Saturday 2 December 2017

Billy Burges, Birthday Boy

Born on this day 190 years ago was the extraordinary Victorian architect and designer William Burges. He was so 'Gothic' that he wrote in vellum notebooks and had a working portcullis on his London house – but, unlike the more solemn Gothic revivalists, he also regarded the whole thing as an opportunity to have fun, to let the imagination run riot. His fantastically exuberant interiors – as at Cardiff Castle and the nearby Castell Coch – are full of visual jokes and flights of fancy, and give the unmistakable impression of a man enjoying himself (how very unlike, say, Augustus Welby Pugin).
 Burges was not yet 30 when, with Henry Clutton, he won the competition to design a new cathedral for Lille, but politics ensured that the winning design was passed over in favour of another (eventually abandoned and perfunctorily finished off when it was half built). His design for Cork Cathedral (impeccable 'Early French'), however, was built, and he went on to create a range of extraordinary buildings, mostly for very rich patrons in rather remote places. All his best interiors offer the complete Burges Gothic experience, designed down to the smallest detail, decorated and furnished entirely with Burges's own creations. The effect is overwhelming, but in a thoroughly enjoyable way, with a wonderfully inventive use of colour and form. It's best taken in small doses though - after a while it's just too much.
 'Billy' Burges was a curiously child-like, impish figure, eccentric and flamboyant even by the standards of the Victorian art world. Short, fat and ill-favoured, he particularly enjoyed prancing around in medieval garb – but he was popular and clubbable, and professionally very successful (even if many of his projects never got built). His death was probably accelerated by his addiction to both opium and tobacco (and the opium might well have shaped some of his more extravagant designs). Having fallen ill on a working visit to Cardiff, he lay dying in his London home (the extraordinary Tower House in Holland Park) for three weeks. Among the visitors to his deathbed were Whistler and Oscar Wilde.

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