Context 159 - May 2019

50 C O N T E X T 1 5 9 : M A Y 2 0 1 9 Architecturally speaking AWN Pugin: making Britain gothic (part II) The first part of Nick Corbett’s article in Context 158 (March) introduced Pugin and his Birmingham connections. Seismic factors were simmering in the 1830s, advancing Pugin’s gothic cause. Catholic emancipation was changing the nation. The fact that the Catholic seminary at Oscott had been built at all was remarkable: it followed swiftly on the back of the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. This act ended the Anglican supremacy, and changed the political, social, and cultural order of Britain. It meant that Catholic seminaries and churches could be built for the first time since the Reformation, and Catholics could attend university, and be local councillors and Members of Parliament. It meant that Lord Shrewsbury, the highest-ranking earl in the land, who was a Catholic, could take his seat in the House of Lords for the first time. Oscott College is an imposing building, positioned on a hill overlooking Birmingham, visible for miles around.With its gothic tower it would have been a bold symbol that the Catholic Church was back in business. By 1837, Birmingham was a large manufacturing town, bursting at the seams with migrants from Ireland, most of whom were Catholic.While the town had many smoking chimneys, it had few churches. Lacking the great industrial mills of the north, Birmingham consisted of artisan workshops at the back of the houses of independent craftsmen, who employed apprentices; it was closer to the medieval guilds, which fascinated Pugin. The growing middle class was increasingly concerned that England’s countryside and its historic towns were being ravaged by the industrial revolution. There was a surge of interest inWalter Scott’s historical novels, which satisfied a romantic longing for an idyllic, more virtuous past. Henry Newman, based at Oscott seminary, claimed that Sir Walter Scott ‘had first turned men’s minds in the direction of the middle ages.’ Pugin wanted to rediscover what had been lost. ‘How little is really known of old English art,’ he wrote. ‘The celebrated cathedral may indeed arrest attention, but few ever penetrate among the many noble churches which lie in unfrequented roads, and where the simplicity of a rural population has proved a far better preservative to the sacred pile than the heavy rates of prosperous and busy towns.’ Pugin was interested in a more virtuous and artistic past. ‘Men must learn that the period hitherto called dark and ignorant far excelled our age in wisdom, that art ceased when it is said to have been revived.’ Pugin collaborated with debonair potter, Herbert Minton, from Stoke-on-Trent, in pursuit of Oscott College, Staffordshire (Etching by W Radclyffe)