In this biography the relationship between mental disorder and creativity in of one of Britain's most prominent architects is examined.
Born in 1812, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was the son of a French émigré artist, who ran a drawing school in London, and an attorney's daughter from Lincolnshire. Even as a child Pugin showed precocious talent – as a 9-year-old he designed a gothic church and at 15 a sideboard for Windsor Castle. He became expert in medieval work and collaborated successfully with Charles Barry on rebuilding the Houses of Parliament after the 1834 fire.
Pugin came to believe that medieval gothic architecture was the true architecture of the Catholic faith. In 1835 he published Contrasts, a book comparing his ideal of medieval gothic culture with that developing in industrial towns. The book was simplistic, immoderately expressed and ignored the influence of the Renaissance on church building but brought Pugin into the public eye and led to many commissions. In The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture he outlined his own requirements for churches. He designed a great part of the Medieval Court at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and was a judge for other exhibits. In spite of his national prominence, his contributions to major projects and the publication of influential books, he was never accepted by the architectural profession.
Pugin married three times, had several painful infatuations and fathered at least eight children. His life was both driven and blighted by recurring episodes of mental illness. His exceptional energy, quickness in the execution of drawings, remarkable creativity, reckless behaviour and episodes of depression suggest he had an affective disorder. He was admitted to Bethlem with delirium shortly before he died in 1852 at 40 years of age. Diagnoses of thyrotoxicosis and syphilis have also been suggested.
This scholarly work, which places Pugin's work as an artist alongside his changing religious beliefs and his medical condition, makes fascinating reading. One can only be astonished by the architect's extraordinary life and grateful to the author for putting it before us so fully.