“Perfectly plain” Pugin

St Barnabas Cathedral, Nottingham

After he had begun work on St Mary’s Church, Derby, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was invited to design a parish church for Nottingham, a bigger building with a limited budget, and therefore plainer than he liked.

Pugin himself had envisaged St Mary’s as the future cathedral for the North Midlands, but when the Catholic hierarchy was re-established, the East Midlands diocese was based at St Barnabas’ Cathedral, Nottingham.

By the time he designed St Barnabas’, Pugin had already completed the drawings for the much more elaborate St Giles’ Church, Cheadle, yet at Nottingham he contrived dramatic effects in what he claimed was the most economical manner, though he exceeded the initial budget by half.

Always melodramatic, and sometimes hysterical, this talented, obsessive, frantic, fascinating man remonstrated with the Earl of Shrewsbury, who had subscribed £7,000 of the original £10,500 estimate, about whether, and where, to have the tower:

I have no reason for placing the tower of Nottingham at the West end.  It would be a loss, a clear loss of funds.  I have not one tracery window, no pinnacles or any ornament externally.  It will be the greatest triumph of external simplicity and internal effect yet achieved.  Yet I must have outline and breaks or the building will go for nothing.

Looking at the completed church, it’s easy to see what he meant about the position of the tower;  it is equally easy to see that the finished design is not short of external ornament.

Pugin’s stated aim was to build a church “which would give general satisfaction, have a grand appearance, although perfectly plain and admit of a most solemn and rich interior.”  The plain ashlar walls, pierced by narrow lancets and a rose window of plate tracery, give an impression of solidity.  The whole church is 190 feet from end to end, and the spire rises to 150 feet but looks higher as the street slopes downhill towards the east.

But Pugin himself was dissatisfied.  He felt, quite literally, that his style was cramped:

Nottingham was spoilt by the style restricted to lancet – a period well suited to a cistercian abbey in a secluded vale, but very unsuitable for the centre of a crowded town… there was nothing left but to make the best under the circumstances, and the result has been what might be expected;  the church is too dark, and I am blamed for it…

Indeed, Pugin was easily disgruntled.  Having converted to Catholicism only in 1832, he was “a Catholic first and whatever else he was second”.

Monsignor Martin Cummins, in Nottingham Cathedral:  a history of Catholic Nottingham (1985), relates how –

When showing an Anglican friend the Rood-screen, Pugin said:  “Within is the holy of holies.  The people remain outside.  Never is the sanctuary entered save by those in sacred orders.”  Then, to his horror, a priest appeared in the sanctuary showing the screen to two ladies.  Pugin turned to the sacristan, “Turn these people out at once!  How dare they enter!”  But the sacristan replied, “Sir, it is Bishop Wiseman.”  Pugin, powerless, retired to the nearest bench and burst into tears.

Pugin’s architectural career only began in the late 1830s.  By the end of the 1840s the energy he poured into his creativity had wrecked his health, and he died, a broken man, in 1851 at the age of forty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *