The Knowledge: Paul Atterbury on Pugin

Antiques expert Paul Atterbury shares his love of the gothic revival work of Augustus Pugin 

In 1994, I curated a Pugin exhibition at the V&A. As I came to understand this largely forgotten man, I realised that he was one of the key designers of the 19th century. He is the father of modern gothic and, today, much of Britain – whether you are looking at St Pancras station or the Palace of Westminster – reflects his vision.

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was a great architect, designer, decorator and writer. In 16 or 17 years of activity, from his first architectural project in 1835 to his swansong project before his death in 1852 – the Medieval Court at the Great Exhibition – he designed and oversaw the building of six cathedrals, 40 churches, a number of seminaries and houses and, most famously, the decoration of the Palace of Westminster. To this day I don’t understand how he could fit it all in! In the mid 1830s, when he was in his early 20s, Pugin became passionate about Catholicism. Along with many others, he thought Britain would return to the Catholic faith, and he fervently believed that it should also return to the gothic style of the pre-Reformation world.

He was the first to say that gothic had an architectural tradition, and was academic in his use of it. He would design buildings from the inside out – so windows fall where light is needed, not in the convenient pattern of a classical language. To him, classical buildings were dishonest, because the facade was exactly that – it bore no relation to what went on inside. He had a total vision of his buildings, designing the structure as well as the doorknobs, the windows, the lavatories and the wallpapers…

It can be quite a challenge to collect Pugin. Collectors should keep their eyes on key auction houses, especially Woolley & Wallis, and build relationships with specialist dealers such as Haslam & Whiteway. Pugin pieces will occasionally crop up in 19th and 20th century design sales, so they are also worth seeking out. His tiles are the most readily available pieces – you can pick these up from around £50–£100. That sort of sum will buy you something basic – a brass alms dish for example. The famous bread plate, the most iconic Pugin object, will cost about £700. But for something like an ornate chalice, you’ll be spending thousands. There is some wonderful furniture too, much of it ecclesiastical, which will cost upwards of £1,000. If you know where a piece has come from – the place Pugin designed it for – the price will increase hugely. There’s also jewellery, which is rare, and wallpaper, some of which has been reproduced.

The most accessible items to collect, though, are his books. He was a great writer; his books are full of his opinions and designs. That’s a good way to start collecting because, as you go through them, you’ll get to know him and get to recognise his style more and more. 

FIVE FACTS ABOUT PAUL

Three years of work went into Paul's 1994 Pugin exhibition at the V&A. As with most exhibitions there, it ran for three months. 

Paul doesn't think of himself as an antiques professional: 'Antiques is a hobby. My career really is a writer, lecturer and a curator.'

He has written over 40 books on subjects as varied as railways, travel, ceramics and, of course, Pugin. 

4 In 27 years on the Roadshow, Paul's favourite moment came when he met two descendants of the girls who had taken the Cottingley Fairies photos: 'Talking to them, I really felt in contact with the story - one of the great hoaxes of all time.' 

5 As a child, Paul was the model for the Andy Pandy puppet. His mother was a puppeteer on the show, so he made a convenient model. 

LEARN MORE Read 'Gothic Revival' by Megan Aldrich (Phaidon Press); 'Pugin: A Gothic Passion' by Paul Atterbury and Clive Wainwright (Yale University Press); visit the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Palace of Westminster  

Interview: Mel Sherwood
Portrait: Grant Scott

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