Caroline Shenton writes:
It is always exciting when long-lost archives come to light, never more so than last year when the Parliamentary Archives acquired a small but significant collection of personal papers from some descendants of Sir Charles Barry, architect of the new Palace of Westminster.
Among the papers (above) were 22 autograph letters to Barry from AWN Pugin, his collaborator on the new Palace of Westminster. Until now no original manuscript letters between the two great architects were thought to exist, though they must have written hundreds to each other. All that was thought to have survived were those which made it into print in Alfred Barry's biography and EW Pugin's pamphlets during their row over which of their late fathers was most responsible for the design of the new Palace. The letters (now BAR/31/1 in the Archives) appear to have been in the possession of Barry’s eldest son, Charles Jnr, from the time of his father's death in 1860 and were passed down through the family thereafter. The Barry boys (Charles, Edward, and Alfred) and EW Pugin expended huge amounts of energy and emotion in attacking one another in a series of increasingly vitriolic pamphlets over their father’s reputations during 1867-68 – and the fight continued among art historians well into the twentieth century.
On viewing the papers for the first time we quickly identified that a number of the original letters were those which had been transcribed in Alfred Barry's 1867 biography of his father The Life of Sir Charles Barry and had recently been republished in Margaret Belcher's edition of the Collected Letters of AWN Pugin, 5 vols (OUP, 2001-2015). There were, however, other letters in the cache that had not been published anywhere and were therefore unknown to Pugin/Barry scholarship. They were completely unavailable to the public until purchased by the Parliamentary Archives.
The earliest of these letters date from 1845 - shortly after the time when Barry re-employed Pugin after a space of seven years – initially to provide the decorative schemes for the House of Lords chamber but then Pugin’s work spread into other areas of the building’s interior. They run up to late 1851 when Pugin's mental state was becoming very precarious, as his handwriting (pretty difficult to read at the best of times) and content of the letters demonstrated.
The reasons why Alfred Barry, in agreement with his brothers, had decided not to include them in his hagiographical biography become clear on studying the letters more closely. Alfred’s intention was to defend his father’s posthumous reputation in the face of all the criticism of overspend and design of the Houses of Parliament which had marred Sir Charles’ later life and contributed to his sudden death. As a result, Alfred selected only those letters for publication which directly supported the case he was making in relation to Pugin – that is, that Pugin was just one of a series of contractors who worked on the Palace and not in fact a principal player in its creation. In the 150 years since the row first erupted, supporters of Pugin’s reputation have assumed that such letters as showed otherwise were deliberately destroyed by the Barry sons to bolster their case.
Actually, the unpublished letters show a rather different story. It is true that Alfred was intending to show his father in a good light by not publishing those which have now found their way into the Parliamentary Archives. However, the issue over which Alfred seems to have most sensitive in these letters was the question of money, not of design. If anything is to be gleaned from the letters, it is that Pugin was constantly complaining about his cashflow for undertaking much of the interior design of the House of Lords chamber and many of the ‘suppressed’ letters are asking Barry to pay him extra, or more swiftly, otherwise he will down tools (he never did).
‘I live in hope but this job pays worse than the worst job I ever had I my life’ he says in one letter (BAR/31/1/18). The work is difficult and harassing, ‘and does not pay a decent remuneration. I will go on for the present & at any rate get the House of Lords fittings all finished but then I think you might let me off,’ he begs in another (BAR/31/1/20). ‘All I ask is the fulfilment of the terms originally agreed’ (BAR/31/1/2) and ‘I must get something out of somebody for I know there is no getting anything out of you’ (BAR/31/1/6). All these comments reflect what we already know about Pugin’s constant anxiety about money, and also his inability to cope with the pressures of business. They are also dated from a time – the late 1840s and early 1850s - when Barry had been obliged to cut back the salaries of all those working on the Palace, as well as being owed a lot of money himself by the government, due to what today would be called a period of austerity in public spending. Nevertheless, many of the other unpublished letters show Pugin to be an amiable and supportive correspondent with Barry, the two men working in harmony on the project over a number of years, and with Pugin narrating his trips through Italy and Germany to the older architect – and both men respecting each other’s genius in a way which no-one else did: ‘I am your faithful Lieutenant’ says Pugin at one point.
Having been hidden from sight for nearly 150 years, since their arrival at Westminster last year the letters have been conserved, catalogued, and are now available to the public in the Archives.