William Burges and Saint Fin Barre’s

You may recall my delight in finding so much animal imagery in the Honan Chapel at UCC. In Cork City again this week we discovered another ‘menagerie’ – this time at the Cathedral of Saint Fin Barre. This Gothic Revival building is an architectural and artistic wonder – quite the most significant work that I have seen to date from the palette of English designer William Burges, who lived from 1827 to 1881. In fact it is an early work of his, resulting from an architectural competition which he won in 1863 (receiving a prize of £100). Unusually for an ambitious building such as a cathedral, it was finished in a relatively short time: the first services were held in 1870 – although completion of some of the detailed carving and decoration continued through to the twentieth century.

Everything in the cathedral was designed by William Burges: stained glass windows (74 of them, incorporating twice as many individual scenes); statuary (1,260 pieces of sculpture); brasswork, floor mosaics and wood carvings. Most striking for me is the complete coherence of the building: the genesis of the design work from a single mind – down to the very last constructed item – is visually obvious and I am, of course, professionally jealous that an architect was allowed to completely indulge himself to this level of detail, apparently without the intervention or censorship of clients, building inspectors or planning authorities! The cost of the building project overran its budget some tenfold…

Whole books could (and have been) written about this building and all its intricacies. In this short post I will concentrate mainly on the iconography, especially animal images, because it’s obvious that Burges shares my own enthusiasms for the natural world. There’s much more of this than I can illustrate here, and considerably more to the whole building that’s well worth seeing. I advise you to allow an afternoon – or a day – when you visit, if you want to really get to grips with everything.

A little about the man himself, although biographical information is scant: he was described during his lifetime as “short and fat” and “so near-sighted that he once mistook a Peacock for a man”. Lady Bute, wife of his greatest patron, wrote, “…Dear Burges, ugly Burges, who designed such lovely things – what a duck…” He was undoubtedly an eccentric, attending site meetings on occasion dressed as a medieval jester. Like many of his contemporaries he smoked opium (the overdoing of which is said to have contributed to his early death) and he was a friend of Oscar Wilde, James Whistler and – according to the architectural historian Joseph Mordaunt Crook – “the whole gamut of pre-Raphaelite London”.

Three views of the eccentric William Burges: portrait by Henry van der Weyde (left), dressed as a medieval jester (centre) and a caricature by Frederick Weekes (right)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote a limerick on Burges’s childish nature:

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.

It does appear that Burges was quite active in the world of London’s creatives in his day. Elected to the Institute of British Architects in 1860, in 1862 he was appointed to its Council and in 1863 was elected to the Foreign Architectural Book Society, the FABS, which comprised the RIBA elite and was limited to fifteen members. He became a member of the Atheneum Club in 1874, was a member of the Arts Club, the Medieval Society, the Hogarth Club, and was elected to the Royal Academy just before his death.

Paradise Lost

Poor William Burges received very little praise for his work, either in his own lifetime and for a long while afterwards. Gothic Revivalist architecture went out of fashion when the new century approached, and was often derided for its heaviness and over-elaboration. For a while Victorian art was under constant assault, critics writing of “the nineteenth century architectural tragedy”, ridiculing “the uncompromising ugliness” of the era’s buildings and attacking the “sadistic hatred of beauty” of its architects. In my own view they all failed to grasp the romance of the age, expressed so beautifully and particularly in the detailing of many of the buildings, among which the Cathedral of Saint Fin Barre stands supreme.

birdie 4