Of all the architectural work that Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin carried out for John, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, the finest and most complete is the Catholic parish church of St Giles, Cheadle, Staffordshire. (The Anglican parish church in Cheadle is also dedicated to St Giles.)
The Earl was keen to provide the finest of parish churches for the Catholic community in the nearest town to his Alton Towers seat. As an enlightened Victorian landowner, he specified that construction should be entrusted to “resident artisans of the village” so that “all his dependants should…be benefited by the effects of his munificence”.
His architect set out to present “a perfect revival of the English parish church of the time of Edward I, decidedly the best period of pointed architecture”.
There were a few compromises, especially after the £5,000 budget overran, but in essence St Giles’ represents the physical embodiment of the architectural ideals of the first and greatest of Gothic Revival designers.
He set out his basic principles in The True Principles of Pointed Architecture (1841):
The two great rules for design are these: first, that there should be no features about a building which are not necessary for convenience, construction or propriety; second, that all ornament should consist of enrichment of the essential construction of the building.
St Giles’ dominates the skyline for miles around Cheadle, and impresses at close quarters, because the structural features, particularly the 200ft-high tower and the buttresses, are in fact larger than they practically need to be. Pugin also tweaked the west-east orientation to make best use of the site and to align the west door with the street opposite.
The interior of St Giles’ takes the breath away. Every inch of wall and column is coloured and gilded. Each of the windows has tracery of a differing design. The floor is tiled, and the roof is of English oak. The painted decoration has tremendous impact: the ground colours of the north aisle (blue) and the south aisle (red) represent respectively Our Lady and Our Lord. The glass, floor-tiles, woodwork and ornaments were designed by Pugin, who closely supervised their manufacture.
St Giles’ is special because it is almost entirely the vision of one superbly talented designer.
By the time of the consecration on St Giles’ Day, September 1st 1846, Pugin was putting himself under the stress that five years later led to a complete physical and mental breakdown.
It seems as if he was destined for a short life of brilliant achievement. He adored the place – “my consolation in all afflictions” – and in many ways it is his finest monument.
He would demur, and no doubt assert that it was built ad majorem Dei gloriam – for the greater glory of God.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals: past views of English architecture, please click here.