An architect unchained: celebrating Augustus Pugin’s masterpiece

Architects have a frustrating life, don’t they, forever constrained by the briefs and the budgets of their paymasters, always wondering how much more they could achieve if their clients would only interfere a bit less and pay a bit more. But just occasionally, when the stars are in alignment and the gods smile benevolently upon him, an architect is given a free hand to express himself.

At 61m (200ft) Giles church is Cheadle’s tallest building

Augustus Pugin was one such architect, and when the chains were removed he built his masterpiece, St Giles church in the Staffordshire town of Cheadle. Otherwise known as Pugin’s Gem, St Giles is a Grade I listed Roman Catholic church built in the Gothic Revival style. With a spire standing 61m (200ft) high, it is by some way Cheadle’s tallest building, and is – in my humble opinion anyway – absolutely spectacular.

Looking down the nave towards the altar

If you’re not from the UK you almost certainly have never heard of Cheadle. I’m guessing most Brits aren’t familiar with it either. This is a humble West Midlands market town of around 11,000 people. For hundreds of years the main industry in the Cheadle area was coal mining, but the mines have all closed now and the town’s main employer (JCB) makes mechanical diggers and excavators. It’s a remarkably unremarkable little place, and would be instantly forgettable were it not for the efforts of Mr Pugin.

The arches, walls and pillars are covered in decorative stencilling

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852), the son of a French draughtsman and designer, was a prodigiously talented and prolific architect whose output included the interior designs for the Palace of Westminster, and over one hundred churches and cathedrals. He also managed to find time to pen eight books on architecture and design before dying at the age of just 40, succumbing – it is believed – to the effects of syphilis that he first contracted in his late teens.

View across the nave towards the pulpit. To the right of the pulpit is the rood screen, intended to protect the altar from irreverent gaze! Above the rood screen is Christ on the cross, with figurines of Our Lady and St John on either side.

Pugin’s patron in the building of St Giles was John Talbot, the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury (1791-1852). In 1829, two years after Talbot succeeded to the title, Parliament passed the Catholic Relief Act, better known as the Catholic Emancipation Act, 1829. This important piece of legislation allowed Roman Catholics to become Members of Parliament and to occupy all but a handful of public offices at a stroke, overturning restrictions that had been in place for hundreds of years.

Shrewsbury’s principal residence was at Alton Abbey – which he renamed Alton Towers – just 6 miles (9km) from Cheadle. The Earl took a keen interest in the spiritual welfare of Catholics in the town, and, emboldened by the Catholic Emancipation Act, he engaged Pugin to build a church there. Pugin, himself a Catholic, had previously undertaken an architectural commission for Shrewsbury at Alton Towers, and had impressed the Earl with his contention that Christian (or gothic) art and architecture could be a powerful weapon in the re-conversion of England to the Catholic faith.

The pulpit is carved from a single block of stone and features images of four saints

It was a marriage seemingly made in heaven. The Earl had the money, Pugin had the creative talent and the pair of them shared a passionate commitment to the Roman Catholic faith. Cheadle’s Catholic population was modest in size, but Pugin’s design was the opposite: extravagant, exuberant and extraordinary.

When St Giles was consecrated in 1846, the service was attended by Bishops, Archbishops and overseas statesmen, as well as the great and the good from the world of architecture and design. Cheadle had never seen anything like it before, and probably never will again.

Between the arch and the roof is a Doom Painting, a representation of the Last Judgment.

When we visited St Giles last year, I didn’t know quite what to expect, but insofar as I had expectations, Pugin’s Gem exceeded them one hundred fold. It is a breath-taking creation, all the more so for being located in this small and otherwise insignificant Staffordshire town. To describe it as totally over the top does not adequately describe its impact on the visitor, but you probably get the general idea!

The altar and reredos are carved out of alabaster. On the front of the altar are angels playing musical instruments. On the reredos the angels hold torches and censers.

I can’t agree with Pugin that architecture alone is capable of inducing religious conversion: in the 21st century such views are either wishful thinking or a dangerous delusion, depending on your point of view. My own spiritual beliefs were utterly untroubled by his masterpiece, but St Giles church remains clear in my memory, monumental and magnificent, a vivid testament to what can be achieved by an architect unchained.

13 comments

  1. Paddy Tobin · May 25

    We are fortunate to have a number of Pugin designed churches in the south-east of Ireland and they are celebrated and treasured for their beauty. He certainly was a man of genius!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · May 25

      Interesting, I didn’t know he’d been active in Ireland too. He was clearly as massively prolific as he was talented.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. tanjabrittonwriter · May 25

    Monumental and magnificent, indeed. I particularly like the effect created by the patterns on the wall and pillars. Do you happen to remember what they are made of?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · May 27

      Yes, the patterning is very effective I believe it was achieved by tastefully intricate painting and gilding, which must have cost a fortune and taken a long, long time to execute to such a high standard.

      Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · May 28

        Thank you for letting me know. The technique sounds painstaking, but the result is spectacular. Alas, we probably won’t be able to afford to incorporate the idea whenever we get around to remodeling our house. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · May 29

        🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. June’s Travels · May 25

    Incredible architecture! The story behind the stunning St Giles Church is fantastic. It is sad Augustus Pugin died so young at age of 40, maybe so back in 1800.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · May 27

      Yes, he was so talented and also very prolific. Just imagine how much more fantastic work he might have achieved if he’d lived a few years longer.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a spectacular church! Your photos are splendid, and I bet you’d say they don’t come close to capturing the Saint Giles’ majesty.

    I also enjoyed the history, including the role of the Earl of Shrewsbury. I grew up in the New Jersey town of Shrewsbury, settled in 1664. We pronounce it like “The Taming of the Shrew,” although I think our UK friends say something like “Shrow.” I’m always proud to see the name of my wee town pop up unexpectedly. Thank you again for a great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · May 27

      Thank you, I’m pleased to know that Saint Giles strikes a chord with you.

      The pronunciation of Shrewsbury is highly contentious. Many Brits say “shrow”, but countless others say it to rhyme with “new”. My wife is in the latter group, and a vigorous debate occurred over breakfast earlier this morning when your comment prompted me to raise the issue! I’m a Londoner by birth while Mrs P was born and bred in the north Midlands, where we live today, and we frequently argue about the correct way to say simple, everyday words like “bath” and “”grass”. Ah, the joys of married life! In the UK the way we pronounce words often varies by region, and is sometimes influenced by social class too, so there is really no “right or wrong” answer to these questions (except, of course, that I’m always right, obviously… 🙂).

      Our Shrewsbury is a historic market town with lots of picturesque buildings at its centre. I haven’t been there for many years but have fond memories of visits by train on Saturday afternoons in the late 70s while I was doing a one year post graduate course at a college in north Wales.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for this fascinating glimpse at the Platypus Family breakfast table. Pronunciations are funny things; in the U.S. there’s enormous variety as well (not only in pronunciation but also in syntax: why do midwesterners say “do you want to come with” instead of “do you want to come with me?”)??

        Maybe someday I’ll make a pilgrimage to Shrewsbury (Mrs. P and I agree)!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Ju-Lyn · June 22

    Thank you for the brief tour into Cheadle and this lovely, and a peek into Pugin’s work. One of the highlights of our travels is to visit churches, particularly Catholic ones: an opportunity to steal some quiet, enjoy the architecture, pray for a while. As we haven’t travelled in quite a long while, it is a joy to vicariously see this beauty through your lens.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · June 22

      Thank you for your comment and kind words. I’m glad that Pugin’s gem “spoke” to you, as it does to me. It is a truly spectacular building.

      Liked by 1 person

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