The Writing Of: A.W.N. Pugin’s Gothic Revivalism (Magazine Antiques May/June 2024)

For the May/June 2024 issue of the Magazine Antiques, we decided to focus our object lesson on a man and a form that may have gotten a bad rep in residential interiors in recent years. Or, at minimum, fallen out of favor. In an era of slim table legs, light wood tones, and “bright and airy” as the go-to keywords it seems for every room in the house, gothic revivalism may drum up visions of dark church interiors or that kind of medieval fetishism that periodically pops up on Zillow Gone Wild. We’d like to rewrite this narrative.

We will front-end this with our biases. We like dark wood. Nearly all the furniture we buy for ourselves — and for the store — is “brown furniture.” Which is to say, dark wood. We also like carvings and decorations when (and this is a critically important ‘when’) it is done well. We have no time for nor interest in bad reproductions or poorly executed ornamentation. If you’re going to go for it and add a dragon scale pattern to the legs of a table (see here), it really has to be done well.


French table after Pugin, 19th century, H. Blairman and Sons, gothic revival design

That table, circa 1845, is designed after (i.e., inspired by) the man we decided to focus in on for our May/June 2024 Object Lesson, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852) and is being offered by the dealer who opened the door for us to turn our personal passion into an article for the Magazine Antiques.

H. Blairman & Sons Ltd was founded by Jacob Harris Blairmann (c. 1865-1926) in 1884 on the North Wales coast to deal in decorative objects — both the old and the new. Today, Blairmann’s great grandson, Martin Levy, runs the firm. We were very excited to speak with Levy for this piece about Pugin after meeting him at the 2024 Winter Show at the Armory in New York City. Levy is an expert on the Arts and Crafts period, for which the furniture and lighting designs produced by Pugin were a strong inspiration. Pugin’s broader perspective, too, spoke to arts and crafts leaders like William Morris and William Price. This is especially evident in designs like the “Waste Not Want Not” plate, which Martin Levy had recently acquired ahead of the show. The direct line between the central design of the plate William Morris wallpaper designs is unmistakable.


A.W.N. Pugin's Waste Not Want Not Plate shown by H. Blairman and Sons at the 2024 Winter Show

Pugin believed in a pureness of design that, for him, translated into pieces that today look very ornate. But that concept of distilling intentions down into designs that would change how people live was picked up by the Bauhaus movement and modernists like Le Corbusier whose work couldn’t seem more distant from Pugin’s designs. 

At the Winter Show, we were able to chat with Levy alongside a table not just made by Pugin, but used by Pugin. Seeing work designed and made by an artisan for themselves opens the door to the essence of what they cared about. They were the client. Their needs, those day-to-day things that can sometimes seem cumbersome but to which we all must bend, are made paramount. Sometimes those needs are conceptual — a certain look. And sometimes those needs are practical. The table shown by H. Blairman & Sons at the Winter Show is quite low. Decorative arts scholar Clive Wainwright surmised that this may be because Pugin himself was quite low to the ground. Standing 5 foot 2 inches, it would make sense for him to scale the table intended for himself too himself.


Pugin's own table in the H. Blairman and Sons winter show booth 2024

This sort of customization is thrilling to us. We love working with clients to make lights work for them, whether it’s accommodating a tall family member or someone who really needs a particular type of light to read by. The fact that Pugin operated in the same way, as obvious as that may be, entrances us.

Writing this piece was a reminder of the importance, too, of immersion. The piece opens with Pugin, as a young man, rappelling into a church. His father believes strongly in the need to see something to understand it, so he immersed his son and students in the environments he valued — often tied into a rope for at least the appearance of safety. We try to take ‘adventure days’ whenever we can, and have seen a marked increase in our cerebral productivity when our feet are allowed to wander. Sometimes this means visiting a local historic site, or digging around in a basement, or going to an auction. Wherever it is, the point is to be present, and lessons comes through looking.

Below we’ve included a teaser of the article on Pugin, entitled: “Social Engineering: The Refined Forms and High-Minded Purpose of A. W. N. Pugin’s Gothic Revivalism.” We also hope you’ll consider adding a subscription to the magazine to your own learning journey. 

As the boy, suspended from a rope tied around his middle, was lowered through a hole in the roof of the church, past soaring trusses and arches, his eyes slowly grew accustomed to the dimness. Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin’s father held the other end of the rope, gently depositing his son on the floor of an ancient Gothic church near Rouen, France. The church had weathered the storm of the French Revolution—with its sanctioned dechristianization—remarkably well, and the boy could not help but be impressed with the handicraft of the pious men who had built the structure nearly four centuries before. He would spend the rest of his life evangelizing on behalf of what he saw there…” Continue Reading Here


Benjamin Q. Davidson and Pippa Biddle have co-written the Object Lesson column for the Magazine Antiques since 2019. In each issue, they focus in on a form, a style, a material, or a maker to bring greater understanding and awareness to the world of antiques. You can explore articles from their archive here.

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