earnest Address.
In 1987, Dr. Belcher had published A.W.N. Pugin: An Annotated Critical Bibliography. That same year, she started working on Pugin’s letters. She collected, from a large array of sources, all the letters Pugin had written. (To check her work, I knew there was a lone original Pugin letter in the Rare Book collection at the University of Notre Dame, far from the UK. It shows up.) She also collected all the letters she could find written to Pugin. Pugin had routinely destroyed letters he received, but he forwarded some to other people who saved them.
Dr. Belcher transcribed all from longhand; (the first commercial typewriter was 1870). Many of the letters were written when Pugin was traveling by stagecoach, and later, the early trains, and, during this period he suffered frequent severe illnesses, facts that did not make his penmanship clearer: “it is awful travelling by rail now there are such accidents everywhere & I will not travel after dark”; “I was seized in the Carriage going to Exeter with intense pain…my dear Friend I can assure you all joking apart that in London I thought I was struck with Death…”.
Dr. Margaret Belcher
In her introduction to the first volume which appeared in 2001, Dr. Belcher included “Editorial Procedure” which is not repeated in subsequent volumes. She informed her readers that she would not change the spelling, punctuation or capitalization of Pugin’s letters lest this interrupt the reader’s attention. She cites the number of changes she would have had to make to modernize a single letter. She also described her conventions for italicizing or boldfacing the text. If Pugin included a sketch in a letter, she indicates such. If a word is illegible, she indicates this, too.
Dr. Belcher gives her opinions on the identity of unidentified recipients and on the dates of undated letters. Because she was working with cursive, she identified one letter by the handwriting. Her detective work was so thorough that there are only 12 pages of letters she despaired of dating; she placed them in this final volume. Also in this final volume are 84 pages of letters that she obtained after the first four volumes were printed. And there is one page of errata for the previous four volumes.
There are over 3,000 pages in the five volumes, plus introductions, indices, and black-and-white figures and plates. So, this is a lot of correspondence in 21 years (from 1830), but there was no telegraph (before 1838) or of course telephone. Moreover, they are squeezed in by using a font size of 9 for regular text of 9 and a font size of 7 for notes and the letters to Pugin.
Consider your reaction upon opening an illuminated letter from Pugin. The left to J.R. Bloxam, fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, “Pugin’s chief link with the Oxford Movement.” The right to J.F. Russell, member of the Cambridge Camden Society. From Paul Atterbury and Clive Wainwright, eds., “Pugin,” Victoria & Albert Museum, 1994, p. 107.
The notes for a specific letter follow that letter rather than appearing at the bottom of the page or in endnotes. The notes cross-reference to Pugin’s diaries (which recite date, place, event, travels, but are bereft of narrative). Dr. Belcher explains phrases like “to have the weather gauge” and “I throw the Hatchet.” For every correspondent or person mentioned in the letters, she provides full name, age, role, occupation, place of residence, e.g, Lord Middleton on page 19.
Pugin wrote some letters in French (e.g. page 353), but unfortunately, Belcher did not provide a translation.
The majority of Pugin’s letters were to John Hardman, Jr., and the majority of letters to Pugin that Pugin were forwarded were forwarded to Hardman. John Hardman, Jr., (1812-1867) was born the same year as Pugin and owned a company devoted to metalwork and stained glass windows.
Dr. Belcher succeeded immensely in exhaustive, painstaking work.
The Medieval Court from Dickinson’s Views of the Great Exhibition, chromolithograph L. Haghe (London 1851), in Paul Atterbury, ed., “A.W.N. Pugin: Master of Gothic Revival,” Yale University Press, 1995, p. 381. Note the crucifix in the background the exhibition of which was subject to much debate.
Spero News columnist James M. Thunder is an attorney. His great-grandfather George Thunder married Pugin's seventh child, Margaret. A Life Member of the Pugin Society, Ramsgate, UK, he has for many years, made illustrated presentations on Pugin throughout the United States and has authored several articles about Pugin. An earlier version of this review was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Sacred Architecture Journal, sacredarchitecture.org.