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 tolerant 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.