John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute (1847-1900), was born with every advantage. His father, the second Marquess, had tapped the trading wealth of the South Wales coalfield by establishing Cardiff Docks on his ancestral lands from 1822 onwards. John came into his vast patrimony when he was just over six months old.
Though he was a conscientious Victorian aristocrat and landowner and nurtured his great inheritance, he had time and energy to spare for his fascination with art, architectural and the medieval.
The architect William Burges (1827-1881) was also born with advantages. His civil-engineer father, who outlived him, provided him with an ample private income, so he could travel extensively and, when he set up his practice, pick and choose his collaborators, and pick and choose his clients.
When the 3rd Marquess of Bute came of age, he called for Bruges to transform the Roman, medieval and eighteenth-century structures that made up Cardiff Castle, first into a bachelor residence which was then extended, after his marriage in 1872, into a palatial residence from which to dominate the port and city growing on the doorstep.
Burges’ capacity for solid, sculptural, dramatic skylines and mysterious, whimsical interiors makes Cardiff Castle a fascinating place. Every surface is thronged with colour, relief and meaning. The craftsmanship is of the highest quality. And the humour is quirky and irreverent, like medieval manuscripts and misericords – a monkey bell-push, a crocodile sitting at the top of a bannister eyeing a baby beneath.
Such was Bruges’ creative power that his team of craftsmen – William Frame (1848-1906), Horatio Walter Lonsdale (1844-1919), the Carrarra-born sculptor Ceccardo Egidio Fucigna (1836-1884) – that after his unexpected death the work carried on for years. The sculptor Thomas Nicholls (c1825-c1900) completed a typical piece of whimsy, the boundary wall of Cardiff Castle, bristling with escaping animals, designed in 1866 but only executed ten years after Burges’ death.
Cardiff Castle is open to the public: http://www.cardiffcastle.com/content.asp?nav=4,57&parent_directory_id=1&id=159.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals: past views of English architecture, please click here.