Too much the hedonist to be God’s architect, Burges became something of a cult among Victorian enthusiasts
William Burges wouldn’t budge; resolutely stuck in 13th-century France and studious with it. Believing that French Gothic was the real deal (and that he understood it better than the French did themselves), he took it everywhere and to almost anything. Luckily, he inherited close to £10 million in today’s money to indulge himself in this fantasy, but it didn’t end well, he died of his exertions in his Tower House in Kensington at the age of just 53 in 1881.
He built, or rather restored, fortresses against reality, on the heels of Viollet-Le-Duc but nobly aided and abetted by illustrator Axel Haig; worlds as fantastical as the Brothers Grimm or Aesop. The Country Life set pay deference to this high Victorian dream, but in the midst of the horrors of the Industrial Revolution it was a reasonable consequence for the haute bourgeoisie to establish fictional historical legitimacy via the fabrication of an equally fictional physical past. As a mask, the word ‘playful’ is invariably deployed.
Burges’s Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch, both in south Wales and built for the third marquess of Bute, can make the old-fashioned Modernist decidedly queasy; with libraries too dark to read a book, exhortations to the Lords of all kinds and even ornate ‘Arab’ rooms dedicated to splendid crusades. But those infected with the collector’s taste, those appreciative of the arcane, the curious, esoteric not to say peculiar, will be goggle-eyed; so Burges has inspired Postmodern relish.
‘Gavin Stamp recognised “Billy” Burges becoming “something of a cult” among Victorian enthusiasts’
It was a career reassessed by J Mordaunt Crook in 1981 with the Strange Genius centenary exhibition at the National Museum of Wales and V&A. Subsequently, Gavin Stamp recognised ‘Billy’ Burges becoming ‘something of a cult’ among Victorian enthusiasts, Peter Davey admired his bringing architecture to a ‘luxuriant (and witty) high pitch’ and in these pages Dan Cruickshank celebrated the newly fashionable ‘eclecticism’. The decor of Castell Coch, completed by Burges’s numerous assistants after his death, is definitely eclectic, but this perhaps reflects the increasing influence of the client rather than Burges himself.
Previously the reputation of the serious medievalist had taken rather a bashing from the Nazis, the welfare state and even the British film industry in its Merrie England phase. Today Castell Coch’s gift shop thrives; Game of Thrones ascendant.
At Cardiff Castle, at least, the ancient keep still stands next door, reminding us of real chill and gloom, and such devotion to authenticity demanded the richest man in the world sleep in what today appears a rather miserable single bed (by Viollet-Le-Duc) at Castell Coch, protecting his fair maiden in her magnificent bedchamber below with its crystal balls for bedposts under golden Moorish vaulting. Despite Burges applying himself to newfangled water closets, it’s no wonder occupation was rare.
Burges as jester
The Tower House, London, 1875-81
St Fin Barre Cathedral, Cork, 1863
Cardiff Castle, 1866-1928
Castell Coch, south Wales, 1872-91
Gayhurst House, Bucks, 1858-65
Knightshayes Court, Devon, 1867-74
Church of Christ the Consoler, Yorks, 1870-76
St Mary’s, Studley Royal, Yorks, 1870-78
Park House, Cardiff, 1871-80
‘[Travel, for the architect, is] absolutely necessary to see how various art problems have been resolved in different ages by different men’
J Mordaunt Crook saw Burges as Pugin’s only ‘rival […] as the greatest art-architect of the Gothic Revival’. It is only in the last 30 years, however, that a significant revival of interest in him has surfaced
The third Bute’s father had developed the railways and port of Barry, enabling the export of coal from the Welsh valleys, engineered by Burges’s father’s company. To compound their luxury, the Butes had also married twice into big money and land, so the third marquess was afforded as scholarly and retiring a lifestyle as he might desire. Burges was indulged as somewhat the court jester, the marquess and his wife being seduced by the convinced medievalist and his beautiful things, while fretting over Burges’s bills and their own highly improbable bankruptcy. Here Bute’s interest in clairvoyance clearly proved unhelpful.
Conventionally, if you enjoy Burges at 15, you should be rid of him by 25. Burges himself remained obstinately Peter Pan as the world changed around him. He was tiny, fat and had ‘ridiculous glasses’ because he was myopic to the point he could hardly determine a peacock from a person; but was exceptional company when on form – which was not guaranteed – for he was also known for his hot temper, certainly when the fine wines and Tennyson flowed. But he would suffer the collywobbles the next morning and summon the doctors; he missed at least one wedding after overdoing the opium. He protected himself with objects; other intimacies seem irrelevant.
‘Burges was too much the hedonist to be God’s architect: the role that sent Pugin to Bedlam’
His Tower House was described as ‘massive, learned, glittering, amazing’ by WR Lethaby, and once attracted Liberace and David Bowie, but has been Jimmy Page’s since 1973 when he bought it from hell-raising actor Richard Harris. In this medieval suburban pile unable to accommodate light sockets (there is a modern extension) but superbly insulative, you might slumber deep in a room themed on the sea, or butterflies; and then take a gander at an astrology hall with zodiac symbols.
But Harris hallucinated the ghosts of orphaned children and by the mid 1970s Page had Kenneth Anger making Lucifer Rising in the basement. With all the Aleister Crowley vibes, and rooms stuffed with Page’s exquisite collection of Pre-Raphaelite Arts and Crafts (and, presumably, nefarious lounging new bohemians), Burges should have sprung back to life.
While a handy visionary and dreamer, Burges was too much the hedonist to be God’s architect: the role that sent Pugin to Bedlam. It’s no wonder religion looms large since it’s the primary source material, and Bute was also entwined with Catholic affairs. Burges was rather the enthusiastic freemason and scholar who seemed to be able to turn his hand to almost anything; from cathedrals in Brisbane, an art school for Bombay, a chimney piece for Lord Charrington, to miscellaneous furniture, lecterns, candelabra, pulpits, goblets and even bishops’ mitres, and not everybody can take pride in disguising a dumb waiter as a Catholic confessional.
Visiting that Anglican stab at the Irish Catholics, St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork, you feel his obsession to the point of oppression. His stained-glass evocations of ancient biblical stories are magnificently spooky, and they are not the only miraculous effects. Packed with 1,260 pieces of Burges sculpture, and graced with three towers, Burges managed to make St Fin Barre’s look huge while actually being quite small, little larger than a church. The costs were inappropriately astronomical.
Today, standing in front of the west portal, you are affected not only by that sense of déjà vu, but of après vu; the peculiar sensation that while we are not yet in the world of Legoland, we are almost on the same page.
William burgess jewellery designs
Burges came close to winning the big one with his competition entry for London’s Law Courts in 1866; a virtual Camelot, but instead Bute’s castles became his consolation prize. Lady Gwen Bute thought him a ‘duck’, and failing to find anything for the marquess who had everything but didn’t want it, even asked Burges to fashion his birthday presents.
Just before his death, Burges came up with a silver cruet: miniature men, looking a bit like goblins, staggering under the weight of the sacks of commodity. If it isn’t absolutely vulgar, it at least represents a slip-up regarding the dignity of labour, and the presentation of such a grotesque on the table of the richest man in Britain dooms Burges, certainly in the light of the more politically minded William Morris, who led us towards that (equal and opposite) dream of a lyrically efficient machine age to follow only 40 years later. Poor ‘Ugly Burges’ (as he was known to his pals) or, as Lady Bute put it, ‘Ugly Burges who makes beautiful things’.