07 May 2014
The shape of the Staffordshire countryside was altered so much in the mid-19th century by the churches designed by the great architect AWN Pugin (1812-1852) that the distinguished architectural historian, the late Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, once described Staffordshire as “Pugin-land.”
Pevsner wrote: “Nowhere can one study and understand Pugin better than in Staffordshire – not only his forms and features but his mind, and not only his churches but his secular architecture as well.” Pugin-Land is a description that inspired the title of the Revd Michael Fisher’s book on Pugin, Lord Shrewsbury and the Gothic revival in Staffordshire.
Pugin’s churches are scattered across Staffordshire, and his mastery of Gothic revival architecture so changed our popular images of churches that it is impossible for today’s children to draw a church without adding a tall spires and pointed windows.
Although Pugin designed no churches in Lichfield, he may have never received his great commissions in Staffordshire but for an accidental visit to Lichfield that resulted in an introduction to the Talbot family who wanted Alton Towers rebuilt as a palatial Gothic residence.
Until Pugin’s arrival, the principal church architect in Staffordshire was Joseph Potter (1756-1842), who was born in Lichfield, and who had a considerable practice in Staffordshire and the neighbouring counties in the late 18th and early 19th century. Early in his architectural career, Potter worked with James Wyatt (1746-1813), one of the most prominent architects of the day, who was born at Weeford outside Lichfield.
Potter supervised Wyatt’s alterations to Lichfield Cathedral in 1788-1793. At this time, Potter also worked with Wyatt in altering Hereford Cathedral (1790-1793), repairing Saint Michael’s, Coventry (1794), and carrying out alterations (1816-1830) to the Gothic hall at Beaudesert House, on the edges of Cannock Chase, for the Paget family.
Potter became the established architect at Lichfield Cathedral, overseeing the repairs to the south-west spire (1794), restoring the vaults in the north transept (1795-1797), and restoring the west front (1820-1822). He was also the architect in 1800 for Newton’s College, built in the Cathedral Close with an endowment from Andrew Newton, the son of a Lichfield brandy and cider merchant.
In 1816, Potter designed the Causeway Bridge at Bird Street, crossing the Minister Pool and linking the Cathedral Close with the rest of the city.
Towards the end of his career, Potter designed Holy Cross Church, Upper Saint John Street, Lichfield, in 1835. Father John Kirk bought the site for a Roman Catholic church in 1802 and within a year had built a house and a chapel that was originally dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
When Potter enlarged and rebuilt the chapel in 1834, it was renamed the Church of the Holy Cross. The church is a brick building with an entrance front and turret of Tixall stone in a mixed Romanesque and Gothic style.
While Potter was working on this church in Lichfield, Pugin first visited Staffordshire and stayed in Lichfield during an architectural tour of the Midlands and the West Country “in search of the picturesque and the beautiful.”
Potter had some bruising encounters with Pugin: Potter was replaced by Pugin as the architect at Oscott College just as the college buildings were almost complete. But Potter also influenced Pugin in ways that the great master of the Gothic revival never acknowledged.
Pugin’s first stay in Lichfield in 1834 was memorable. He arrived from Worcester late at night, and “dripping with wet.” In the dark he crept unwittingly into the wrong bedroom. Aware of something soft and warm in the bed, he found it to be “the thigh of a female occupant already turned in.” There were loud screams and shouts. Chambermaids came rushing in with lighted candles.
Benjamin Ferrey, who edited Pugin’s Recollections, deleted this episode in of the published version in 1861, dismissing it as an event of “a Pickwickian character,” and “a mistake” that “is hardly worth recording.” Now does he tell us where Pugin stayed in Lichfield. Was it one of the great coaching inns or hotels like the George or the Swan? Or did he stay in the Cathedral Close?
But Pugin was embarrassed and had difficulty the next morning in convincing everyone that he had made a genuine mistake. Pugin was in for another unpleasant shock when he visited Lichfield Cathedral later that day. Taken aback by Wyatt’s refurbishment of the cathedral thirty years earlier, he declared: “Yes – this monster of architectural depravity, this pest of Cathedral architecture, has been here. need I say more.” For Pugin, Wyatt had created havoc by pulling down the altar screen, walling up arches, and making dark passages of the aisles.
Turning to Potter, he said: “The man I am sorry to say – who executes the repairs of the building was a pupil of the Wretch himself and has imbibed all the vicious propensities of his accursed tutor without one spark of even practical ability to atone for his misdeeds.”
Yet he found the cathedral nave was “truly beautiful,” the chapter house and library “exceedingly interesting,” and the Herkenrode glass filling the East windows was “without exception the most beautiful I have ever seen for richness of colours and beauty of design.”
He found Lichfield “a dull place, without anything remarkable.” But Birmingham was the “most detestable of all detestable places ... where Greek buildings and smoking chimneys, Radicals and Dissenters are blended together.”
Pugin unashamedly copied Potter’s West Doors in Lichfield Cathedral when he was designing for the doors of Saint Chad’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Birmingham.
And he must have liked Lichfield, for he was back again in 1837. After staying briefly at Wolseley Park with Sir Charles Wolseley (1769-1846), a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, Pugin returned to Lichfield. By then, Potter had completed Holy Cross Church, and he asked Pugin to add a screen and other furnishings in 1841. Sadly, his work there disappeared with the liturgical changes of the 1960s and 1970s.
Meanwhile, Pugin’s return to Lichfield led to his first visit to Alton Towers, the Staffordshire home of the Earl and Countess of Shrewsbury. Through an introduction from Sir Charles Wolseley and his friends, Pugin arrived on 31 August 1837, and stayed for the next four days. Lord Shrewsbury’s Irish titles included Earl of Wexford, and Lady Shrewsbury, Maria Theresa Talbot, was the daughter of William Talbot of Castle Talbot, Co Wexford.
The visit changed Pugin’s career for ever, and transformed the ecclesiastical landscape of both Staffordshire and Co Wexford. Lord Shrewsbury’s influence led to Pugin rebuilding Alton Towers and designing churches throughout the area, including Saint Giles’s, Cheadle, and Saint Mary’s, Uttoxeter. The patronage of Lady Shrewsbury’s uncle, John Hyacinth Talbot MP, brought Pugin to Wexford the following year.
If Pugin’s work for Potter in Holy Cross Church disappeared later, Pugin had no dilemma about using Potter’s designs for the entrance door and his turret when it came to designing one of his own churches – Saint Michael’s Church, Gorey, his only Romanesque-style church in Ireland.
Potter’s other works in Lichfield and the surrounding area include:
● Christ Church, Burntwood (1819-1820);
● Chetwynd Bridge, Alrewas (1824);
● Freeford Hall, enlarged for the the Dyott family (1826-1827);
● The High Bridge, Armitage (1829-1830);
● Saint John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church, Tamworth (1829-1830).
Potter had his office beside Saint John’s Hospital in Saint John Street and lived in Pipehill until he died in 1842. His three sons continued the family profession, and Joseph Potter Jnr. (1797-1875) designed the Guildhall (1846-1848) and the Clock Tower (1863) in Lichfield.
Had Pugin lived long enough to return to Lichfield for a third visit he would have appreciated the restoration work carried out from 1857 on by George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878). He would have been delighted to see the undoing of Wyatt’s misdeeds, the restoration of the Lady Chapel, the High Altar replaced and correctly furnished, the stonework and statuary restored in true Gothic style, and the Minton tiles in the choir, designed according to the principles he had once laid down.
This two-page illustrated feature was published in the Lichfield Gazette in May 2014, pp 40-41.