The office in William Burges's chambers, 15 Buckingham Street, London 1876
Vita Nova Washstand
One such detour occurred as I was putting together the piece on the designer Edwin Lutyens a few weeks ago (that I wrote about HERE ). I chanced to find a photo of the Vita Nova washstand designed by one William Burges –– a man whose work I admired during the velvet-and-lace-jabot period of my youth but had lost touch with as time passed. The washstand was great fun with its topside-reservoir providing running water to fill the basin and to wash hands (you can see a video about how it works HERE –– it's very cool).
Even the marble washbowl has a shimmering charm–– the silver inlaid fish appear to swim when the sink is full of water –––
I know many people think Victorian Gothic is dark and dreary. I have always had just the opposite reaction to the style. Admittedly, my grandparents had a big old barn with a bit of the Gothic to it and I loved its nooks and crannies –– fondness for it was bred in my youthful bones and I have long thought the style was a reflection of the ambitious, onward-and-upward of the age (I wrote about the American take on Gothic HERE).
Victorian Gothic was a dizzy mix of showing off and wanting to have an anchor in the past as the industrial age was taking off and that past was disappearing –– new money wanted to look like old money. If you hadn't inherited a castle you could make your own. It was a very man-made style with a lot of craftsmanship involved in carving the swooping arches (that always remind me of forest canopies), trefoils and gargoyles – craftsmanship and color –– jewel-like and super saturated like my favorite illustrations for fairytales. I love saturated colors and so did Burges who saw no reason “why we should not have buildings in smoky London glowing with imperishable color.”
This little trek down memory lane may have ended with a visit to Wikipedia and a bit of disappointment that there was so little written about Burges but no, another thing caught my eye and drove me back to do some further digging on the subject. I discovered my ne plus ultra of guitar players, Mr. Jimmy Page was a huge Burges fan when he confessed, "I had an interest going back to my teens in the pre-Raphaelite movement and the architecture of Burges," he said. "What a wonderful world to discover."
Jimmy Page? Led Zeppelin guitarist, Jimmy Page? Yup. He’s also a serious lover of Victorian gothic and William Burges.
I discovered in a BBC article that Jimmy Page bought what had been Burges' own house called the The Tower House in 1972. That’s a fan.
Page said, "I was still finding things 20 years after being there - a little beetle on the wall or something like that... It's Burges' attention to detail that is so fascinating."
Tower House bedroom, Country Living
Go figure, a Rock God loves a Victorian flight of fancy. You can’t make this stuff up. First guitar-smashing Pete Townsend of The Who buys Ashdown (a Baroque love nest I wrote about HERE), now I read Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin has owned his Victorian Gothic dream house since his early days of super-stardom. In the case of the Tower House, the story gets better.
Tower House had languished for years after its last tenant politely withdrew–– the poet John Betjeman shared Burges love of ecclesiastical architecture and was a founding member of the Victorian Society but lacked the wherewithal to give the house the care it needed so he walked away in the early 60’s. Liberace was all set to buy it in 1968 –– until edgy, hard living actor Richard Harris heard about the deal and swooped in to clutch it from Liberace’s bejeweled grasp for a song (£75,000).
You might imagine Harris would have hipped the place up to match the swinging lifestyle for which he was famous –– you know, Lucite, steel and bad Victorian furniture upholstered in virulently colored plush. Au contraire, Harris actually engaged the original decorating company for the house (Campbell Smith & Company –– still gilding up a storm today) and dug up original plans to bring the never-quite-finished house to its well-deserved glorious completion (Burges died shortly after moving in leaving projects undone).
Just goes to show you, don’t always judge a book by its cover when it comes to matching people with their homes. Divination of the relationship between places and their owners is often far more nuanced and surprising than one first imagines –– rock stars restore and heavily titled aristos destroy fine old houses –– or vice versa. You never know.
William Burges 1827-1881
Burges design for the smoking room at Cardiff Castle
William Burges by Henry Van der Weyde
Cardiff Castle, Arab room ceiling – very trippy in a kalaidascopy way
Although Burges began studying construction, he soon moved to architecture and signed on with historical novelist, Sir Walter Scott’s friend Edward Blore (working on Buckingham, Lambeth and St James Palaces) and then with Matthew Digby Wyatt working on his authoritative books on Metalwork and Industrial Arts of the 19th Century. He left that to tour France and Italy and write of Domestic Architecture of France with Henry Clutton.
Burges was a great believer that all architects should travel to increase their style vocabularies. He was a huge fan of medieval restoration expert, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (you'll love his Dictionnaire raisonné du mobilier Français, it's full of wonderful engravings). The opposing view was held by John Ruskin who felt Viollet-le-Duc’s technique of altering ancient buildings was "a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed." Much of Burges’ work involved significant alterations to existing structures, not new construction, although in many cases it involved re-building and topping off ruins not knocking them down.
Burges was known to have a passing addiction to opium (which may have enhanced his already dreamy nature), and was friendly with all the Pre-Raphaelites. On his deathbed his last visitors were Oscar Wilde and James McNeill Whistler. He was known to be “eccentric, unpredictable, overindulgent and flamboyant” as well as so nearsighted he once mistook a peacock for a man. He was also child-like by all account. Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote;
"There's a babyish party called Burges,
Who from childhood hardly emerges.
If you hadn't been told,
He's disgracefully old,
You would offer a bull's-eye to Burges."
Knightshayes Court drawing
Few of the buildings that he did complete remain. Of those Cardiff Castle, Coch Castle and Knightshayes Court are open to the public (Burges was sacked from completing Knightshayes by its owner and the design was completed by J.D.Crace) – sadly Tower House is not, unless you are a pal of Mr. Page. Also, the Victoria and Albert Museum has a splendid collection of his furniture and art pieces –– yes, he was not just an architect he also designed superb furniture…
The Zodiac Settle (“painted, stenciled and gilded wood, decorated with rock crystal and slips of vellum”)
Drawings for Yatman cabinet, V&A
Drawings for Yatman cabinet, V&A
… and amazing objects, glass, tile and wallpaper for his clients.
drawings for jar, V&A
14th c mazer, V&A
The Burges Decanter, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Chalice 1867 V&A
Epergne 1880-1 V&A
Wallpaper sample 1870 V&A
In researching for my Sauce Series, I have tried to cover all the classic mother sauces and their permutations but I also find it interesting to present some bygone relics that have fallen from grace and are forgotten. In that, I feel a certain fellowship with Burges who loved to mine the past for inspiration for the present.
I came across a beauty in my wonderful book Le Repertoire De La Cuisine (that I told you about HERE) called Sauce Romaine made with caramel, vinegar reduced stock and pignoli nuts with raisins. It is one of the sweet and sour family of sauces with ancient roots. One version was made with demi-glace and another with Espagnole (one of the mother sauces). I believe the inspiration for it may be very old. Raymonia is a medieval dish based on the Arabic Rummaniya with a sauce of pomegranate, ground almonds and sugar –– an ancient agrodolce (an Arabic-influenced Sicilian sweet and sour sauce still popular today like a gastrique). Not much of a stretch to go to the raisins and pine nuts of Sauce Romaine. After a thousand-odd years, this family of sauces is still divine with grilled poultry, game birds or pork or, as luck would have it, a small boar roast from D'Artagnan. It's also fat free, full of flavor and actually good for you with all that lovely reduced stock.
Wild Boar Roast with Sauce Romaine
1 D'Artagnan small boar roast or a pork roast (about 1 1/2 pounds)
salt and pepper
1 T olive oil
2 carrots, sliced
1 small onion, sliced
Brussel sprouts, sliced (optional)
2 t chopped herbs (sage or thyme would be nice)
Preheat the oven to 375º. Toss the vegetables in some of the oil an put in the bottom of a small heavy pan. Oil the roast and rub with salt and pepper and herbs. Put the roast on top of the vegetables and roast for about 35 minutes or until the inner temperature is 140º.
It comes with a string covering which you can remove but it will spread. It is better to leave it on or tie it up so the roast cooks properly (so some isn't overdone).
Tent the meat and rest for 10 minutes. Place the vegetables on the platter and slice the roast. Spoon the sauce over the roast and serve warm or room temperature.
2 T sugar
1/2 c vinegar
1 c demi-glace from D'Artagnan
2 T Sauce Espagnole (optional)
1/2 c white raisins
1/4 c pignoli nuts
Melt the sugar gently in a heavy pan. When it melts and browns remove from the heat and add the vinegar. Reduce it to a thin syrupy consistency. Add the demi-glace and raisins and reduce somewhat.
The sauce will thicken on its own as it cools - the raisins will also soak up some of the sauce so don't go nuts reducing it. Serve it warm or at room temperature.