Seventy years before Downton Abbey, A. C. W. Pugin designed London’s magnificent Houses of Parliament. Pugin hoped his design would inspire a return to the moral and social values of England’s romantic past of chivalry, gallant knights, peace and prosperity. Pugin also designed the interior furnishings including needlepoint rugs for his buildings.
A needlepoint rug made in England in 1850 attributed to A. C. W. Pugin. Courtesy C. John Rare Rugs, London.
A needlepoint rug made in England around 1860 in the Gothic revival style led by Pugin. Courtesy C. John Rare Rugs, London.
Studying needlepoint rugs made hundreds of years ago can teach us the history and aspirations of the people who made them. I discovered the magnificent contributions of Augustus Charles Welby Pugin to Victorian England while researching a needlepoint rug designed by him.
The patterns of needlepoint rugs reflect the fashions and ideals of their time. The same styles, motifs and patterns that appear in needlepoint rugs usually appear in different art forms from the same period.
In the middle of the 19th century English needlepoint rugs were influenced by the Gothic revival led by Pugin.
Pugin was born at the same time as Charles Dickens and even though he is relatively neglected today, he did as much as Dickens to define Victorian Britain.
The six year old Pugin began traveling with his artist father who was employed to make scaled architectural drawings of great medieval cathedrals in England and Northern France. These expeditions made a great impression on the young Pugin.
When Pugin came of age the Industrial Revolution was bringing irreversible changes to the peaceful English countryside. The steam engine and the vast appetite for mass produced goods led to large manufacturing cities, overcrowded slums and lives of great misery and social anxiety.
These dismal conditions had a great effect on Pugin. For Pugin God could not be found in the great mills of Manchester or in the smoking chimneys of Birmingham. England’s better past could still be seen in the medieval, tumble-down cottages of English villages, in the ancient buildings of Oxford and Cambridge and in the soaring steeples of Gothic Cathedrals. Pugin thought that the aesthetics of medieval Gothic architecture could show his countrymen and women the way to a more moral life. Gothic architecture evoked the time of the Magna Carta, of chivalry and heraldry, and of the first English parliament- reminders of a lost age of social and moral harmony.
Pugin believed that a return to Gothic architecture would revive higher social and moral values that war being forgotten in the rush to the industrial age. Pugin wanted to build not just a great England but one that was also good and moral.
Today Pugin’s Gothic designs can be seen in churches, village schools, railway stations and in family homes. Pugin’s influence is present in both aristocratic mansions and in suburban houses with their high-pitched roofs, arched and pointed windows and stained glass porches.
Pugin’s greatest achievement was the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster, better known today as the Houses of Parliament. Pugin also designed the dazzling interiors of the House of Lords and the stupendous and world famous clock affectionately called the ‘Big Ben’. In this magnificent building Pugin created the ultimate Gothic citadel with gold turrets, paneling, vaulting, and highly wrought, ornate detail in every corner. This great English building taps the Romantic English past of knights and chivalry, of peace and prosperity.
Pugin did not stop at the exterior of a building. He also designed all the interior fittings down to the smallest detail. Pugin’s furniture, wall decorations, needlepoint rugs and tiles are highly prized. Here are some examples of Pugins needlepoint rugs, tiles and wall coverings.
Minton ceramic tiles designed by Pugin in the 1840’s.
A needlepoint rug or carpet design by Pugin for Leighton Hall.
A Pugin wall decoration.