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In the Spotlight: A.W. Pugin

With due respect to those who have been put In the Spotlight so far, it cannot be said that any of them are actually household names. We warned about this at the outset of the series. Only a few of the patients we are featuring emerged from relative obscurity in their own lifetimes, and (given that all were admitted before 1939) their stars have long since waned. Last month’s post is a case in point. George Gilbert Scott Junior’s architectural achievements warrant recognition; yet who remembers him today? That said, the contemporary profile of this month’s subject, like Scott Junior an architect (and like him a convert to Roman Catholicism), is a little higher than usual. His principal works (the clock tower at Westminster popularly known as ‘Big Ben’ and the spire of Tolbooth St John’s among them) continue to define the skylines of British cities. Of him, Scott’s more famous father could write, ‘He was our leader and our most able pioneer’.1 His name, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, is virtually synonymous with the Gothic Revival.

This is not the place to attempt a biography of the man (interested readers may follow the footnotes to this piece to find one), or to do anything other than place on record (as biographers have previously done) his five and a half weeks’ residence at Bethlem in the summer of 1852, suffering what a contemporary psychiatrist with access to Pugin’s Victorian medical notes has described as ‘mania without psychotic symptoms’ (F30.1 in the 1992 edition of International Classification of Diseases), and in a state of collapse following a sustained period of overwork. At one point Pugin’s Bethlem doctor, Alexander Morison, described how he ‘got him to make a sketch of his church at Ramsgate’ – St Augustine’s, on which he had been working since 1845 – but ‘so soon as he had completed [the sketch], he tore it up’. No mental improvement was recorded by Morison, yet at the end of July Pugin was discharged at the request, and into the care, of his friends and family. He died within seven weeks of leaving the Hospital, the cause of death recorded as ‘convulsions followed by coma’.2 His life, though short, left a legacy which can still be seen today in the built heritage of Britain. It is appropriate, perhaps, that the once-derelict house in Ramsgate in which he lived and died, The Grange, has been restored by a conservation charity and is now available for holiday lettings.