Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, an architect, designer and theorist, was one of the most significant figures in nineteenth-century British design. The son of a French draughtsman who instilled in him an interest in Gothic architecture, Pugin became the leading advocate of the style in Britain. He saw the Gothic as the only form of architecture appropriate for a modern, Christian society. He attacked the currency of ‘pagan’ Classical architecture, seeing it as encouraging secularism and contributing to society’s moral degradation.
Following the destruction by fire of the Palace of Westminster in 1834, Pugin was employed by Sir Charles Barry to work on the new Gothic-style Parliament buildings in London, perhaps his greatest ever commission and the project which established his reputation as a designer. Pugin converted to Catholicism in 1835 and embarked upon the building and refurbishing of a remarkable series of churches, both Anglican and Roman Catholic, across Britain and abroad, including a number of churches in Australia. He also carried out domestic commissions; working for a number of wealthy Catholic patrons, producing wholly integrated architectural and interior schemes in the Gothic taste. He created designs for textiles, furniture, ceramics and metalwork. Pugin’s medievalism and imputation of a moral dimension to design was a major influence on writers like John Ruskin and designers like William Morris. As a consequence he stands as a key figure in the nineteenth-century design reform movements.
An important area of Pugin’s architectural and design work involved the refurbishment, or design and construction, of ecclesiastical buildings. This pair of candlesticks, from an original set of six, is of a form traditionally associated with the ornamenta of the altar in an ecclesiastical setting. The candlesticks were manufactured by John Hardman & Co., a Birmingham manufactory that specialised in stained glass and ecclesiastical fittings. The form of the candlesticks, bearing the stylised monogram ‘MR’, is very close to a design by Pugin, signed and dated 1846, which appears in a Hardman catalogue forming part of the Minton Archive (see P. Atterbury & C. Wainwright (eds), Pugin: A Gothic Passion, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1994, fig. 335).
Pugin developed a relationship with Hardman when he commissioned the firm to produce metalwork to his designs for Saint Chad’s Cathedral, consecrated in 1841. Pugin and his son Edward Welby Pugin after him, continued to have work executed by Hardman. Many designs entered the company’s repertory and continued to be produced, sometimes with minor changes, after Pugin’s death. A version of the present candlesticks appears in an 1875 Hardman catalogue where they are described as ‘Altar Candlesticks’, and are stated to be available in brass with ‘engraved centre’ for £4. 10s or ‘enamelled centre’ for £6.
The enamelled monogram MR probably stands for Maria Regina (Mary, Queen [of Heaven]) as is suggested by the presence of the fleur-de-lys on the reverse of the central roundel, the lily being a Marian emblem. This implies that the candlesticks were probably intended for an altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary and may have formed part of a larger commission for a church interior carried out by Hardman. As such, they are representative of this very important aspect of Pugin’s personal and design philosophies, an aspect as yet unrepresented by the Pugin material already in the NGV collections.
Matthew Martin, Assistant Curator, Decorative Arts, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2011).