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PUGINGENUITY

22-11-2007

St Chads Cathedral

He's one of Britain's finest architects, and - according to Laurence Inman - his finest work was done in Birmingham.

I've just been reading a fascinating book: God's Architect; Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain by Rosemary Hill.

It's a life of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852), probably best known for designing the decorations, both internal and external, for Barry's Palace of Westminster, work for which he received little credit in his lifetime and which certainly helped to kill him.

He was also responsible for designing the clock-tower, surely the most iconic of all buildings in England. (That's NOT Big Ben, which, as any fule kno, is the name of the baritone bell that chimes the hours.)

Pugin was an amazing man. He didn't actually train as an architect. His dad was an architectural draughtsman and young Pugin spent much of his childhood drawing designs for buildings out of his imagination. ‘Proper' architects dismissed him as a doodler.

His greatest achievement (which I may have mentioned before,) was St Chad's Cathedral right here in Birmingham. I think it is one of the greatest buildings of any sort in the world and I never tire of gazing at it.

It is the first Catholic cathedral to be built in Britain since the Reformation (not St George's Southwark, also designed by Pugin,) and the first of any kind since St Paul's in London.

Construction began in 1838, less than sixty years after Catholics achieved full civil emancipation and still only a few years before John Newman would be openly vilified in the streets of Oxford for daring to suggest that the 39 articles were more Catholic than most clergy, or laymen, were prepared to admit.

The original site was not as it is seen today. Pugin took full advantage of the steep slope from Bath Street to Shadwell Street, at the bottom of which used to be an arm of the Birmingham Canal Navigations, with a wharf, which was handy for unloading building materials.

That bit of the canal has now been filled in and the houses surrounding it are long gone. They belonged to scores of gunsmiths, who carried on their small businesses in those tiny houses.

There is a brilliant etching by James Priddey showing how the red brick walls of the cathedral soared above the odd-shaped houses huddling and leaning cartoonishly below.

That view of St Chad's is now lost, and along with it the sense that it was a close part of the surrounding community; it no longer looks as though it was once part of a street, which it was. The present-day road arrangement, built to take a few seconds off the race up to the expressway, isolates the building even more.

St Chads from the road

Those vandalisms could be called accidental, but the removal of the superb rood screen in 1967 was not. Fortunately, it was saved and has been re-erected in Christ Church, Reading.

There are dozens of interesting things to see inside, far more than I could deal with here.

In the South Aisle on one of the ceiling panels are painted the words Deo Gratias. This marks the point where a German incendiary bomb came through the roof on November 22nd 1940. It burst a radiator, which flooded the floor and put the fire out. That was the only damage done during the whole war.

The pulpit is from the church of St Gertrude in Louvain and dates from the 15th century. Pugin was a great ‘collector' of church artefacts and furnishings from all over Europe and never hesitated to use them in his projects here.

One final personal note.

I once stayed in a house built by the great man, near Camelford in Cornwall. One night, (this was thirty-odd years ago,) after having had perhaps one or three too many of the local brew, I stumbled into the en-suite wardrobe of my room, thinking it was the room itself and slept there quite happily for most of the following day.

Now that's what you call a wardrobe!

What other buildings grace the West Midlands skyline?

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