Who was in charge of judging Bad Design and how different were their takes? Focusing on three main figures within Victorian Design Culture: Pugin, Ruskin and Morris.
The three most prominent Victorian architects and designers Ruskin, Morris and Pugin influenced and defined both the architecture and art of the Victorian period. Their ideas of beauty and correctness followed many strict rules, which have been established as the most influential and architectural structures of the Victorian Age. In this essay I will beee looking at Pugin, Ruskin and Morris, and viewing some of their more famous work while discussing their views on correct design.
Augustus Welby Pugin (1812 – 1852) was not only a well-established architect, but he was also an astounding literary artist and a devout Catholic, which greatly influenced his way of thinking and designing over 100 buildings over his career. Pugin had a strict set of moral ideas by which he stood when it came to the designing of Roman-Catholic churches. He believed that hiiis role was to be “a sword against all Protestant writers on Catholic art” Stanton (1971, p.g. 36). This shows the renowned way that Pugin used to challenge his critics and express his opinions: through his wit and passion, which masked his annnger.
Out of the many buildings that Pugin designed, only few were as well documented as St James’ Church in Reading as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: St James Church
However, the Norman style of St James turned out to be a disappointment for Pugin but not because of the style. There were numerous other reasons for this such as the untimely death of its benefactor, false economies and artistic disasters, which he stated, were not his responsibilities. One of the major reasons for the resentment that was felt towards St James was due to the fact that part of the presbytery was built on the ruins of the abbey foundations, much against Pugin’s wishes.
Another significant project in Pugin’s career was the deeesigning of St Mary’s Church in Uttoxeter as seen in Figure 2. The church had been drastically renovated with changes made to the chancel, aisles added to the nave and a porch added to the front of the church. After the completion of this project, Pugin stated that St Mary’s “was the first Catholic structure erected in this country in strict accordance with the rules of ancient eccleciastical architecture.” This quote shows the importance of Pugin’s beliefs when it came to thhhem influencing his projects. He had a set standard of ideas such as the importance of the stained glass in Catholic churches to the Gothic metalwork which he made his own. Pugin, excellent of an architect however, was a fierce critic and had very clearly defined lines on what constituted good design and architecture. So clearly defined in fact that he had to revise some of his works like Contrasts where rules had to be re worked and he even had to disregard some older gothic architecture, which he revered because it did not fit into his definitions of proper design. “From the various symptoms I have shown” he said “I feel convinced that Christian Architecture had gone its length, and must necessarily have destroyed itself by departing from its own principles in the pursuit of novelty or it must have fallen back on its pure and antient models”. Pugin who wrote a great many works was well known for two pieces on the rules and guidelines of design, namely Contrasts and True Principles. As Phoebe Stanton describes in her book Pugin “True Principles is appealing and witty for constructive reasons. Contrasts is dogmatic, insulting to individuals and even violent.”. Ultimately Pugin is the most aggressive out of our three with no hesitation to criticise that did not suit him and famously said “[I am] Not a modern agitator, but an ancient one. Had I been the former I might have fared better.”
Having grown up, in his own words, in an anxiety free existence with three chief characteristics namely peace, obedience and faith. Ruskin was essentially the inspiration and the starting ground for Pugin and Morris’s ideals. Like Ruskin Pugin was very in touch with his acknowledgement of his own genius. Ruskin even said in Praeteria in reference to his chief characteristics “ This being he main faculty of my life, causing Mazzini to say of me, in conversation authentically reported, a year or two before his death, that I had the most analytical mind in Europe. An opinion in which so far as I am acquainted with Europe, I am myself entirely disposed to concur.”
Ruskin believed that intelligence, education and passion were directly related to the quality which architects and craftsmen created. He had a kind of Good Men: Good Art principle saying in his lecture, The Queen of the Air “Great Art is the expression of the mind of a great man, and mean art, that of the want of mind of a weak man. A foolish person builds foolishly, and a wise one sensibly; a virtuous one, beautifully; and a vicious one, basely”
Kenneth Clark sums up his tastes in a paragraph from his book, Ruskin Today when he says “His responsiveness to what he called “Vital Beauty” in natural organisms was accompanied by an almost equal lack of interest in abstract proportions. He had made up his mind that geometrical form was evil and organic form was virtuous, and could not bring himself to
believe that one could be a symbolic statement of the other.”
Ruskin’s visual works were architectural observations like figure 3, which shows his skill regarding architectural detail. It is his natural designs however (see figure 4) of plant life, rock and geology that stands out as fascinating especially relating to his adoration of nature. On a single page of The Seven Lamps of Architecture for example Ruskin says, “(a) That all most lovely forms and thoughts are taken from natural objects. (b) All beauty is founded on the laws of natural forms. (c) Froms are not beautiful because they are copies from nature; only it is out of the power of man to conceive beauty without her aid.”
Morris was always accustomed to wealth as he grew up in a wealthy family. Morris was a huge follower of Ruskin’s theories and ideas and worked with him from early on. However, Morris’ qualifications of “bad design” differed from that of Pugin, for example. Where Pugin was very religious in his approach, Morris was more secular and more socialist in his categorisation of bad design. With the upsurge of industrialism and the mass rural to urban migration less and less craftsmen were creating furniture by hand from individual designs as mass produced furniture and design could be created and sold at a more competitive price. Morris was morally against this and stirred the beginning of the Arts and Crafts movement which aimed at refocusing attention to detail, skill and hand crafted quality as well as the re employment of craftsmen. Ironic though that he was so strict in his own production company where according to Charles Harvey in the book William Morris: Design and Enterprise in Victorian Britain “Many of his workers had very little personal influence over the production process: their choices were few; the division of labour quite fine. From Jacquard loom-weaving to vegetable dyeing, the work was arranged to satisfy Morris, leaving the individual worker barely elevated in status from his or her counterpart elsewhere.” Ultimately, much like Pugin’s strictness backfired, as did Morris’s. Morris’s clients consisted mainly of wealthy buyers and clients and very little was actually sold the “the people” which had been the main objective from the start. When looking at Morris we see a lot of richness in his choice of colours and designs, which was embraced by the gothic styles using deep hues of reds, blues and golds. His woven textiles were very sought after and extravagant designs following a certain medieval style (example shown in figure 5). His more religious work was his stained glass work was incredibly popular in Victorian times. Figure 6 is a stained glass window from the Trinity Church in Cumbria and shows and angel holding the sun and many designers and critics praised his stained glass windows which also became an essential part of the Arts and Crafts movement even as far away as California.
Conclusively it is safe to say these three men were prominent within their society and their opinions was noted and respected however disagreed with. Where Ruskin finds good design in Nature, Pugin in the Divine and Morris in the people, this reveals something about all men and their tastes. It is also interesting to observe that these men respected each other, even though they were not so lenient with others with opinions differing their own. Ultimately only Ruskin was really successful at living his ideals and was broad minded enough to allow for variables where as Morris and Pugin did not.
• Stanton, P., Pugin. London: Thames, 1971. p.g. 27, 28, 29, 81, 83, 85
• Harvey, C & Press, J., William Morris: Design and Enterprise In Victorian Britain. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991
• Clark, K., Ruskin Today. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1964 p.g. 130, 134,135,168
• Banham, J. & Harris, J., William Morris and the Middle Ages. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984
• St James Reading www.info.rdg.ac.uk/ postcards/images/1 3.jpg
• St Mary’s Church Uttoxeter http://www.catholicchurchuttoxeter.org.uk/OUTSIDESTMARYSCROPPED.jpg
• Morris Stained Glass Window http://www.victorianweb.org/art/stainedglass/morris/14.html
• Morris Textile Image http://www.victorianweb.org/art/design/textiles/21.html
• Ruskin Landscape Image http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/ruskin/gallery/gallery1.html
• Ruskin Architectural Detail Image http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/ruskin/gallery/gallery4.html