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William Burges

William Burges, by Unknown photographer, 1860s -NPG P231 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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William Burges

by Unknown photographer
Albumen print mounted on cream card, 1860s
3 3/8 in. x 2 1/4 in. (85 mm x 57 mm)
NPG P231

Inscriptionback to top

Inscr. in pencil on mount: ‘William Burges, architect / over’.
Inscr. on reverse: ‘There is a poor fellow / called Burges / Who from babyhood / hardly emerges. / If you were not told he’s / disgracefully old / You’d offer bull’s eyes to / Burges. / D.G. Rossetti.’

This portraitback to top

‘I was brought up in the 13th century belief, and in that belief I intend to die,’ Burges declared rather defiantly in 1876.[1] He found inspiration in illuminated manuscripts and especially admired the thirteenth-century drawings of Wilars de Honecourt.[2] The costume he wears in this photograph – an outfit he himself designed – is an eclectic mixture of medieval motifs and, seen against the Renaissance backdrop, a typical example of his romantic, historicizing approach to life.[3]

His short-sightedness and burly figure made him the butt of many affectionate jokes. William Michael Rossetti remembered ‘Billy’ Burges as a plump and ‘excessively short-sighted’ schoolboy;[4] later Edmund Gosse described his work as ‘more jewel like than architecture, just because he was so blind.’[5] Burne-Jones drew him asleep in bed with his spectacles on (see ‘All known portraits, By other artists, c.1881’). Burges seems to have been sensitive about his appearance and avoided the issue of portraiture, and the number of known images of him is small. Here, in fancy dress and without his usual spectacles, his identification rests on the evidence of the costume and the inscription on the mount.[6]

Carol Blackett-Ord

Footnotesback to top

1) Quoted in the Builder, vol.34, 1876, p.18.
2) Honecourt’s sketchbook had been rediscovered in the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, in 1859.
3) ‘Then there was the Medieval costume he had made for himself, with its hood and liripipe, his vellum sketch book, made and filled after the manner of Wilars de Honecourt’s celebrated book in the National Library at Paris’: Godwin 1881, p.214. See also Crook 1981, p.92; and Crook & Lennox-Boyd 1984, fig.3.
4) Rossetti 1906, vol.1, p.155.
5) Charteris 1931, p.149.
6) The limerick inscribed on NPG P231 is a corrupt version of Rossetti’s ‘Nonsense Verse no.4’: ‘There’s a babyish party named Burges / Who from infancy hardly emerges: / If you had not been told / He’s disgracefully old, / You’d offer a bull’s eye to Burges.’ See Crook 1981, p.91 n.90.

Physical descriptionback to top

Three-quarter-length, head slightly to left, wearing a jester’s costume and holding a book in his right hand.

Provenanceback to top

Purchased Christie’s, 20 July 1983 (353).

View all known portraits for William Burges


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