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The Eclecticism of William Burges

Architect, designer, and an eccentric, William Burges was a prominent Gothic-revivalist whose designs in architecture, furniture, stained glass, and sculpture fused his vision of the Middle Ages, the observations from his extensive travels, and his own personality, creating in his work a new, eclectic style. As a master of detail and fantasy, Burges' attention reached from the walls and the stained glass windows of a building to each chair, dressing table, and vase in the rooms, giving his work aesthetic harmony.

Burges' training came from not only his upbringing and schooling -- his father was a civil engineer and Burges studied the science of construction at King's College -- but also from his travels. Burges went to France and Belgium, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Spain and Portugal, Italy, Sicily and Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Scandinavia and Japan, sketching and absorbing the architectural marvels, wall painting, and manuscripts in each country, particularly French Gothic, whose heavy forms and thick columns Burge admired for their "boldness, breadth, strength, sternness and virility," and the Japanese Court, whose egg-shell china, lacquer cabinets, suits of armour, textiles, and ivory ornaments, just to begin, retained the medieval techniques that had deserted Europe.

Burges believed that Pre-Raphaelitism and Gothicism went hand in hand. Color, faithfulness to his eye, and attention to detail were the founding principles of his designs, and he was a devoted follower of Pugin. Burges sought to control every aspect of his architectural commissions, designing elaborate decorative schemes in wood, stone, metal, paint, and marble to adorn the interiors and exteriors of his buildings. Stonework, woodwork, metal-work, glasswork -- all had to harmonize and conform to his own vision.

One of his major works is the St. Finbar's Cathedral in Cork, begun in 1862. He not only conceived and designed the building as a whole, but supervised every detail. His design recalls a thirteenth-century French cathedral, with aisles, towers, spires, and sculpture. For Burges, the sculpture, decoration, and furniture had to have a balanced relationship with the architecture. In St. Finbar's the colorful, lively decoration remains in equilibrium with the mass and scale of the architecture. Burges specifically designed his sculpture and furniture to fit in with the architectural structures and the richly painted interiors. He personally designed each of the 1,260 pieces of sculpture built into the Cork Cathedral. One example is Burges' carving of the four Evangelistic Beasts around the rose window, executed in such a way that the rim of the window confines the beasts without subduing their forcefulness, creating a balance between the geometry and weight of the window and the rocky, thrusting beasts.

His furniture was painted, and the decoration, in form and content, related directly to the painted interiors that housed them and to the function of the piece. He used bright colors and mini Pre-Raphaelite panels to adorn his boxy furniture designs. Burges painted his Bookcase (1859-62), holding art books, with panelled scenes emblematic of Christian and Pagan art. His painted decoration, stained glass, and mosaic, as well as his metalwork and jewellery, are a blend of thirteenth-century Gothic, Renaissance, Japanese, Assyrian, Islamic, and Byzantine styles, among others, and his own personal imagination. His vision for his house, designed himself, provides a ready example of his style. The house of Burges' dreams was to be of perfect Medieval pattern, full of quaint carvings, and blazing color, hung with costly stuffs embroidered in gold, and lighted by silver lattices whose stories panes were of cut gems. He was to have jewelled chalices to drink from, and aloe and sandal wood to burn. [Crook 43]

In every aspect of design, Burges created a colourful, forceful vision, looking back to the Middle Ages but also, in combining elements of other periods and styles, creating a new Victorian style that was eclectic, glittering, and fantastic.

Adrienne Johnson '05, English and History of Art 151, Brown University, 2004

William Burges was the son of a prosperous civil engineer; educated at King's College, London, and articled to Edward Blore in 1844. In 1849 he went into the office of Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt where he worked on drawings of mediaeval metalwork for Wyatt's large book, Metalwork, which appeared in 1852. In 1855 and 1856 Burges made prize-winning designs for Lille Cathedral and the Crimea Memorial Church in Constantinople, but neither building was carried out; his first important ecclesiastical design to be realised being St Fin Barre's Cathedral, Cark, which he began in 1862. In this same year with William Slater he devised the Mediaeval Court for the International Exhibition in London on behalf of the Ecclesiological Society with whom he had been involved since 1845; his knowledge of metalwork and mediaeval antiquities in general was greatly respected.

In his decorative work he tempered his expert knowledge with a quirky sense of humour, he said himself, "There are some people who..consider mediaeval art as eminently ecclesiastical, and therefore profoundly serious to be approached with caution, forgetting that mankind has been very much the some in every age, and that our ancestors joked and laughed as much as we do".

This attitude is exemplified repeatedly in the ornamental details of his decorative work. Burges stamped his personality unmistakably on the commissions which he undertook for the Marquess of Bute at Cardiff Castle and in the designing of his own house in Melbury Rood.


WILLIAM BURGES - (1827-81)

William Burges was one of the most imaginative designers of the 19th century. A plump, bustling, short sighted little bachelor, Burges was regarded by many as eccentric. He had a passion for the world of the Middle Ages, and especially for Gothic architecture. Calling himself an 'art-architect', he placed great importance upon the decoration and furnishing of his buildings. Burges' taste for rich effects in sculpture, murals, mosaic and stained glass made him an extremely expensive architect to employ. Consequently, few people could afford him.

'Billy' Burges was born near London in 1827, the son of a marine engineer. His enthusiasm for mediaeval architecture dated to his youth, and at the age of 17 he was articled to the architect Edward Blore.

Burges had his own highly individual style combined with an explosive temper, so it isn't surprising that his early partnership with another architect was short-lived before he set up in practice by himself in London. He had a keen sense of fun, and his designs are often enlivened with jokes and puns.

His scholarly reputation enabled him to undertake restoration schemes; ecclesiastical and secular projects gradually followed, and by the time he was in his 40's, Burges was working on several major commissions, including a cathedral in Ireland, a country house, churches and his extraordinary Welsh castles. He died in 1881, aged 53, in the house he had built for himself only a short time before.

He designed numerous buildings across the British Isles. Three of these buildings are in Cardiff: Castell Coch, Cardiff Castle and Park House.

In 2005, when Cardiff celebrates 100 years as a City and 50 years as the Capital City of Wales, it will also celebrate the work of Burges and his influence over the built heritage of Cardiff. But celebrating William Burges isn't just about castles and grand houses. In Cardiff some of the most humble Victorian terraced houses are influenced to some extent by one of the most imaginative architects of the 19th Century.

Cardiff Castle, Castell Coch and Park House are all distinctive, ornate and colourful buildings. However, if you visit Cardiff's Victorian suburbs you will not see streets of two-up, two-down terraces with front doors opening onto the pavement, but mostly terraced houses with bay windows, ornately carved stone mouldings, and highly decorative tiled front porches. Maybe not what one would expect alongside what was once the biggest coal port in the world!

Glasgow has Mackintosh, Barcelona has Gaudi and Cardiff has Burges. Cardiff's association with a distinctive architect is probably less well known, but the association is just as strong and distinctive. Burges first arrived in Cardiff in 1865 and his involvement continued up to his death in 1881, but his influence on buildings here continued for many decades, ranging from the humble terrace to some very grand buildings such as Insole Court and the Pier Head Building.

The 2nd Marquis of Bute triggered Cardiff's transformation from a small settlement into a huge trading port. This saw the population grow from under 2,000 in 1801, to 164,000 by 1901. It was the 3rd Marquis that provided a touch of finesse to this transformation. He employed William Burges to transform Cardiff Castle into a Gothic feudal extravaganza. Burges influenced the young Marquis, who made sure that Cardiff was built to a certain standard and in a certain style.

Whilst the working class inhabitants of Cardiff's Victorian terraces may not have enjoyed the splendour and luxury of Cardiff Castle, they did enjoy a style of housing that was perhaps above the ordinary. Bathstone dressings and coursed pennant rubblework gives the quality appearance to typical Cardiff Victorian terraced houses, with their predominantly gothic features. This was achieved mainly through leasehold control. Unlike most Victorian settlements, almost of all the land in Victorian Cardiff was leased to developers, and not sold as freehold. The Bute estate occupied about one third of this land mass, thus ensuring the direct influence of Burges, via the 3rd Marquis. The 3rd Marquis laid down the standards and even employed architects to ensure that houses were built to his taste.

Good quality Victorian housing brought ground rents to match. This persuaded other land owners to follow the fashion set by Burges and Bute. Hence the predominance of this style of gothic architecture and decorative use of materials. Walk through Pontcanna and you will see that the appearance of houses built on leasehold land is quite different to those built on freehold land. There is a complete mix of housing, some of which looks more like typical working class Victorian housing.

The quantity of Victorian Housing that exists in the UK is extensive, and about 85% of that in England and Wales is terraced. Their occupation groups range from the social housing tenant, to the highest social class. Most people have probably lived in a terraced house at some time in their lives, and in Cardiff, there is every likelihood that its architecture was influenced by Burges. Cardiff Council, with numerous partners including the Victorian Society, Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, Chartered Institute of Building, Cadw, Institute of Historic Building Conservation and Cardiff University's Welsh School of Architecture and School of Lifelong Learning, have put together a series of events that examine and celebrate William Burges and how he helped shape Cardiff's built heritage, in context with the rest of Wales and the UK.

Understanding and caring for Victorian architecture today, isn't just about castles, grand houses and churches, it's also about the humble terraced house. Grand buildings like Cardiff Castle are privileged to have the best expertise available to provide understanding and the best possible treatment. This results in work that respects and retains its character and historic integrity, but also provides the best technical solutions. There are many areas where the same approach and treatment could be of so much benefit to the humble terraced house, and it is partly the aim of the Burges celebrations to share knowledge about how to care for all our Victorian buildings.


William Burges, 1827-1881

Nationality: English
Date of Birth: 2 December 1827
Place of Birth: London
Date of Death: 20 April 1881
Place of Death: Kensington, London

William Burges was a Gothic Revivalist architect and designer. He was the eldest son of Alfred Burges, a prosperous marine engineer and partner of James Walker, who carried out military and civil government projects.

Burges received his education at King's College School, London, from 1839, where he was a contemporary of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and where he studied under John Sell Cotman. In 1843 he began to study engineering, but left to work in the office of the surveyor Edward Blore. There he worked on the restoration of Westminster Abbey. In 1849 he joined the office of Matthew Digby Wyatt, the Special Commissioner and Secretary to the Great Exhibition of 1851, and contributed to the official record of the exhibition, The Industrial Arts of the Nineteenth Century, 2 vols (1851-1853).

In 1851 Burges began working for Henry Clutton on his Remarks with Illustrations on the Domestic Architecture of France (1853) and on various ecclesiastical and domestic commissions, including the restoration of the Chapter House at Salisbury Cathedral (1854-1856). In 1855 Burges became Clutton's partner and won a competition for Lille Cathedral, although the project came to nothing. In 1856 their partnership broke up.

Burges was deeply influenced by the work of A. W. N. Pugin and in the 1860s, by Islamic and oriental design. He made regular study trips in Britain and Europe, copying the medieval monuments he saw. At the International Exhibition of 1862 he was responsible for the laying out of the Medieval Court.

In the 1860s and 1870s Burges worked on a prestigious commission at Cardiff Castle for John Patrick Crichton Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute. He demolished or completely re-designed the earlier work of Holland and Smirke, giving the castle a dramatic exterior with towers, pinnacles and crenellations, and sumptous interiors. Burges's working practice formed an interesting precursor to that of the architects of the Aesthetic Movement in that he sought to control every aspect of his architectural commissions, designing elaborate decorative schemes in wood, stone, metal, paint and marble to adorn the interiors and exteriors of his buildings.

Burges was friendly with the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, William Morris and their circle.


email: John and Chrissie - theartsandcraftshome@gmail.com