William Burges and the High Victorian Dream by J Mordaunt Crook - review by Gillian Darley

Gillian Darley

After Pugin

William Burges and the High Victorian Dream


Frances Lincoln 431pp £45

In 1981 J Mordaunt Crook published the definitive book on William Burges. It had an unusual history. The collector and art historian Charles Handley-Read had become obsessed, from the early 1960s onwards, with the work of William Burges; along with his wife Lavinia, a specialist on Victorian sculpture, he began to amass a treasure house of furniture and artefacts. He was, as Mordaunt Crook puts it, ‘a museum man manqué’, drawing up legion lists but never reaching any historical conclusion or offering a formed opinion of his own. Even the maelstrom of notes he made, on Burges in particular, was in no form to shape even the barest skeleton of a monograph on the architect.

In a poignant ‘prelude’ to the current edition, Mordaunt Crook describes Handley-Read’s struggle to turn even a complete paragraph to his own satisfaction; the achievement of a single sentence was torture and he worked in a ‘labyrinth of indecision’, making the completion of an article the rarest of events. In his lifetime he published just 18.

Charles’s suicide in October 1971, followed by Lavinia’s two months later, was the shocking conclusion to their lives. The immense collection was broken up and Mordaunt Crook received files, lecture notes, slides, indexes, photographs and Burges’s own diary. And so began another decade of work, including two sets of Slade

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