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Pugin at 200


The prospect of "redecorating," or any other form of "home improvement," generally gets me thinking, quickly, about a lengthy research trip abroad. Yet I can, and recently did, spend several pleasant hours contemplating ceramics, furniture, and--would you believe it?--wallpaper. But not at Home Depot, I quickly add; rather, in a book--"Pugin: A Gothic Passion," published in 1994 by Yale University Press in association with London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

I dug out "Pugin"--stuck among the oversized art books in my home library for the better part of two decades--when I learned that 2012 is the bicentenary of Augustine Welby Northmore Pugin, pioneer of the Gothic Revival style and one of the aesthetic geniuses of the 19th century. Best known for his work on the Palace of Westminster (home of the Houses of Parliament), Pugin was also an ecclesiastical architect of note, with almost 50 churches to his credit. And although the Luftwaffe and the Blitz wrecked what may have been his masterwork of church design, the Cathedral of St. George in Southwark, there are still Pugin churches to be admired throughout Great Britain, Ireland and Australia.

As I suggested at the top, however, Pugin's genius was not limited to architecture and other grand schemes of design. He also worked magic on a much smaller scale: custom-designed wallpaper; magnificent pieces of furniture (dining-room cabinets, armoires, tables, desks and tables); beautifully intricate ceramic tiles, plates, and dinner and tea services--all of them a delight to the eyes.

Born on March 1, 1812, Pugin was received into the Catholic Church in 1835, and his passion for the Gothic (by which he meant, not hair-raising horror novels but the civilization of the Middle Ages and its distinctive aesthetic) was obviously enmeshed with his religious convictions. For the Gothic, as Pugin understood it, communicated even more than that sense of transcendence that is palpable in a great medieval cathedral like Chartres. The Gothic bespoke a sensibility about this world, the human place in it, and the moral life appropriate to men and women made in the image and likeness of God. Buildings tell us something about the people who live, work and worship in them, Pugin, believed: they tell us what those people think of themselves, their destiny and their responsibilities.

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