A tulip vase designed by William Burges for Cardiff Castle, 1874

Andrew Renton

Tulip vase designed by William Burges, 1874

Amgueddfa Cymru has in its collections a remarkable pottery vase designed by William Burges (1827-1881) for the Summer Smoking Room at Cardiff Castle, the pseudo-mediaeval extravaganza he created for John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute (1847-1900). This vase is among the most important examples of Victorian design with a Welsh connection. It was created as part of one of the pre-eminent architectural and decorative commissions of the nineteenth century, and certainly the most significant in Wales.

William Burges (1827-1881)

Burges was perhaps the most original and exuberant architect-designer of the 19th century, widely regarded at the time of his early death as the most brilliant of his generation. Burges considered A W N Pugin, famous for the ornamentation of the Palace of Westminster, to be his great hero.

However, his strongest early influence was the doctrine of 'progressive eclecticism' of his patron A J B Beresford Hope, who hoped that by drawing on a wide range of historical styles architects would create a new style worthy of the Victorian age. Burges inherited significant wealth, enabling him as a young architect to travel widely in Europe and as far as Turkey, while also studying the arts of Japan, India, Scandinavia and North Africa.

As a result, his work is distinguished by its imaginative but informed use of multifarious sources, most obviously the architecture and design of mediaeval Europe but including those of the Islamic world and East Asia, Pompeii and Assyria.

The Marquess of Bute’s Castle in Cardiff

At Cardiff Castle, given free rein by the hugely wealthy Marquess of Bute, Burges’s imagination created one of the great masterpieces of Victorian architecture. The exteriors of this uninhibited architectural fantasy were inspired by French mediaeval castles, while the interiors are alive with coloured carvings, panelled walls and painted ceilings.

The Summer Smoking Room at the top of the Clock Tower was the pièce de résistance, where a set of four tulip vases designed by Burges was integral to the room’s amazingly theatrical effect.

Late in his life Burges came to believe that the future of architecture lay in a renaissance of the 'minor arts'. His designs for furniture, metalwork, jewellery, stained glass and ceramics were just as inventive, scholarly and elaborate as those for buildings, and were conceived as integral to the architectural schemes he devised. This made him a key influence on the Arts and Crafts movement.

The Summer Smoking Room, Cardiff Castle, c. 1900

The Tulip Vases

The vases themselves are made of a white porcelain-like stoneware, hand-painted and gilded. They have a globular body and four smaller necks round the central one. They are painted in the glaze with parakeets sitting in blue scrolling foliage, while around the belly are four oval armorial bearings associated with the Bute family. Inscriptions round the neck (ANNO : DOMINI : 1874) and lower belly (IOHN^S PATC^S MARCQ DE BUTE) identify the patron and date.

Unfortunately there is no record of who made or decorated the vases. While it is usually proposed that they were made in Staffordshire, they may in fact have been made by George Maw of Broseley, Shropshire.

Best known for their tiles, Maw & Co manufactured Burges’s own tile designs, including those for Cardiff Castle's Summer Smoking Room. They also produced moulded architectural ceramics and were quite capable of making unusual vessel forms, such as the well-known vase in the form of a swan designed by Walter Crane in 1889. They were certainly manufacturing ambitious pottery vessels as early as 1874, as described in The Art Journal that year by a Professor Archer in terms that could apply to the Burges vases:

'Some of the designs, as in that of a jardinière in Louis Quatorze style and in a number of vases formed after Indian, Moorish and classic models, are works which would do credit to the oldest-established potteries, whilst some of the colour-effects displayed upon them have a richness that has never been surpassed. For these articles a white clay is used, and they may be classed as semiporcelain with a very firm, hard texture.'

The decoration of the vases may be the work of W B Simpson of 456 West Strand, Maw’s agent in London. Maw sent the ‘majolica tiles for architectural purposes’ which he had developed to Simpson for them to be painted by hand and fired. As the tiles at Cardiff Castle show, these were of outstanding quality, and the Summer Smoking Room vases are very much their equal.

The design of the Clock Tower at Cardiff Castle

Axel Haig, Design for the Summer Smoking Room at Cardiff Castle, c. 1870

Axel Haig, detail of the design for the Summer Smoking Room at Cardiff Castle, c. 1870

The commission to rebuild Cardiff Castle provided Burges with an unprecedented opportunity to realise his ideas on a grand scale. Bute’s unparalleled wealth, his love of travel and his romantic passion for the Middle Ages made him the ideal patron for Burges. As leading Burges expert J Mordaunt Crook has written, ‘Cardiff was the commission of a lifetime: the chance of creating a dream castle for Maecenas himself.’

The Clock Tower is the most prominent element of Burges's Cardiff Castle and created a sensation when the architect revealed his design at the Royal Academy in 1870. Each apartment was richer than the one below and it culminated in the galleried Summer Smoking Room, probably the finest example of Burges’s fantasy architecture. It was (also in Mordaunt Crook’s words) ‘a veritable skyscraper among palaces. A skyscraper, moreover, clad in the garments of progressive eclecticism.’

The guiding iconographic theme of the Clock Tower is time. The Summer Smoking Room's decorative scheme is inspired by astronomy, illustrating the divisions of Time and the organisation of the Cosmos.

Its tiled floor, modelled on tiles before the high altar in Westminster Abbey, depicts the five continents, the Holy City, and the life cycle of the birds and beasts of the earth. The chimneypiece is carved with the amusements of summer, love in particular. A frieze of painted tiles illustrates the legends of the zodiac, with subjects such as Apollo and Cupid, Castor and Pollux, and Europa and the Bull.

Paintings around the walls by Frederick Weekes represent seventeen different types of metal and in the spandrels astronomers of the past. In the centre hangs a sun-burst chandelier in the form of Apollo. Between the ribs of the dome are figures of the four elements – earth, fire, air, water – while in the four corners are giant carved anthropomorphic corbels depicting the eight winds of Greek mythology, such as Africus, Auster and Zephyrus. Also designed by Burges, the furniture included luxurious ottomans and inlaid chairs of Jacobean shape and Romanesque decoration. This all typifies Burges’s richly eclectic and allusive approach.

Designed to sit as bright highlights in each corner of the room on the carved stone corbels depicting the winds, the set of four tulip vases was an integral part of this amazingly theatrical whole. Axel Haig’s watercolour of about 1870 illustrating Burges’s original vision for the Summer Smoking Room (in Amgueddfa Cymru’s collection) depicts vases in the corners different to the form eventually produced and more generic in character. Comparison with the completed vases shows that Burges subsequently expended special care and imagination on their design to make them play an active role in his concept for the room.

Their decorative details contributed to the room’s themes and helped to animate the space. The colours – blue, green, gold and ochre – reflect those elsewhere in the room, such as the orange and blue of the upholstery of the ottomans, while the armorials echo those around the base of the gallery. More particularly, the parakeets – love-birds, an especially favourite motif of Burges – develop the theme of love, echoing the parakeets carved and painted in the hands of the sculpted figure of Amor perched on the chimney hood as well as on the hood itself and painted in roundels on the underside of the room’s gallery.

The design and decoration of the vases are an imaginative admixture of sources as varied as mediaeval architecture and illuminated manuscripts, Italian Renaissance maiolica, Dutch Delft pottery and Chinese porcelain. This wide range of allusions was all part of the intellectual games Burges enjoyed playing with the Marquess of Bute.

Drawings of vases of similar form appear in Burges’s ‘Vellum Sketchbook’ (Royal Institute of British Architects collection), one in particular annotated ‘this is a pot of glass / in which you put flowers’ and probably based on a glass water sprinkler typical of Catalonia in about 1550-1650. Another source of inspiration for the form was the multi-spouted ceramic flower vases made in Iran both in the 12th century and in the Savafid period (1500-1722). Closest of all are multi-necked Chinese porcelain vases of the late 18th and 19th centuries, a rare form of which two examples can be seen in photographs of Burges's chambers at 15 Buckingham Street, London, in the 1870s.

The office in William Burges’s chambers, 15 Buckingham Street, 1876 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Detail from the office in William Burges’s chambers, 15 Buckingham Street, 1876 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The kitchen at Marmoutier abbey, from Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle (1856)

The form is also an architectural one in miniature, strongly influenced by one of Burges’s favourite mediaeval buildings, the multi-chimneyed kitchen of the Benedictine abbey at Marmoutier near Tours in France. This had been illustrated by the hugely influential French Gothic Revival architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in his Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle of 1856. It also reworks one of Burges’s own earlier architectural concepts, his unrealised design for the Bombay School of Art of 1866 the circular smithy of which owed its silhouette to the Marmoutier kitchen. According to critics, the Bombay design ‘caused a major stir in the architectural profession’ and was ‘perhaps the most marvellous design that he ever made.’

The set of four vases was removed from Cardiff Castle by August 1948, after the Castle had been presented to the City of Cardiff in 1947. Two were acquired by poet John Betjeman, who in 1965 gave them to Charles Handley-Read, whose thank-you note read ‘I am near to bursting with gratitude and delight.’

One of these is now at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the other at The Higgins, Bedford. The other two were acquired by the Newport dealer John Kyrle Fletcher, who sold them to a private collector. While one of these has now returned to Cardiff, at the time of writing the fourth vase has had its export licence deferred to give public bodies the opportunity to raise the funding required to keep it in the UK. It is strongly to be hoped that a British institution will be able to raise the funds to acquire it, so that the whole of this important group can be preserved in public ownership in this country in perpetuity, with the chance of exhibiting all four vases together at some point.

This acquisition was made possible by the generous support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund and the Headley Trust. Their grants enabled the Museum to buy the vase, after it too had had its export licence deferred.

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Comments (1)

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Anda Zevedei
7 November 2020, 16:24
A great article! Lovely to learn about these vases, the castle, and all the history behind... Many thanks :-)