Gothic Fantasy: William Burges and Cardiff Castle Antiques & Auction News December 16, 2016 When the 3rd Marquess of Bute (1847-1900), came of age in 1868, he took control of one of the largest fortunes in Great Britain.  His estate included the docks of Cardiff, then an important seaport, and the town castle.  Bute had plans for Cardiff Castle, parts of which dated back to the 11th century.  The place was, he acknowledged, “far from setting an example in art.”  But he was confident that with vision and money—and Bute had lots of  money—the rundown pile could be turned into a fashionable seat. He was not the first member of his family with such an ambition. One ancestor, a century earlier, had filled in the moat and modernized the living quarters.  For Bute, however, a “modern” residence meant going back in time to the Middle Ages.   He did not want to live in a real medieval castle, with damp walls, smoky hearths, and  unglazed windows.  But he was inspired by the art and legends of that period, and wanted to incorporate them into a stylish and comfortable home. Bute had hired an architect while still in his late teens. His choice was William Burges (1827-1881), who at that  time had completed few residential commissions.  His professional reputation rested principally on his designs for Gothic Revival churches. This suited Bute, who was a man of strong religious feeling. Burges’ private  reputation was another matter. Although he was from a prosperous middle class family, he was most at ease with artists and bohemians.  His irregular life was a contrast with the steady habits of his young patron. “Too much opium” is an entry that shows up more than once in his diary. The construction of the Clock Tower, which housed Bute’s bachelor chambers, began in 1869. The floor plan is up-to-date, with the sort of specialized rooms that postdate the feudal baron’s stronghold.   There are two  smoking rooms, for example.  The Winter Smoking Room is decorated according to the theme of Time.  The  dense iconography includes Norse mythology, the zodiac, the times of day, and the seasons of the year.  Every inch of the walls and ceiling is covered with the concentrated color and shimmering gold of an illuminated  manuscript. The chimneypieces are perhaps the most distinctive feature of the interiors at Cardiff Castle. The one in the  Winter Smoking Room is similar to the Gothic hoods that Burges saw during his travels in France.  Historically, they were painted with coats of arms.  Burges borrowed the heraldic motif, while adding his own showy  attributes: ostentatious gilding, a looming religious statue, and a sculptural frieze, inspired by the tradition of courtly love.   Bute was a married man, by the time his bachelor suite was finished in the early 1870s. His wife needed her own rooms and there was the prospect of children.  Sumptuous accommodations were built, although Lady Bute  seems to have been less involved than her husband in the planning. She was, nonetheless, attached in a friendly way to the eccentric architect employed by her husband.  While Lord Bute called Burges the “soul-inspiring one,” his lady gave him a less reverent epithet.  “Isn’t he a duck,” she said. She participated in the decoration of the sitting room, which was based on the work of Geoffrey Chaucer. A statue of the 14th-century poet presides over the room, which has stained-glass windows and murals illustrating his most famous tales. The Nursery was another room with a literary theme.  A frieze of painted tiles, depicting characters from  children’s classics, dominates the cheerful room.  The four Bute children spent their mornings in the nursery, which was staffed by a governess, nurse, and two nursery maids—one French and the other Welsh, who spoke to their charges only in their native languages. The Marquess of Bute was a bookish man.  He dabbled in heraldry and local history, and translated liturgical works from Latin.  The Library reflects his erudite tastes. It is the least fanciful room, with a dark wood-beamed ceiling, metamorphic step-chairs, and big writing tables. In short, it has all the hallmarks of the Victorian book room.  But there are the architect's distinctive touches by the fireplace, traditionally the locus of his most flamboyant ideas. Statues illustrating the ancient languages are set in a row of Gothic niches over the mantel.   The area is colorfully tiled and there are two settees with carved tracery.  Their placement near the hearth was perhaps an anachronism in a room with radiator heating. Bute had a reputation for piety, but not asceticism. Thanks to his industrial fortune, he was able to live out in  comfort his fantasy of the Middle Ages. The bathrooms abound in luxury. The Clock Tower has a marble bath that Bute acquired in Rome.  It was embellished by Burges, who had it inset with metal fish that shimmer under water.  Then there is the Small Dining Room, a vast, airy chamber that was used by the family on informal occasions.  The chimneypiece is characteristically elaborate and contrasts with the sober wainscoting. Another highlight is the ceiling: the exotic Islamic motifs are brought out in red and gold. The small details also mark out the room as the habitat of a rich man. Take the table, a simple model with a hole in the center.  A fruiting potted vine was threaded through the hole, so that diners could nibble on fresh grapes. Cardiff Castle was a bright spot during the city’s dingy heyday.  The Bute family spent, in fact, little time there—at most six weeks a year. They divided the rest of their time between Scotland and London, when they were not traveling abroad.  Their short visits were spent taking care of estate business and entertaining. On important occasions, like the dinner for King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, the family entertained their guests in the cavernous Banqueting Hall. The castle was an important part of the family’s heritage until after World War II. For a quarter century,  beginning in 1949, it was used as a music school.    In recent years, it has been restored to its Victorian splendor.     
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Amy Gale
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