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Drawing Room

Left to right: Drawing Room ceiling showing the butterfly-embellished stone vault ribs. Another view of the ceiling, showing the minstrels' gallery: notice the heron on the left, flying correctly with its neck tucked in and its legs trailing. Lower part of the mural depicting figures from Aesop's Fables, such as the clever magpie and the "quack frog" (both near centre), by H. W. Lonsdale, with flower panelling beneath. Chimneypiece showing the Three Fates, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos with representation of infancy, youth and age under them; Atropos's scissors are poised to cut the thread of life .

The Drawing Room has been described as the "pièce de resistance of Burges's work at Castell Coch" (McLees 41), and perhaps it is the single most beautiful room that Burges ever created. It is hard to do justice to the effect of its very steeply vaulted ceiling, which rises another two storeys. It has eight highly decorated and gilded stone ribs embellished with different kinds of butterflies, ascending towards a circle at the centre made up of larger butterflies, wing to wing. The ceiling is painted with stars, more butterflies and a variety of birds, from parrots (which Burges particularly loved) to herons. There are butterflies too inside the deep recesses of the gallery. Picking out some of the other motifs in the room, such as the chrysalis and the bird's nest, J. Mordaunt Crook explains that "The theme is Life and Death in Nature," adding, with reference to the portraits hanging round the walls, "Bute and his ancestors float within the flux of time, below the blue sky of eternity" (William Burges and the High Victorian Dream, 282). The architectural work was inspired here as elsewhere by Viollet-le-Duc, in this case most notably by his work at the Château de Pierrefonds and his plans for the Château de Coucy (see McLees 41), and was completed before Burges's death. So too were other important elements of the room. In particular, the chimneypiece with its dramatic reminder of human mortality was designed by Burges and executed as usual by Thomas Nicholls. However, according to David McLees the colour scheme and some of the decorative touches, such as the "softer" murals, completed in the later 1880s, show a dilution of High Gothic by the influence of Godwin and Morris (43). Perhaps so, but the net result is still very "Burgesian."

Lady Bute's Bedroom

Lady Bute's Bedroom, left to right: Double dome of the bedroom ceiling, with the upper part mirrored; visible here is one of the thin metal ties that cross just above the chandelier. The bedstead was designed after an illustration by Viollet-le-Duc, except for the addition of the crystal balls; the colourful chair, one of a pair in the room, was copied from an original Burges design. Lady Bute's washstand was made for the room by John Starling Chapple, a long-standing and devoted member of Burges's team, in 1891; its towers house the hot and cold water cisterns. Like the chairs, the painted cupboard in the bedroom is a faithful copy of a Burges design.

Left to right: Fireplace and chair. Faucet and basin in the washstand seen above. Carved birds, leaves, and plums. Birds, pine needles, and pine cones. [Additional photographs by Robert Freidus.]

"Lady Bute's circular bedroom is magnificent, set beneath a glorious mirrored dome," writes Matthew Williams (12). The theme here is of the Sleeping Beauty, hence the motif of tangled vegetation seen in the gilded ceiling panels. Again, the room was completed according to Burges's drawings, though with later ideas and trends glimpsed in the style and colours of the painting. For instance, the monkeys round the lowest circle of ceiling panels, which the Marquess considered quite inappropriate, were painted later by the firm of Campbell, Smith & Co. — though note that the firm's founder, Charles Campbell, was also in charge of the painting of the Arab Room, the Octagon staircase and so on at Cardiff Castle (see Crook, William Burges and the High Victorian Dream, figs. 160 and 161, and 157). But fashions do change, and Burges, who remained more faithful to High Victorianism than most of his peers, and who in that respect developed little from one project to another, was no longer there to hold back the tide. There does seem to be some incongruity here, between the exoticism of the Moorish ceiling, chairs and cupboard, and, say, the paler, more dainty Morris-like flower stencilling around the tops of the windows. Again, though, thanks to the glittering ceiling and the eye-catching furniture items, the overall feel is rich, exotic and typical of Burges. As for the medieval French design of the bedstead, Stefan Muthesius writes that Viollet-le-Duc's Dictionnaire du Mobilier Français (1855-8) "must have been a mine of information for Burges, Street and others" (114).

Note

Campbell, Smith & Co. is still one of the top names in specialist "heritage" decoration today. For example, it was recently responsible for the much-praised refurbishment of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London. Interestingly, it is based in Fleet, Hampshire, where Burges built the local church of All Saints. The point here is that, as mentioned earlier, Burges assembled the very best contemporary craftsmen to carry out his work, and had a very close relationship with them. Thus, under the guidance of his assistant and clerk of works in Cardiff, William Frame, work carried on after his death very much if not completely as he would have wanted it.

Doorway Decoration, Lord Bute's Bedroom, and the Well Room

Left to right: Branches and birds in the arch of a doorway. Stencilled panelling on a doorway. Washstand in Lord Bute's Bedroom. Part of the metal pump for drawing water from the well, in the Well Tower.

One critic feels that the rooms in Castell Coch are decorated just as lavishly as those of Cardiff Castle, "although maybe more whimsically as befits this occasional retreat," and that "Burges was less pedantic about the scholarly correctness of the interior than he was at Cardiff" (Jones 52). Some of this is questionable. While there are many rich decorative details like those shown above, none of the rooms is quite as overwhelmingly ornamented as, for example, the Winter Smoking Room is at Cardiff Castle. Moreover, Lady Margaret's Bedroom and Lord Bute's bedroom are quite meagrely decorated. The latter was originally expected to be on an upper level of the Keep Tower, but was relegated to the gatehouse as more ambitious plans developed for the vaulted drawing room. But it was perfectly appropriate for its intended occupant, since it has access to the fighting gallery overlooking the bridge, and is just over the winch room with its portcullis. In other words, it is at the very heart of the castle's defences. As for "scholarly correctness," Burges and Bute certainly worked hard on architectural correctness, even excavating the old well at the bottom of the Well Tower and installing a working metal pump, though the plumbing in the castle was actually state-of-the-art for its time, with radiators, cisterns and so on. However, it is true that Burges was "less pedantic" about the interiors of the main rooms, with their mix of medieval and more exotic elements. There are no "fantasy capsules" of the order of Cardiff Castle's Arab Room here (Crook, William Burges and the High Victorian Dream, 278). How much this is due to Burges's early death, and his lack of control over the final effects, is uncertain.

Other Views and Related Material

Questions

Early on, Burges decided that he liked "French Gothic around 1300" (Handley-Read 496). To what extent did his style become fixed? How important is it for an artist to develop? Is it possible to achieve a recognisable style, and still move with the times?

Is it true that Burges "was closer to Ruskin's earlier outlook on art" than Morris was (Muthesius 116)?

In 1837, Burges wrote that architects should "turn painters, figure painters" (qtd. in Muthesius 154). How and to what effect did he himself put this belief into practice?

Selected Bibliography

Crook, J. Mordaunt. "Burges, William (1827-1881)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Viewed August 2009.

Crook, J. Mordaunt. The Dilemma of Style: Architectural Ideas from the Picturesque to the Post-Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Crook, J. Mordaunt. William Burges and the High Victorian Dream. London: Murray, 1981.

Cruickshank, Dan, ed. Sir Banister Fletcher's A History of Architecture (20th ed.). Oxford: Architectural Press, 1996.

Handley-Read. "Notes on William Burges's Painted Furniture." The Burlington Magazine. Vol. 105, No. 728 (Nov. 1963): 496-510.

Jones, Nigel. Architecture of England, Scotland, and Wales. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 2005.

McLees, David. Castell Coch. Cardiff: Cadw (Crown Copyright), rev. ed. 2005.

Marsh, Jan. William Morris & Red House: A Collaboration between Architect and Owner. London: Anova Books, 2005.

Muthesius, Stefan. The High Victorian Movement in Architecture, 1850-1870. London: Routledge, 1972.

Newman, John, et al. Glamorgan (Buildings of Wales, Vol. 3). New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Williams, Matthew. William Burges, 1827-81. Andover, Hants: Jarrold Publishing (Pitkin Guide), 2007.


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Last modified 5 January 2012