In 1858, William ‘Billy’ Burges, Neo-gothic architect and designer, was commissioned by Alexander Beresford-Hope, the MP for Maidstone to design a missionary monument at St Augustine’s College, Canterbury. Burges sketched designs for a sculptured diptych, with one side depicting the meeting of Pope Gregory and the English slaves and the other portraying the conversion of King Ethelbert by St Augustine, which was carved by Theodore Phyffers. It was to be his first Kentish commission.
Burges was the son of marine engineer Alfred Burges (1796–1886) who along with his business partner, James Walker designed the Admiralty Pier and lighthouse, Dover. Alfred was very successful and his wealth ensured that Billy could study and practice architecture without the pressure of making money.
After studying at King’s College School, London, where he became friends with pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his brother William Michael, Burges entered the offices of the pre-eminent Gothic Revival architect, Edward Blore, in 1844. After this, he joined the offices of Matthew Digby Wyatt and worked on the Medieval Court at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
In 1856, Burges set up his own architectural practice and entered several competitions for architectural commissions, but in the early days he was unsuccessful. However, after completing the designs for the missionary monument at Canterbury, Burges’s career began to flourish and in 1859 he was introduced to the Dover Corporation Restoration Committee to take over the work begun by Ambrose Poynter to restore the 13th century Maison Dieu at Dover. Burges’s designs were influenced by his travels in Europe and included carved grotesques and heraldic shields.
It was at this period that Burges, joined the Foreign Architectural Book Society (FABS), an elite group of architects who swapped books on architecture and visited sites of architectural importance. In 1865, FABS visited Knole near Sevenoaks to admire the Jacobean staircase and in the following year, Canterbury, where they saw the cathedral. Burges described Canterbury Cathedral as 'the best of our cathedrals, always excluding the perpendicular parts'.1 In 1867, the society visited Penshurst, Chiddingstone and Hever, returning to the county some years later to visit Maidstone and Leeds Castle.
Burges received further commissions in Kent included the restoration of the tenth century St Margaret’s Church at Darenth. Burges installed a stained glass window in memory of Catherine Seager between 1866-8.2. At the same time, Burges was commissioned to design the Bailey tomb and memorial in the churchyard of St Peter’s Church, Ightham between 1866-9. He also enlarged Ightham Place adding a new staircase, entrance hall and wing for Reverend James Sandford Bailey and designed a stained glass rose window, lobed roof and apsidal chancel for the church at Murston, near Sittingbourne.
Burges was not only a talented architect, but also a designer. In 1867 he was commissioned to design a crozier for the newly appointed Bishop of Dunedin, Henry Lascelles Jenner. The crozier featured St George slaying the dragon which represented the church defending its people against the devil. Burges wrote in his sketchbook 'This is the staff of the Lord Bishop of the Isles where they eat one another'. Jenner who had a reputation for ritualism was rejected by the people of New Zealand on his arrival and the crozier was never used. Jenner returned to England, where he became rector of Preston next Wingham and the crozier is now kept at Canterbury Cathedral.
In 1880, the Mayor of Dover decided that the town needed an assembly hall and civic rooms. Burges was commissioned to design the plans for the new building and began working on these on 1 March 1881. Not only did he design the building, but also the decorative scheme and the furniture, including an impressive table surrounded by lion-headed chairs for the Mayor’s Parlour.
Sadly, Burges did not live to see his vision as he died on the 20 April 1881. Burges's brother-in-law Richard Popplewell Pullan and his business partner John Starling Chapple continued the work, but Burges's rich decorative scheme was later painted over in the twentieth century. A multi-million pound project entitled 'Reawakening a Gothic Fantasy' is currently restoring the Burges scheme. Burges's most notable works were Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch which were commissioned by the 3rd Marquess of Bute.
This article was published: 11 March 2023.
Crook, J. Mordaunt (1981) William Burges and the High Victorian Dream London: John Murray.