Six crazy Victorian church-builders

If there was one thing the Victorians were crazy about, it was building churches. Not just in number, to cater for rapidly expanding suburbs and mill towns, but in their embracing of a fantastical and rich medieval style. Here are six architects I think are set apart from the rest by their polemic ire, prodigious achievements, marvellous ambition and questionable aesthetics.

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin

The frontispiece for Pugin's An Apolgy for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England. Which is ironic, because this is not an apology, but more "CHECK OUT MY CHURCHES YOU MOTHERFUCKERS"
The frontispiece for Pugin’s An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England.
Which is ironic, because this image is less of an apology, but more “CHECK OUT MY CHURCHES YOU MOTHERF…

The daddy of all crazy Victorian Gothic architects is without doubt the man who has a plethora of names to match his sheer lunacy. A.W.N. Pugin rose to fame through his polemical pamphlet Contrasts, which illustrated his belief that society could be fixed up by making everything pointy. Architects had been reviving Gothic (or as Pugin preferred, “True Christian architecture”) forms for some time, but arguably Pugin was the first to reunite medieval architectural forms with their religious context. A church should not just look Gothic, but it should be Gothic: the furnishings should be Gothic, the vestments should be Gothic and ultimately the people would be Gothic. Pugin even believed a door-hinge should aspire to the grand Gothic scheme.

Polychrome inside the N aisle of Pugin’s magnum opus, St Giles, Cheadle (1841-6)

Problem is, because he tended to see Gothic as this systematic solution to society’s ills, his churches tend to conform to a very regularised plan, basically just two arcades with a roof on top. He was most talented at enlivening flat surfaces with his seemingly inexhaustible capacity at creating patterns. Sadly, his work on the Palace of Westminster sent him spiralling towards an early grave, the familiar mix of overwork, insanity, and syphilis.

Our Lady Star of the Sea R.C., Greenwich
… and embarrassingly naked at Our Lady Star of the Sea R.C., Greenwich, 1851 by W.W. Wardle with more than a little help from A.W.N. Pugin.

Apparently, he also swore like a sailor. Would’ve liked to see a clergyman’s face when he effed and jeffed at a workman for doing something like putting up the polychrome in the Lady Chapel upside down.

George Gilbert Scott

G. G. Scott. You could buttress a Norman central tower with those mutton chops.
G. G. Scott. You could buttress a Norman central tower with those mutton chops.
Harrow school chapel
Harrow School chapel, 1854-7 Roomy, indeed

Scott is an absolute titan in Victorian architecture. He was as crazily industrious as Pugin, but also had the good sense not to contract syphilis, so had an incredible career restoring nearly all of England’s cathedrals. His knowledge of Gothic architecture was equalled by his skill in engineering, and he formed an admirable restraint in his restoration as time went on, that would eventually lead into modern conservation ethics.

It is somewhat surprising then, that a bit like Pugin, his new churches are so boring. He’s so eager to be proper that his buildings commit that cardinal Victorian sin of seeming like heartless pastiches of the medieval. His prowess with cathedrals means he often got the commissions for the big new churches in cities, but rarely did his imagination rise to the scale of demanded by the amount of pews. If you think I am being a bit mean on him, well, I do think St. Pancras station is the most marvellous building in London.

John Loughborough Pearson

St Augustine, Kilburn. Chancel.
St Augustine, Kilburn. Internal buttresses = more vaults

Not all Victorian architects’ attempts at getting medieval resulted in half-baked imitations by any means. Some could actually be as subtle and creative as the era they aspired to. Probably the best candidate for the most authentic Victorian Goth was J. L. Pearson. His St. Augustine, Kilburn, in north London, is one of those rare churches that stands out as a statement of pure architecture. Why is it such a powerful building? Everything! There are no gimmicks or simple quotes of his favourite buildings, but instead a single thought process working towards a cohesive whole. He also loved stone vaulted ceilings, as found in great cathedrals, using them as much as possible. I think he would have put a vault over the church outhouses given half a chance.

St Michael, Croydon. A fifty-three foot high vault in South London

Pearson’s output only appears effortlessly sensible, the ambition of his buildings sets him apart from so many of his contemporaries, and he is a bona-fide genius of Victorian architecture. This is why he got the honour of designing the only Anglican cathedral built in Victorian times, at Truro in Cornwall. He must have felt pretty smug about that.

William Butterfield

The neo-Gothic Rugby Butterfield School Chapel
Rugby school chapel, 1875 Photo by Dr Hilary Rhodes

Then of course we have the Victorians who didn’t give a babewyn’s about being authentically medieval, but wanted to use Gothic forms towards a whole new style. The king of this was Billy Butterfield, about as subtle as a monster truck. His churches are almost infantile in their gaudy colours, big shapes and simple patterns. Butterfield wants the church to be an explosion of colour that would hospitalise a visiting Presbyterian, most famously All Saints, Margaret Street, just off Oxford Street in London. Unlike Pugin and his polychrome surfaces, his buildings’ colour comes from the masonry itself, meaning his exteriors, such as Rugby school chapel could be as loud as a raucous recital of “Guide Me O Thy Great Redeemer” by the school’s choir.

Boom All Saints, Margaret Street
All Saints, Margaret Street, 1850-9

Butterfield’s reputation suffered immensely in the twentieth century, John Summerson amounting “his love of ugliness” to “purposeful sadism”. Indeed, he may have got a bit carried away in his restoration of some medieval churches, that with their tell-tale polychromatic tiling can only be described as being BUTTERFIELDED. It seems in everyday life he was a very shy retiring fellow who only expressed his true feelings in his work, a Schubert of architecture. Although he didn’t die of syphilis.

Edward Buckton Lamb

St Martin, Gospel Oak, 1864 Where do you even start with this
St Martin, Gospel Oak, 1864
Where do you even start with this

Everybody loves E. Buckton Lamb! Lamb is part of a motley gang of architects popularly dubbed the “loveable rogues”, the churches of which make Butterfield look like a conservative pedant. If Butterfield’s churches look like he’s stuck a foot pump in them and inflated everything to crazy proportions, Lamb’s churches look like he did that until they burst, and then he had to stitch them back together again like a desperate taxidermist.  His buildings seem the product of such a maniac that one wonders if he hadn’t been an architect he would have been off doing something much more unsavoury like murdering prostitutes in Whitechapel. He mixes forms and genres without regard for their original context. This brought him much tutting from that great legislator of Anglican architectural taste, The Ecclesiologist magazine. Check out this:

Christ Church, West Hartlepool
IT’S ALIIIIVE!! Christ Church, West Hartlepool, 1854. Photo by John Lord.

Christ Church, West Hartlepool, recently erected, by Mr. E . B. Lamb, is one of those uncouth and grotesque combinations of incongruous architectural tours de force, which it requires the inartistic and withal presumptuous mind of Mr. Lamb to conceive. Such a mass of absurdities, as the apse with the eastern triplet, the horrific chimney, the octagonal central tourelle, the beacon turret with its “wide-awake” capping, and the out-corbelled battering termination of the west tower, can, we should imagine, be hardly equalled elsewhere.

Ouch. In many ways, his willful craziness is not unlike current streams of postmodernism in architecture, striving to be noticed by being a bit zany. Not that I am saying any current practitioners of postmodernism are likely to start going around butchering women in East London if they lose their jobs. It’s just that novelty for its own sake is not likely to endear one to the ages like some of his contemporaries.

William Burges

Burges dressed as medieval jester (as you do) c.1860s
Burges dressed as a medieval jester (as you do) c.1860s

Unlike most of the people I’ve discussed, Burges was actually a bit barmy, at least after he started on the laudanum. He had the good fortune to get to know the Marquess of Bute, literally the richest man in the world, which lead to a number of horrifically over-the-top churches for toffs with more money than sense.

Christ the Consoler, Skelton-cum-Newby
Christ the Consoler, Skelton-cum-Newby, 1871. Photo by Peter Mattock.

Although more stylistically congruous than Lamb, with a taste for the Early English of c.1200-1280 he has absolutely no sense of restraint when he had the cash at his disposal. A building like Christ the Consoler, Skelton (N. Yorkshire) is not much bigger than an ordinary parish church, but has enough sculptural ideas to cover a cathedral. He also really likes rose windows to the point of cramming them in the most inappropriate places, like his new east end for the medieval nave of Waltham Abbey in Essex. Most Victorian architects couldn’t even dream of being as crassly bonkers as Billy Burges. At least not with a good dose of opium.


  1. WONDERFUL !!! – especially Pugin. I wish I’d known him (pre-syphilis, of course). I too swear like a trooper; so I know that Pugin swore because he was, by and large, surrounded by cretins in the workplace, and became exhausted trying to force them into professional attitudes. When you get to be so tired of the same old same old, you fall back on foul language: it’s the only thing that expresses your feelings satisfactorily. :-D
    How’s the thesis coming along ? I hope you never finish it !!!

  2. If A. Pugin’s insanity,
    As well as his profanity,
    Derived from his infection,
    This merits a correction.
    An implication changed,
    Word order rearranged.

    OTH, I prefer Margaret-Rose’s theory about the cussing.

    That business in the link about the reason behind the design of the old door-hinges and why they extended across the doors was really interesting. And they WERE beautiful–Pugin was right about that.

    Re: Sir Scott’s designs being boring, it’s hard to judge from a photo alone, but Harrow School’s chapel looks marvelous to me. I would be proud if I’d designed it. (so there, nyeah-nyeah, etc.)

    While reading your segment on Lamb, just after the bit regarding stitched-together body parts and murdered prostitutes, is it any wonder this skimmer-rather-than-careful-reader misread the magazine title “Ecclesiologist” as “Eschatologist”? With the writing on the wall about the Grand Smooshing of Christian Faiths coming at some point down the road (does anyone care any more about picayune theological distinctions?), a crazy-quilt Church seems ideal for the end times.

    BTW, I laughed at one photo’s caption until my bells jingled.

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