I've been reading Rosemary Hill's wonderful new biography of the Catholic architect, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who was single-handedly responsible for much of the nineteenth century Gothic Revival. The first two paragraphs of the book sum up his importance:
Travelling through England on a train, or flying into London, low along the Thames and over the suburbs, the landscape is still, to a great extent, made up of little pitch-roofed houses and gardens. Sprinkled among them are the towers and spires of Gothic churches, while here and there are small village schools and big Victorian town halls. The architectural texture of our towns and of the countryside is still largely nineteenth-century and none of it would look, quite, as it does had A.W.N.Pugin never lived.
Pugin gave Britain's capital cities two of their greatest landmarks, the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster, generally, if inaccurately, known as Big Ben, and, in Edinburgh, the spire of Tolbooth St John's. He built the first English cathedral since Wren's St Paul's and he reinvented the family house. But his influence depended not only, not even primarily, on his buildings, it was both wider and more elusive. He gave the nineteenth century a new idea about what architecture could be and mean. He saw it as a moral force in society and as a romantic art.
I have always been fascinated by the eccentric genius of Pugin. My mother's late cousin was Prior of Ramsgate Abbey and I occasionally went to stay with him, convinced at the age of eight that I would one day be a monk. The atmospheric abbey church, where the architect is buried, captured my imagination, as did the vague stories that Pugin haunted the abbey precincts. I was interested to read that there is a local connection here in Islington - Pugin's mother, Catherine Welby, grew up at what is now 88 Islington High Street (formerly 3 Pullins Row), near the Angel. She also began her married life there with Auguste Pugin. Next time I'm down there, I must look it up.
Hill's definitive new biography is highly readable and brings the age of Pugin vividly to life. Highly recommended.