Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Dare to dream

"The most dazzling exponent of the High Victorian Dream. Pugin conceived that dream; Rossetti and Burne-Jones painted it; Tennyson sang its glories; Ruskin and Morris formulated its philosophy; but only Burges built it."
Mordaunt Crook

William Burges may or may not have been gay (he certainly never married, and his dilettante friends in the High Victorian era were quite a fey lot - Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Millais and the like). He definitely was not reknowned for his good looks (Gwendolen, Lady Bute called him "Dear Burges, ugly Burges who designed such lovely things").

But my dears, what an exercise in campery were his architectural designs!

He designed the most outrageously over-the-top castle in Cardiff for the richest man in Britain in the 1860s, the Marquis of Bute, and not content with that built another - Castell Coch - just up the road!


Cardiff Castle Clock Tower

Cardiff Castle is considered to be one of the finest examples of the Gothic Medievalist style (outside the Palace of Westminster) so favoured in the mid-Victorian era. Not a pillar nor a beam, a nook or a cranny, was spared the sumptuous, often gilded, detail that Burges specialised in. Reflecting a variety of exotic fantasies - Arabesque, Germanic, feudal French and Old English - parts of the castle were deliberately designed to invoke places that both the Marquess and Burges had visited on their travels.


The Arab Room


The Great Fireplace

Castell Coch, an entirely Medieval construct with its galleries around the central courtyard, provided the Butes with a fairytale "feudal country estate", when in fact their land and estates were built largely on the back of the far more pedestrian coal industry. Surprisingly, the family never used it for much more than a few months, and the Marquis himself never visited it after its completion.


Castell Coch

Not content with building just for his patrons (who also included Lord Carrington, the Marquess of Ripon and Sir John Heathcoat-Amory), Burges built his own house - which he dubbed the "Palace of the Arts" - The Tower House in Kensington. Another exercise in faux-medievalism, this dramatic residence also provided him with an opportunity to design and create more elaborate furniture, metalwork, glass and decoration to suit his own peculiar world - famously described as that of "an opium-addicted bachelor Gothicist who dressed in medieval costume."


The Tower House

Burges died prematurely in 1881, aged just 53. Some concluded his opium habit may have been a contributory factor. In hindsight, it was probably just as well he didn't live to see the volte-face that hit the late and post-Victorian period, when fanciful Gothic architecture and designs such as his began to be scorned (even despised) by the "back-to-basics" fanatics of the Arts and Crafts movement, and by the proponents of the new industrial "modern" taste.

Read more about William Burges

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