Paul Rabbitts, author of the forthcoming book Decimus Burton: Gentleman Architect, considers Burton's work and asks why it has been overlooked in comparison to his contemporaries' legacies...
The hall of the Athenaeum Club, Pall Mall, drawing by G. B. Moore, undated; designed by Decimus Burton.
My previous blog focused on how I came across the intriguing and little known Decimus Burton. I talk often with friends and colleagues about my writing adventures, and many have never heard of the likes of Grinling Gibbons, possibly Wren, but certainly not Decimus Burton. ‘Well what has he done?’ ‘What is he famous for?’ ‘Why does no one know of him then?’. Architects like Wren, Gilbert Scott, Hawksmoor, Soane, Nash, Waterhouse and many other A-list architects trip off the tongue but then there are the likes of Blomfield, Worthington, Bentley and Burton who perhaps are unfairly recognised.
The central staircase in the Athenaeum Club, London - very little has changed.
My answer to the many questions, is that you will have visited a landmark or building by Burton without even knowing it – such was his impact. Our capital city is a testament to his contribution, whether you have visited Hyde Park, Regent’s Park or St James’s Park, stood agape at the iconic entrance to Hyde Park, photographed or driven past the Wellington Arch, visited London Zoo, walked through his tunnel connecting both areas of this world famous Zoological Garden, or explored the internationally famous Kew Gardens. In this authors view, Decimus Burton's works at Kew are his finest, whether the controversial Palm House, the Temperate House (my favourite Burton building), or the grand entrance where you pay your entrance fee, Kew is magnificent.
London has many Burton buildings that you must seek out – the fine Athenaeum on Pall Mall, to the former Charing Cross Hospital, and his terraces around the Regent’s Park. Yet his contribution goes beyond our capital city, to his town planning exploits in Tunbridge Wells and his garden suburb of Calverley Park – go visit it, it is simply delightful! A little further south is the town of St Leonards-on-Sea, much debated about how much he contributed here compared to his father James Burton, but clearly he had much to do here. Further north is the town of Fleetwood in Lancashire. Many Burton buildings remain here and many were planned as part of his wider vision, although never fully realised.
Burton was heavily criticised for his attempts at Gothic architecture by the likes of Pugin and his churches that remain today are more graciously accepted, including Goring-on-Sea, Tunbridge Wells, Fleetwood, and Southborough. His houses fared better and a number remain: Grimston Park, near Tadcaster, is possibly his finest country house.
Burton’s entrance lodges to the north approach of Grimston Park, near Tadcaster.
The greenhouse, once a significant feature of Burton’s design for Grimston Park. From Christopher Hussey, English Country Houses: Late Georgian 1800-1840, Country Life, 1958, pp.230-8.
Returning to parks though, I was incredibly lucky to be asked by the Irish Landscape Institute to visit Dublin to give a lecture. I heartily agreed on the condition that I was given a tour of one of Europe’s largest parks – Phoenix Park, where Burton had a significant input in its layout and introduction of so many fine lodges. The ‘parkie’ in me was ecstatic and what a trip I had with a full tour by former Superintendent John A. McCullen. We shared Burton anecdotes and stories and I learnt so much.
So, my book Decimus Burton: Gentleman Architect is my answer for those who don’t know much about Burton is today – get yourself a copy now and discover the works of Decimus Burton! You won’t regret it!
-- Paul Rabbitts, 2021
Paul Rabbitts will be continuing this behind-the-scenes look at his new book on Decimus Burton with a third blogpost: Where does Burton sit today?
The book will be out on 10 December. You can pre-order your copy of Decimus Burton: Gentleman Architect by Paul Rabbitts HERE.