Interview with Rosemary Hill, author of God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain
What inspired you to write a biography of Pugin?
I've always been interested in the way that design transmits big ideas. It's fairly straightforward to express beliefs about existence through a poem or a painting but to decide on the basis of a philosophical world view that wallpaper or furniture should look a certain way - that is quite peculiar - and yet the English have often made these sorts of connections. I had long been interested in William Morris and John Ruskin and then I became aware of another figure, behind them, Pugin, who is now less well known but who had many of the same ideas and had them first. He paved the way for the Arts and Crafts movement and his reputation in his day was immense, but he was something of a maverick and died young so he has been written out of the story.
What sort of influence has Pugin had on architecture and design?
The British landscape today is still largely 19th century, in fact or in inspiration, and as Pugin established the architectural style of the Victorian age you can say that there is hardly a town or village that wouldn't be different in some way if he had never lived. He invented the suburban family house, with its pitched roof and big garden, the Victorian gothic church and the typical village school. In his work at the Palace of Westminster he created the design for the clock tower - Big Ben - which has become a world famous symbol of London. He was the first architect designer in the modern sense, supplying wallpaper, light fittings, cups and saucers and carpets, not only to private clients but for sale in shops -and he was a great advocate of flat-pack furniture. Perhaps more than all of that he made people see that our architecture says something about us, about the way we care, or don't care, for one another as a society. He believed that if you got the building right then human nature would improve. I don't think you can make it work that way round, but I certainly think you can tell a lot about us from the state of our cities.
Do you have a favourite Pugin design or building?
Two really - one is the interior of the House of Lords, for which Pugin designed all the details, the Royal Throne, the wood carving, the clocks and even the upholstery - it is a magnificent setting for the sovereign of a then-great empire. At the other end of the scale is a building which gave him much more satisfaction, the Rolle Chantry - it's a little funeral chapel built among the ruins of a medieval church in Devon and it has a delicate, intimate interior with beautiful stone carving, lit by stained glass. It shows him at his best as a romantic architect.
Did you discover anything that surprised you about Pugin in your research for the book?
A great deal - there had been no biography since 1932 and I was working from thousands of unpublished letters and drawings scattered across the world. I was surprised to discover how quixotic he was, how often he changed his mind, even though he sounds so dogmatic in his pronouncements. I had no idea he was so susceptible to women, there were quite a number, in addition to his three wives, and by how quickly he fell in and out of love. Perhaps the most surprising and attractive thing I found out was how good natured and emotionally generous he was. In all those thousands of letters, written sometimes under great mental or professional pressure, he never said a mean or a spiteful thing about anyone. He had rows - openly on points of principle - and he could be temperamental and like most architects egotistical, but he was never snide, never played one person off against another, never lied.
What kind of experience do you want your readers to have?
I hope that they will be drawn into the story. Pugin had an eventful life - by the time he was twenty-one he had been ship-wrecked, bankrupted and widowed. He went on to have a spectacular career and a sad but dramatic early death, it is the archetypical romantic life. Beyond that I hope it will make people look at their local church, or the Victorian school in their town or even the ten o'clock news slightly differently, knowing that all these things owe something to him.