Rescuing Pugin: PAUL ATTERBURY

BBC Antiques Roadshow expert gave a lecture at St Augustine’s on 12th September to mark the 20th anniversary of the V&A’s exhibition Pugin: A Gothic Passion. The lecture was a joint event between St Augustine’s and the Pugin Society.

Paul Atterbury was the curator of the exhibition, which included numerous items from St Augustine’s.

The audience – which substantially filled St Augustine’s – were led on two journeys: one seeing Pugin’s development of his ideas, and another about the process of creating an exhibition. The legacy of the exhibition is substantial, going from the restoration of The Grange, to the revival of Pugin’s reputation and fame, and to the saving of St Augustine’s itself.

With great humour Paul described the display of screens at the exhibition. The idea was to create a Gothic interior using original Pugin artefacts – as Pugin’s great phrase has it, “the real thing” is what matters. A rood screen from the disused church in West Tofts, Norfolk, was chosen, and the church authorities were incredibly relaxed about its removal – not an attitude one would expect today! Screens were such an integral part of Pugin’s designs, and St Augustine’s has particularly fine examples.

An exhibition must have an agenda, and Paul Atterbury explained his: that Pugin had been treated very badly and needed to be rehabilitated. People had forgotten almost everything pre-Morris, but, as every architect of note at the time said, “I owe it all to Pugin.” Pugin needed to be rescued. There was a more immediate agenda, too, in taking The Grange out of the huge risk it was in. Paul Atterbury described the process by which it ended up in danger of being entirely lost – a sad situation for Pugin’s own house. It was three years after this exhibition, in 1997, that the Landmark Trust bought it and began the process of restoring it. St Augustine’s, Pugin’s own church, is now undergoing the same saving process.

Designing an exhibition at the V&A is a very freeing and wonderful experience, the audience was told. With fond memories, Paul told of his being able to properly research Pugin and his works, with great freedom and great support. For two or three years Paul lived and breathed Pugin, visiting every Pugin site that he could find, making notes, and taking photographs. It culminated in the three-month exhibition, the title of which caused some consternation. Who would visit something called “Pugin” – who knew of Pugin? “A Gothic Passion,” on the other hand, sounded more exciting, and so the title was born.

The V&A were very pleased with the popularity of the exhibition.

Pugin worked out how to float a spire over a crossing – as he designed as St Augustine’s. This marked a new period in Pugin’s designs, and led him to even greater Gothic creations. He travelled astonishingly, visiting his projects, and even today such travel would be difficult. No other architect designed six cathedrals and forty churches. Yet he did not shirk from using modern technology, so long as the effect was the same. In many ways, he was the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement. He was the first great industrial designer: Pugin and Brunel can rightly be compared. This was the complexity and astonishing achievement of the man that Paul showed in his exhibition 20 years ago.

The exhibition spawned books, saving of buildings, and the Pugin Society itself. The Pugin Society – who helped to put on this lecture – was formed in 1994 after the Gothic Passion exhibition.

There were two follow-up exhibitions: one in New York and one in Ramsgate. Now Pugin’s great site on Ramsgate’s Westcliff is being saved in its entirety, and St Augustine’s will be permanently open to the public with a full restoration, and an Education, Research, and Visitor Centre. As Paul Atterbury said at the end of his lecture, “This is Pugin’s town … Ramsgate has come to life … Art is the great rescuer.”


St Augustine’s and the Pugin Society are very pleased to have been able to host this commemorative lecture, and to celebrate twenty years of a true revival of Pugin and growth in appreciation of his legacy.

En avant!

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