22 Apr 2021

William Burges (1827 – 1881) was a Gothic Revival architect and master of the pre-Raphaelite painted furniture movement, which flourished between 1855 and 1862. His mediaeval antique dining tables and elaborately painted antique bookcases are a gothic fantasy, totally removed from the industrialisation of the time.

Burges was the son of a civil engineer and trained as an architect. Initially he worked for Matthew Digby Wyatt in 1851 assisting him with the designs for the Medieval Court at the Great Exhibition. This, together with the designs he brought back from his travels in the Middle East and the Orient, were to have a profound effect on his work.

Antique dining tables and Welsh fairytales

In 1856, Burges had his own architectural practice, his first major commission being St Finbarre’s cathedral in Cork. A number of other commissions followed, culminating in a commission from the Marquess of Bute to redesign Cardiff Castle and reconstruct the ruins of Castle Coch.

With an almost unlimited budget, Burges was free to indulge his wildest mediaeval fantasies, the magnificently over-the-top Arabic Room and Smoking Rooms of Cardiff Castle are masterpieces of High Gothic design. Lancashire visitors can view his flamboyant Victorian dining tables and opulent antique cabinets in their original settings. Another of his masterpieces was Knightshayes Court. All three are open to the public.

Burges’ final work was the design of his own home, The Tower House. The painted antique bookcases and cabinets he designed here were his finest yet. Many ended up in museums, but one – the Zodiac Settle – went on sale in August 2010 for £800,000.

Painted antique bookcases and the Arts & Crafts Furniture designers

Between 1852 and 1863, Burges exhibited a number of pieces, at a time when William Morris was also producing painted furniture. Burges’ elaborately beautiful antique cabinets and bookcases – including the Yatman Cabinet and Great Bookcase – now reside in the V & A museum alongside the Arts & Crafts Furniture masters.

Interestingly, in 1862 one of Burges’ antique bookcases was commissioned for Warington Taylor, who worked for Morris. A number of pre-Raphaelite artists associated with the Arts & Crafts movement, for example Rossetti, painted designs on Burges’ antique cabinets, bookcases and settles.

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