Nicholas Furlong, the writer and historian, is a past pupil of St. Peter's College (1941-46). In 1990 he produced this excellent article on Augustus Welby Pugin's work at St. Peter's College for the College Magazine, a portion of which can be read by clicking read more.
June 15, 1840 was a day of unfettered but dignified triumph. The invited guests to the consecration ceremony were among the most powerful in Ireland. The horse carriages drove up the familiar avenue and by the steps leading to the entrance hall the occupants, dressed formally for a great occasion, alighted. Among them were the Earl and Countess of Arran ; William Hyacinth Talbot, J.P. and Mrs Talbot of Ballytrent House; Charles Arthur Walker, M.P. ; Thomas Boyse, J.P., and family ; Justin Brennan, J.P., and Mrs Brennan ; Richard Devereux, the wealthy and inexhaustible Catholic activist whose many ships sailed the seven seas out of Wexford port. All these and more presented a spectacle of joy and decorum, but the day's spectacle was firmly placed in the legends of sensation with the arrival of one young man. As the young man of deep flashing eyes and long black hair alighted in theatrical deportment from his carriage he was as brilliantly adorned as an exotic tropical bird. He was the architect of the new College Chapel, Augustus Welby Pugin, styled 'the architectural genius of the nineteenth century', and he was flamboyantly dressed from head to toe in medieval costume.
Augustus Welby Pugin, born in 1812, was the only child of a Protestant Swiss refugee of noble origin, Augustus de Pugin. He fled to London in 1792 during the spread of the French Revolution. The elder Pugin was a superb draughtsman and an associate of the celebrated English architect, John Nash. The son was architectural child prodigy and at an early stage took his place amongst his father's pupils. When only fourteen, his father entrusted him with the responsibility of preparing drawings for Rochester Castle. At fifteen he was found to be suffering from overwork while sketching the details of Notre Dame in Paris. In the same year he was actually professionally engaged to design furniture for the British Royal Residence, Windsor Castle.
At this time too, a passion for theatrical mechanics possessed him. He fitted up a model stage with mechanical appliances of all kinds in his father's house. He designed and made the scenery for the new ballet opera 'Kenilworth', which owed its immediate success to the architectural effects of his scenery. Following that, the extraordinary teenager was engaged to work on the stage machinery of Drury Lane theatre in London. Artistic endeavour was nevertheless not enough to sate his hunger for adventure. He next bought a fishing smack of his own, did some trading in carrying wood from Flanders, and bestowed a further chapter upon his biographers by being shipwrecked off Leith in 1830.
He married Ann Garnett in 1831 and shortly afterwards was imprisoned for non payment of rent. On his release he opened a shop for the supply of architectural drawings and accessories. It was an unsuccessful venture, followed by the tragic loss of his young wife in childbirth. It was at this terrible time in his life that he met John Tablot, Earl of Shrewsbury, with the dynamic consequences that Wexford, St. Peter's College and later, all Ireland, were to appreciate. The remarkable series of coincidences which led to Pugin's Wexford involvement would provide material for a Dickens novel. It is a story in which many elements are interwoven: the English aristocracy, a great old Co. Wexford family, the Catholic resurgence in Ireland after almost three centuries of deprivation, an outburst of church building which on its own reflects an astonishing epoch and, finally, to use a happy cliche, a glittering romance.
More of this story of Pugin will appear on this website next week.