Thursday, 29 January 2009

Pugin and Herdman – two Victorian greats

Funny how things come full circle, isn’t it? With an increase in knowledge and improved communications, the antiques industry is replete with remarkable discoveries that serve only to make the hobby of collecting even more compelling.

See a slideshow of Hardman of Birmingham images

Take the silver toast rack pictured here. It turned up in an auction in Australia where specialists rightly believed it was designed by that master of gothic, A.W.N. Pugin. But in the absence of any documentary evidence, they couldn’t prove it.

In the course of their research, the auctioneers turned to one of Pugin’s suppliers, the Birmingham-based John Hardman & Co.

Founded in 1838, it was Hardman who created much of the Pugin-designed furnishings,

enamel work, embroidery, metalwork and, most especially, stained glass for the Gothic Revival movement that was so strong during the mid-19th century.

By coincidence, Hardman specialists were at the time concentrating on another auction on the other side of the world.

In a glitzy Los Angeles sale was property from the Italian Renaissance-style Malibu home of superstar Cher, a noted collector and devotee of Pugin’s gothic works of art.

Hardman were most interested in securing a pair of Gothic Revival painted brass chandeliers and a matching pair of floor-standing lamps made by the company to Pugin’s design, which Cher had acquired for her dining room.

Coincidentally, in Cher’s library was a folio of important Pugin drawings used to illustrate the second volume of his “Examples of Gothic Architecture”, one of the seminal 19th century books on the Gothic Revival style.

In addition to providing fascinating insight into the preparatory work for the book, the drawings were also must-have archival material for the Hardman specialists.

When the bidding started, Hardman secured the chandeliers, the lamps and the drawings and went home happy.

And the toast rack? Amazingly, there among drawings was one featuring the very same toast rack, cancelling out all doubt that Pugin himself had designed it. When the Australian auction took place, Hardman bought the toast rack too.

And the full circle part of this tale? It would be wonderful to be able to write that these rediscovered treasures once graced the rooms of Chirk Castle.

That’s not the case. However, Pugin did remodel the interior of the National Trust-owned property on the outskirts of Wrexham in North Wales.

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852) was one of the most influential architects and designers of the 19th century.

As a 15-year-old he designed a set of gothic chairs for George IV and subsequently went on to act as architect for the New Palace of Westminster (the House of Commons) after a disastrous fire destroyed the original building.

In the event, Pugin designed everything from the façade of Big Ben down. In doing so he presented Hardman with one of the firm;’s most important commissions: producing the stained glass and complete range of metalwork from inkstands and umbrella-stands to chandeliers and the jewelled and enamelled ornaments of the Royal Throne.

Pugin pioneered an appreciation of medieval art and architecture and established in his writings and design manuals the principles upon which the 19th century Gothic Revival was based.

His ideas were adopted and developed by followers as diverse as William Morris and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Pugin virtually invented modern concepts of interior and industrial design.

A master in the use of colour, pattern and ornament, with no fear of modern technology, he was also a prolific product designer, creating furniture and woodwork, silver, metalwork and jewellery, pottery and tiles, textiles and wallpapers, and books, all of which reflected his desire to adapt the principles of medieval art to the modern world.

At that time, Chirk was the home of Colonel and Mrs Robert Myddleton Biddulph (1805-1852). Looking to follow fashion, they turned to Pugin to imbue the property with a Medievalist decorative style and they engaged Hardman to supply the metalwork, wallpaper, curtains, stained glass and furniture, all with Gothic motifs.

There could be no better setting in the region for the current exhibition and it’s worth catching before it moves on.

John Hardman left his partnership in the Birmingham family button-making business to found his company in 1838, quickly establishing a reputation for fine craftsmanship which found its way into ecclesiastical and secular buildings all over the world.

His friendship with Pugin was a key factor in his success. Pugin, who was an only child, regarded Hardman as the brother he never had, and shared with him not only his ideas but the details of his often tragic personal life.

By 1845, a showroom had been set up in Great Charles Street, in Birmingham, and illustrated catalogues brought international business to the door.

The willingness of Pugin and Hardman to use the manufacturing techniques developed in the city during the Industrial Revolution meant products were widely available and affordable, at a time when Victorian England was fascinated by the art and architecture of the Middle Ages.

The pair were the dominant figures in the creation and furnishing of the Medieval Court at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Though openly despising the Crystal Palace as “the green monster” and “a beastly place to show off Gothic work”, they seized the opportunity to enthrall visitors with Gothic spires, twinkling candles, the warm glow of stained glass, and the smell of incense.

Many of the world’s cathedrals, churches and civic buildings contain windows designed and made by Hardmans, and overseas commissions and conservation projects are still the main contributors to the continued success of the company.

It is possible to visit the firm’s Birmingham studios by prior arrangement (telephone 0121 429 7609), while a new book has been written by the firm’s archivist and researcher Michael Fisher, to celebrate the company’s 170th anniversary in 2008.

“Gothic Forever! – A History of John Hardman & Company” will be available from Landmark Publishing in the new year (telephone: 01335 347349).

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