The reputation of EW Pugin has inevi tably, to a degree, been overshadowed by that of his father, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-52). Both lived very short lives – father and son respectively died at 40 and 41 – and yet both achieved a prolific amount. EW Pugin was responsible for two English Catholic cathedrals and over 40 surviving English Catholic churches as well as numerous private chapels. He worked with ability and speed, and accomplished a vast amount.
The Pugin Society has recently helped remedy the neglect of EW Pugin and published a 294-page Catalogue Raisonné, by Dr Gerard Hyland, of his architectural works together with a biographical sketch (priced £35).
EW Pugin was born in 1834 in Ramsgate, the eldest son of AWN Pugin. His mother was Louise Button, his father’s second wife. Before his birth, his father had written to a friend: “a few weeks will I expect bring a little Gothic boy or girl”. Edward was baptised an Anglican but brought up as a Catholic after his father converted in 1834. After spells in Salisbury and Chelsea, the family moved into The Grange, Ramsgate in 1844. He was educated mainly at home.
His father died in 1852 and Edward, aged 18, had to take over responsibility for his stepmother and his siblings. He set up his own architectural practice, initially to complete his father’s unfinished commissions, based in Birmingham, then in London before returning to Ramsgate in 1861.
His churches varied considerably in size and opulence; this was very much a function of what funds were available. Most of his churches are faced with stone. Many of his churches have suffered badly from “the spirit of Vatican II” with insensitive reordering of his high altars and sanctuaries, often to the grief of their congregations. His architectural style had an originality and staccato toughness far beyond his father’s careful and harmonious historicism.
EW Pugin’s first architectural phase lasted from 1852 to about 1859. During this period he broadly followed the “Middle Pointed” (ie Decorated) style that his father ended up adopting in preference to other styles.
His first major building was that of Shrewsbury Cathedral of Our Lady and St Peter of Alcantara. After the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850, the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury had approached AWN Pugin to design a cathedral for the diocese of Shrewsbury. Both the 16th Earl and AWN Pugin died in 1852 and the former’s cousin, the 17th Earl, approached EW Pugin to design the building. The cathedral in Decorated style stands above the town walls. It was hideously and bleakly reordered in 1984 (with the later Pippet painted decoration concealed). The current bishop, Mark Davies, has embarked on a programme of restoration, with the assistance of the architect Craig Hamilton, which will recover the beauty of the building.
Another church, built slightly later in 1853-4 in the Decorated (veering on Perpendicular) style, was that of Oulton Abbey in Staffordshire for some Benedictine nuns. The monastery was closed for lack of nuns in 2017 although Mass is currently still celebrated in the church. One hopes another order will take it over; the monks of Downside are looking for a new home…
In 1855-7, EW Pugin built the church of St Vincent de Paul with its distinctive spirelet in the dock area of Liverpool, later adding a sumptuous alabaster reredos with statues in niches. After a period of closure from 1990 to 1997 it has reopened. Cardinal Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, a White Father and formerly a Vatican diplomat, serves in the parish.
The final major building in this style was the church of Belmont Abbey, commissioned by the convert landowner and sometime Conservative MP Francis Wegg-Prosser; it was passed on to the Benedictines. From 1859 to 1916 it was the pro-cathedral of the Diocese of Newport and Menevia.
The building had many fittings of high quality but was destructively re-ordered in 1966-7 “in the spirit of Vatican II”; some of the damage has been subsequently ameliorated. The monastic community continues to exist with some 30 monks.
EW Pugin’s prolific second phase ran roughly from 1859 to 1870. His chief characteristic was to reconcile Gothic with the requirement of Tridentine liturgy that the majority of the congregation was able to see the elaborate high altar.
He achieved this by having wide nave arcades with slender pillars and a shallow apsidal sanctuary that was essentially a continuation of the nave. Another characteristic of this phase was a tripartite west front of principal door, rose window and a bell-cote.
Many churches were built in this broad style including Birkenhead Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (1860), Dewsbury Our Lady and St Paulinus (1867-71), Dover St Paul (1867), Fleetwood St Mary, Sheerness St Henry and St Elizabeth (1863-64) and Stretford St Anne (1862-67).
His two most famous churches during this decade were both in suburbs of Manchester.
What is generally acknowledged to be his masterpiece, All Saints, Barton-upon-Irwell, adjacent to the Manchester Ship Canal, was built at the expense of Sir Humphrey de Trafford, between 1865 and 1868. It has contrasting courses of red Runcorn and white Painswick stone in the arches and a sanctuary of great beauty which has miraculously escaped reordering. It ceased to be a parish church in 1962 and has since then been looked after by the Friars Minor Conventual whose numbers are dwindling. The future is uncertain.
The magnificent and soaring red brick St Francis, Gorton was built for the Belgian Recollect Franciscans between 1867 and 1872. It has a huge 13-bay nave. It closed for worship in 1989 and was subsequently vandalised. It has now become a conference centre.
EW Pugin’s other English cathedral was effectively the completion of Northampton (1860-64). It has suffered extensive reordering and is now rather bleak.
His third phase from roughly 1870 until his death in 1875 was characterised by a reversion to the sobriety of his first period with a return to square-ended chancels with prominent chancel arches. St Mary Cleator (1872) and The English Martyrs, Tower Hill (1873-75) are representative of this phase.
His early career was very successful. He was made a Knight of St Sylvester in 1848 and a Fellow of RIBA in 1852. He earned very considerable sums of money during the 1860s and was a well-known figure in Ramsgate, something of a bon viveur. He failed however to find a spouse in spite of two quite determined attempts.
His estate was liquidated in 1872 with liabilities of £180,000 (c £11 million in today’s money), through his unfortunate investment in the Granville Hotel (in Ramsgate) venture. He also became an energetic litigant against members of his profession which eventually led to his expulsion from RIBA in 1874.
His physical and mental health declined and he died unexpectedly of “syncope” of the heart on 5 June 1875 at his London residence. He was buried five days later in the vault beneath the Pugin chantry of St Augustine’s Ramsgate where his father had been laid to rest 23 years earlier.
Hero image caption: English Martyrs, Tower Hill (By John Salmon, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=105287438)
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