Category Archives: Pugin and the Gothic Revival

Pugin’s Gem

St Giles' Roman Catholic Church, Cheadle, Staffordshire

St Giles’ Roman Catholic Church, Cheadle, Staffordshire

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.

A guided tour of St Giles’ Roman Catholic Church is included in the Pugin and the Gothic Revival (September 18th-22nd 2019) tour.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Not that sort of hospital

Parish church of St John the Baptist and Hospital, Alton, Staffordshire

Parish church of St John the Baptist and Hospital, Alton, Staffordshire

Photo:  Maureen Mannion

Alongside the spectacular dwelling at Alton Castle, George, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury commissioned Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin to build a complex of philanthropic buildings that came to be called Alton Hospital – certainly not a medical facility as the word is now used, nor entirely what we’d now call a “hospice”.

It was to be a hospital according to the medieval concept,– that is a complex including a chapel, schoolroom and almshouses for “decayed priests”, which Pugin came to describe with his customary enthusiasm as “a perfect revival of the true thing”.

Pugin was an artistic genius and an irrepressible personality.  As a convert to Roman Catholicism he had developed a rigorous aesthetic philosophy that Britain, as a Christian country, should maintain the traditions of the pre-Reformation Church, in its architecture as much as in religious observance.  To Pugin, Gothic was a matter of purity and integrity, and not merely a decorative style.

He had come to the Earl’s attention, and was entrusted with significant extensions to the main house at Alton Towers, as well as Alton Castle and the Hospital.

Though his architectural legacy is entirely serious, Pugin himself was flamboyant.  Apart from Gothic architecture, his other enthusiasm was sailing.  He once declared, “There is nothing worth living for but Christian architecture and a boat.”

Pugin had begun his career, before his conversion, as a theatre set-painter at Covent Garden, and at the height of his powers he was perfectly capable of throwing what we’d now call a hissy-fit:

I implore and entreat your Lordship, if you do not wish to see me sink with misery, to withdraw that dreadful idea about the alteration to the hospital.  I would sooner jump off the rocks than build a castellated residence for priests.  I have been really ill since I read the letter…for heaven’s sake, my dear Lord Shrewsbury, abandon this suggestion which must be a device of the Devil to spoil so fair a design.

The Earl, a sincere and indulgent man with a fat cheque book, was inclined to indulge his brilliant protégé’s striving for perfection.

The design of Alton Hospital consists of three sides of a quadrangle, with the Guildhall, comprising a school and village institute, almshouse accommodation, latterly used as a convent, and a chapel, which now serves as the parish church of St John the Baptist.

Pugin and the Earl died within two months of each other in 1852 and the earldom and the Alton Estate soon afterwards passed to a Protestant branch of the family.

Nevertheless, the buildings survived intact and in use, and are now part of a Catholic residential centre administered by the Archdiocese of Birmingham.

A guided tour of Pugin sites in Alton village is included in the Pugin and the Gothic Revival (September 18th-22nd 2019) tour.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Home from home

Alton Castle, Staffordshire

Alton Castle, Staffordshire

Photo:  Maureen Mannion

When you drive down the hill from the entrance to Alton Towers, into the steep valley of the River Churnet, you see on the opposite cliff the gaunt outline of Alton Castle, built by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin for Charles, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury.

Quite why Lord Shrewsbury wanted a Bavarian-style mock castle on top of the twelfth- and fifteenth-century remains of the original Alton Castle is unclear.

He might have wanted a more compact retreat from the extravagant splendours of Alton Towers.  He could have intended it as a dower house for his mother.

He was a major patron of the Catholic Church, a great deal more pious than his predecessor, and the unfinished castle includes a spectacularly tall, narrow, unexpectedly tiny private chapel.

Lord Shrewsbury also had Pugin design a chapel, schoolroom and almshouses for “decayed priests”, which became known as Alton Hospital (in the original sense of a home, rather than a medical facility).

The Earl rarely constrained the great architect’s genius with a budget, and the result – though not fully complete – is an exquisite complex of Victorian Gothic buildings by the greatest architect of the day, working for one of the most generous patrons.

Alton Castle was used by the Sisters of Mercy for a prep school from 1919 to 1989.  It stood empty until 1996 when the Archdiocese of Birmingham put it to good use as a retreat centre run for, and largely by, young people:  http://www.altoncastle.co.uk.

The Pugin and the Gothic Revival (September 18th-22nd 2019) tour provides a rare opportunity to take a close look at Alton Castle.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Country house with a theme park attached

Alton Towers, Staffordshire (1977)

Alton Towers, Staffordshire (1977)

Individual adult visitors to the Alton Towers theme-park currently pay around £50 (unless they book online) for a thrilling day out:  http://www.altontowers.com/tickets/#Booking_for_a_visit_today_or_tomorrow.

It’s a pity that there isn’t a way of enjoying the place for its own sake at any reasonable price.

Alton Towers was one of the greatest of all British country estates.  The gardens were developed on an unpromising valley site by Charles, 15th Earl of Shrewsbury (1753-1827), who adapted a lodge into an increasingly grand residence which he spuriously named Alton Abbey.

The writer Christopher Hussey described it as “…the last achievement in England, and on the grand scale, of the Georgian passion for creating private elysiums, which produced Stowe, Stourhead and their derivative landscape parks in the eighteenth century.”

His nephew and heir, John, 16th Earl (1791-1852) carried on his work, and after a fire at his main house at Heythrop, Oxfordshire, he relocated to Alton after 1831.  He was a champion of the Catholic Revival, and the principal patron of the architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who contributed, among much else, the Banqueting Hall and Chapel of the vast house.

His heir Bertram, 17th Earl (1832-1856) was his second cousin once removed.  After his early death the title was disputed between Bertram’s designated Catholic heir and a Protestant descendant of the Jacobean 7th Earl.

As a result the entire contents of the house were sold in a forty-day auction.  When the Protestant Henry, 18th Earl (1803-1868) took possession, a quarter-mile-long procession of tenants and yeomanry welcomed his train at Uttoxeter station.  The incident figures in Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Lothair (1870).

The eighteenth Earl refurnished the house, but it was never as splendid again.  Henry’s grandson, Charles, 20th Earl (1860-1921), caused a great scandal by running off with Ellen Miller-Mundy, the wife of a Derbyshire coal-owner, in 1881.

They eventually separated, and she lived at Alton Towers, which he neglected in the hope of driving her away.

This, rather than wartime neglect, started the physical decline of the building, which was sold with the estate in 1924.

Between the wars it was a highly successful and entirely decorous entertainment centre.  The Coronation Street actor William Roache discovered that his enterprising grandmother, Zillah Waddicor, ran the catering operation there, providing lunches for up to a thousand covers at once:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01n2thm.

From 1973 onwards John Broome, son-in-law of the majority shareholder Denis Bagshaw, began to develop the spare land away from the house and garden as an adventure theme park, which was taken over by the Tussauds Group in 1990.

As a business it’s clearly never looked back, and provides entertainment to millions.  But it’s a pity you can’t spend a day exploring the house-ruins and the gardens for less than a year’s subscription to the National Trust.

The Pugin and the Gothic Revival (September 18th-22nd 2019) tour includes a visit to Alton Towers.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Birmingham’s Catholic Cathedral

St Chad's Cathedral, Birmingham – viewed from the old Snow Hill Station (1977)

St Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham – viewed from the old Snow Hill Station (1977)

Birmingham’s Catholic St Chad’s Cathedral was conceived in a white-heat enthusiasm following the Emancipation of Britain’s Catholics in 1829.

It was the first major work of the architect August Welby Northmore Pugin, built 1839-41 for around £20,000.

Pugin himself gave an “ancient German carved oak figure of the Blessed Virgin and Child…said to have been the first image of the Blessed Virgin exposed for public veneration in England since the Reformation”.

John, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury gave £1,000 towards the construction-costs and a fifteenth-century brass lectern from Louvain, along with an elaborate set of High Mass vestments.

It was one of the first Pugin churches in which he installed, despite opposition from Cardinal Wiseman, one of the rood screens about which he quickly became notoriously obsessive.

Pugin’s total plan was only fully complete when the Chapel of St Edward the Confessor was constructed to a design by Sebastian Pugin Powell in 1933.

St Chad’s became a cathedral on October 27th 1850.  Edward Ilsley, who had been bishop since 1879, became the first archbishop when the see was elevated in 1911.

During the Birmingham blitz, on November 22nd 1941, an incendiary bomb penetrated the south-aisle roof and burnt a radiator which extinguished it.  This remarkable incident is commemorated in the replacement roof-panel, which is marked “Deo Gratias”.

This romantic North German structure once towered above Birmingham’s Gun Quarter until 1960, when the surrounding buildings including Pugin’s Bishop’s House across Water Street was demolished to make way for a bleak stretch of the inner-ring road.

In 1967 the rood-screen was taken down and transferred to the Anglican church of Holy Trinity, Reading and in the same remodelling the lectern given by Lord Shrewsbury was sold to the Metropolitan Museum of New York for £105,000.

St Chad’s is still an awe-inspiring place, but it’s no longer seen as Pugin visualised it.

A guided tour of St Chad’s Cathedral is included in the Pugin and the Gothic Revival (September 18th-22nd 2019) tour.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s Birmingham’s Heritage lecture, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham’s Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.