Augustus Pugin designed St Peter’s Church as a whole, and oversaw the building of the nave and aisles, the east window, and the Lady Chapel. He also designed the original part of the presbytery and the sacristy, and the passage connecting the two.
Born in 1812 to a French emigree father and dominant loving mother for whom Augustus was her only child. Tutored at home by his father who was a skilled illustrator of buildings, with a special interest in ecclesiastical structures he was exposed at an early age to the styles, construction and siting of some of the most prominent and aesthetic church buildings in Britain and Europe.
Although he did receive some formal schooling, his parents and especially his father recognised and developed his prodigious talent. His mother’s brother and sister were also key supports, especially his Aunt Selicia who maintained absolute love and support for Pugin up to and beyond her death.
Because he was always around adults he developed social skills that were to serve him well throughout his life.
His father operated a drawing school in which other boys joined Pugin as they explored religious buildings in ways that were tactile and forensic. Some of these fellow pupils of his father stayed friends with Pugin for the rest of his life, another illustration of the loyalty he displayed to those whom he considered friends.
As his skills grew so did his stature although in an unconventional way for the blossoming architect. His early forays were into furniture design and then theatre design.
His skill was in copying and once he was exposed to emotionally stimulating buildings such as Lincoln and Ely Cathedral his conscious and spiritual being was driven to establish the dominance of this breathtaking style of height and grandeur. He called it Gothic but adapted this description later, using terms like Decorative Gothic and Picturesque. Towards the end of his life he strove to establish an English Gothic as opposed to the German which had been his lodestar since first observing the tall well preserved German churches that had not suffered the same Reformation abuses that had occurred to English churches.
His early life in theatre served him well in setting out the drama of the impact and focus in his churches. As his fame grew so did his workload and his output was colossal for example building 18 churches, 3 Cathedrals, 2 monasteries, several schools and around a half a dozen houses in a two year period between 1838 and 1840. This frenetic pace was kept up his entire life and as a consequence he was not always able to accurately cost his work and nor was it always successful. Fortunately he met up with a builder from Hull named George Myers whom he had met as a boy when Myers was a stonemason. From that reunion they were to maintain a working partnership for the rest of Pugin’s life. It was Myers phlegmatic manner and his organisational skills as well as his craftsmanship that was to turn Pugin’s most successful drawings into plans and a living reality. Southwark Cathederal and Woolwich were two of the churches they were jointly involved in.
Pugin’s reliance on loyalty and friendship in the workplace also extended to his glass and metal manufacturer, John Hardman from Birmingham and Thomas Minton the tiler from Stoke. Examples of all their work can still be seen in some areas of St Peter’s today.
A major theme in Pugin’s life was his Catholicism. His interpretation however was through his emotional and sensory channels as a result of the representation of the intrinsic essence of medieval architecture and its association with pre reformation worship in the Catholic tradition. His was not an intellectual or theological journey although he strove to inculcate the knowledge of what Catholicism was into his faith and interpretations. Sometimes this approach was flawed and caused consternation with the established Catholic Church and none more so than when he sought convergence with the Tractarian Movement in Oxford in the 1840s. He did convert to Catholicism in the church at Alton under the patronage of the Earl of Shrewsbury for whom he was to complete his most glorious church in Cheadle. However the schisms that were to afflict the Anglican establishment at that time also caused rifts within the growing Catholic establishment released from the oppression of the post 16th century regime and protocols imposed by the Anglican church which itself had become integrated within the political establishment and was therefore a target of the social cynicism directed at the ruling establishment through the restless protests that surfaced in the middle nineteenth century.
Pugin’s letters survive and a few mention St Peter’s, but with little detail. However, his published correspondence includes extracts from letters of Father Cole, which indicates Pugin’s close interest in the furnishings. So on 17 October 1843, nine days before the church opened, Cole and Pugin unpacked the reredos and the tabernacle. On 7 June 1844, Cole wrote to the supplier as follows: ‘I am very sorry that Mr Pugin was very much displeased with one of the elevation candlesticks you sent for St Peter’s New Church. He advised me to send it back to you to have it altered. It is quite crooked.’
Pugin was a driven personality that was strong on friendship, loyalty and his Faith yet he was also difficult, outspoken and dogmatic. In a man of enormous charisma these apparent contradictions served as complementary core skills to those artistic formal skills organically nurtured throughout his early life and applied to great effect in his working life.
He died in 1852 aged 40. He had experienced tragedies in his life, he was a widow before he was twenty one. Additionally within a year of widowhood he lost both parents. He was also widowed a second time. His three marriages produced four children.