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William Burges - Muses & the Beau Monde

William Burges ARA, born 2 December 1827, was an English architect and designer. Among the greatest of the Victorian art-architects, he sought in his work to escape from both nineteenth-century industrialisation and the Neoclassical architectural style and re-establish the architectural and social values of a utopian medieval England. Burges stands within the tradition of the Gothic Revival, his works echoing those of the Pre-Raphaelites and heralding those of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Burges's career was short but illustrious; he won his first major commission for Saint Fin Barre's Cathedral in Cork in 1863, when he was 35. His architectural output was small but varied. Working with a long-standing team of craftsmen, he built churches, a cathedral, a warehouse, a university, a school, houses and castles.

Burges as architect by Frederick Weekes

Burges, who never married, was considered by his contemporaries to be eccentric, unpredictable, over-indulgent and flamboyant. Short and so near-sighted that he once mistook a peacock for a man, Burges appears to have been sensitive about his appearance and very few images of him exist.

The known portraits are: a painting of 1858 by Edward John Poynter on an internal panel of the Yatman Cabinet; Burges as a medieval architect, by Frederick Weekes from 1858; a photograph from the 1860s, by an unknown author, showing Burges dressed as a court jester; a sketch of 1871 in The Graphic by Theodore Blake Wirgman; a pencil drawing in profile of 1875 by Edward William Godwin; three posed photographs from 1881 by Henry Van der Weyde and a posthumous caricature by Edward Burne-Jones.

Whatever his physical shortcomings, his personality, his conversation and his sense of humour were attractive and infectious, J. Mordaunt Crook, the foremost authority on Burges commenting that "his range of friends [covered] the whole gamut of Pre-Raphaelite London." Burges's childlike nature occasioned comment; Dante Gabriel Rossetti composing a limerick about him.

"There's a babyish party called Burges, Who from childhood hardly emerges. If you hadn't been told, He's disgracefully old, You would offer a bull's-eye to Burges."


Traveling was of great importance to Burges's career. Burges believed that all architects should travel, remarking that it was "absolutely necessary to see how various art problems have been resolved in different ages by different men." Enabled by his private income, Burges moved through England, then France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece and finally into Turkey. In total, he spent some 18 months abroad developing his skills and knowledge by sketching and drawing. What he saw and drew provided a repository of influences and ideas that he used and re-used for the whole of his career.

Although he never went beyond Turkey, the art and architecture of the East, both Near and Far, had a significant impact on him (his fascination with Moorish design found ultimate expression in the Arab Room at Cardiff Castle), and his study of Japanese techniques would influence his later metalwork.

Burges received his first important commission at the age of 35, but his subsequent career did not see the development that might have been expected. His style had already been formed over the previous twenty years of study, thinking and travelling. Crook writes that, "once established, after twenty years' preparation, his 'design language' had merely to be applied, and he applied and reapplied the same vocabulary with increasing subtlety and gusto."

Burges's most notable works are Cardiff Castle, constructed between 1866 and 1928, and Castell Coch, constructed between 1872 and 1891, both of which were built for John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute. The connection between them lasted the rest of Burges's life and led to his most important works. To the Marquess and his wife, Burges was the "soul-inspiring one". The architectural writer Michael Hall considers Burges's rebuilding of Cardiff Castle and the complete reconstruction of the ruin of Castell Coch, north of the city, as representing his highest achievements. In these buildings, Crook contends that Burges escaped into "a world of architectural fantasy".

Megan Aldrich contends that Burges's interiors at Cardiff have "rarely [been] equalled, [although] he executed few buildings as his rich fantastic gothic required equally rich patrons (..) his finished works are outstanding monuments to nineteenth century gothic", the suites of rooms he created at Cardiff being amongst "the most magnificent that the gothic revival ever achieved." Crook goes further still, arguing that the rooms reach beyond architecture to create "three dimensional passports to fairy kingdoms and realms of gold. In Cardiff Castle we enter a land of dreams".


Aldrich views Castell Coch as "one of the greatest Victorian triumphs of architectural composition". Crook writes of Burges "recreating from a heap of rubble a fairy-tale castle which seems almost to have materialised from the margins of a medieval manuscript."

John Newman described the prospect of Castell Coch in his book The Buildings of Wales:

"The distant view, of unequal drum towers rising under candlesnuffer roofs from the wooded hillside, is irresistibly appealing. Here the castle of romantic dreams is given substance."


Other significant buildings include Gayhurst House in Buckinghamshire, Knightshayes Court, the Church of Christ the Consoler, St Mary's, Studley Royal in Yorkshire, and Park House, Cardiff.

Burges inspired considerable loyalty within his team of assistants, and his partnerships were long-lived. John Starling Chapple was the office manager, joining Burges's practice in 1859. It was Chapple, designer of most of the furniture for Castell Coch, who completed its restoration after Burges's death. Second to Chapple was William Frame, who acted as clerk of works. Horatio Walter Lonsdale was Burges's chief artist, contributing extensive murals for both Castell Coch and Cardiff Castle. His main sculptor was Thomas Nicholls who started with Burges at Cork, completing hundreds of figures for Saint Fin Barre's Cathedral, worked with him on his two major churches in Yorkshire, and undertook all of the original carving for the Animal Wall at Cardiff.

William Gualbert Saunders joined the Buckingham Street team in 1865 and worked with Burges on the development of the design and techniques of stained-glass manufacture, producing much of the best glass for Saint Fin Barre's.Ceccardo Egidio Fucigna was another long-time collaborator who sculpted the Madonna and Child above the drawbridge at Castell Coch, the figure of St John over the mantelpiece in Lord Bute's bedroom at Cardiff Castle and the bronze Madonna in the roof garden. Lastly, there was Axel Haig, a Swedish-born illustrator, who prepared many of the watercolour perspectives with which Burges entranced his clients. Crook calls them "a group of talented men, moulded in their master's image, art-architects and medievalists to a man – jokers and jesters too – devoted above all to art rather than to business.


Many of Burges' designs were never executed or were subsequently demolished or altered. His competition entries for cathedrals at Lille, Adelaide in Colombo, Brisbane in Edinburgh, and Truro were all unsuccessful. He lost out to George Edmund Street in the competition for the Royal Courts of Justice in The Strand.

His plans for the redecoration of the interior of St Paul's Cathedral were abandoned and he was dismissed from his post. Skilbeck's Warehouse was demolished in the 1970s, and work at Salisbury Cathedral, at Worcester College, Oxford, and at Knightshayes Court had been lost in the decades before.

Beyond architecture, Burges designed metalwork, sculpture, jewellery, furniture and stained glass. Art Applied to Industry, a series of lectures he gave to the Society of Arts in 1864, illustrates the breadth of his interests; the topics covered including glass, pottery, brass and iron, gold and silver, furniture, the weaver's art and external architectural decoration.

Burges was a fanatical collector, particularly of drawings and metalwork. He was also a Freemason, a member of the same London lodge as his fellow architect William Eden Nesfield. Other pursuits included ratting and opium. The influence of drugs on his life and his architectural output has been debated; Crook speculating that it was in Constantinople, on his tour in the 1850s, that he first tasted opium and the Dictionary of Scottish Architects stating with certainty that his early death was brought about "at least partly as a result of his bachelor lifestyle of smoking both tobacco and opium." The architectural writer Simon Jenkins speculated as to why Sir John Heathcoat-Amory chose as his architect:

"an opium-addicted bachelor Gothicist who dressed in medieval costume."

Burges's own diary of 1865 includes the reference, "Too much opium, did not go to Hayward's wedding", and Crook concludes that "it is hard to resist the conclusion that [opium] reinforced the dreamier elements in his artistic make-up".

Tower House

Burges died, aged 53, in his Red Bed at the Tower House, at 11.45 p.m. on Wednesday 20 April 1881. While on a tour of works at Cardiff, he caught a chill and returned to London, half-paralysed, where he lay dying for some three weeks. Among his last visitors were Oscar Wilde and James Whistler. He was buried in the tomb he designed for his mother at West Norwood, London.

On his death, John Starling Chapple, Burges's office manager and close associate for more than twenty years, wrote "a constant relationship ... with one of the brightest ornaments of the profession has rendered the parting most severe. Thank God his work will live and ... be the admiration of future students. I have hardly got to realize my lonely position yet. He was almost all the world to me."

On Burges's death his contemporary, the architect Edward William Godwin, said of him that "no one of the century of this country or any other that I know of, ever possessed that artistic rule over the kingdom of nature in a measure at all comparable with that which he shared in common with the creator of the Sphinx and the designer of Chartres." But the Gothic Revival he championed with such force was in decline. Within twenty years his style was considered hopelessly outdated and owners of his works sought to eradicate all traces of his efforts. From the 1890s to the later twentieth century, Victorian art was under constant assault, critics writing of "the nineteenth century architectural tragedy", ridiculing "the uncompromising ugliness" of the era's buildings and attacking the "sadistic hatred of beauty" of its architects. Of Burges, they wrote almost nothing. His buildings were disregarded or altered, his jewellery and stained glass were lost or ignored, and his furniture was given away.

Almost his sole champion in the years after his death was his brother-in-law, Richard Popplewell Pullan. Primarily an illustrator, as well as a scholar and archaeologist, Pullan trained with Alfred Waterhouse in Manchester, before joining Burges's office in the 1850s. In 1859, he married Burges's sister. Following Burges's death, Pullan lived at The Tower House and published collections of Burges's designs, including Architectural Designs of William Burges (1883) and The House of William Burges (1886). In his preface to Architectural Designs Pullan expressed the hope that illustrated volumes of his brother-in-law's work "would be warmly welcomed and thoroughly appreciated, not only by his professional brethern, but by all men of educated taste in Europe and America."

This hope was not to be fulfilled for a hundred years but Burges's work did continue to attract followers in Japan. Josiah Conder studied under him, and, through Conder's influence, the notable Japanese architect Tatsuno Kingo was articled to Burges in the year before the latter's death. Burges also received brief, but largely favourable, attention in Muthesius's Das Englische Haus, where Muthesius described him as "the most talented Gothicist of his day".

From the later twentieth century to the present a renaissance has occurred in the study of Victorian art, architecture and design and Crook contends that Burges's place at the centre of that world, as "a wide-ranging scholar, an intrepid traveller, a coruscating lecturer, a brilliant decorative designer and an architect of genius," is again appreciated. Crook writes further that, in a career of only some twenty years, he became "the most brilliant architect-designer of his generation," and, beyond architecture, his achievements in metalwork, jewellery, furniture and stained glass place him as Pugin's only "rival [.] as the greatest art-architect of the Gothic Revival."