John Burgess was born in Chelsea into a large family of leading London artists. His mother, Charlotte, was a sculptor. His father, John Cart Burgess, was a landscape and flower painter as well as a drawing master who taught members of the Royal Family. His grandfathers and uncles on both sides were either sculptors or artists. Burgess was bound to feel the influence of such a family and he received early tuition from his uncle, William Burgess, landscape painter to William IV.
At the age of 21, Burgess went on the first of many sketching tours in Europe, travelling to Italy via Normandy and Paris. These tours were to provide material for much of his work and throughout his life he favoured European landscapes over English ones. Rosario Aspa, wrote of Burgess’ first European excursion that:
‘He had a well filled purse, and denied himself nothing. He often remarked to me that command of means was a disastrous thing to most young men, and that it had been nothing less than ruin to him. It led him to pleasure instead of work, and cut short the career that had been marked out for him – that of a figure painter.’
Nevertheless, Burgess was not idle, and proved himself as a landscape artist. Aspa comments that ‘the nobility of style peculiar to the man, and so apparent thoughout his work, was confirmed by this long sojourn’.1 On his return in 1837 one of his Italian landscapes was purchased by Queen Victoria.
In 1839 Burgess left London and settled in Leamington Spa. He purchased an already established drawing academy at 32 Regent Street and settled as a painter and teacher. Among his future pupils would be Frederick Whitehead and James Orrock. He later moved to 6 Upper Parade and finally to Wellington House, Grove Street, where he lived until his death in 1874. His father, sisters Charlotte and Adelaide, brother Charles and nephew Percy Hall all lived with him at some point. In 1842 he married Mary Vaughan of Llanelly, they apparently remained childless.
In 1850 Burgess was elected as an Associate of the Society of Painters in Watercolours. He exhibited six to nine drawings at the Society’s rooms every year from 1851 until his death. His main supporter in this election was George Cattermole who has been quoted as saying ‘we want originality and Burgess has it’. This originality proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Burgess was recognised by fellow artists and a few contemporary ‘fans’ as possessing an extraordinary ability and skill which rendered his work highly desirable. However, his unique style and temperament seems to have prevented his work from becoming more widely known and popular. Of his work Aspa writes:
‘In these drawings new effects and new methods abound, of some of which, so far as I know, nothing had been seen before. The pencil is made to work like a brush, laying broad, flat or delicately graduated tints. It suggests colour, surface, and texture and character. At times no strokes are to be seen: but form, light, shade and reflected light, are indicated by magical touch.’
Burgess liked to sketch standing, with his sketch pad resting on his left arm. This way he could easily avoid traffic on busy streets and escape crowds of gathering spectators. Although the artist himself preferred to paint landscapes, it was his architectural drawings that were more widely popular during his life time. His use of colour, the true portrayal of nature in his landscapes, his skill at drawing figures and the presence of movement and life in his work has often been commented on and praised.
Burgess appears to have been a rather interesting character. He is said to have disliked dealers and Aspa laments his reluctance to sell to them as being ‘exceedingly foolish’.2The artist himself, however, seems to have taken more satisfaction from somebody ‘understanding’ his work. ‘I would rather take a good deal less,’ he wrote, ‘from a better judge’ – and he often did! He also very often refused to sell at a good price if he felt the buyer was undeserving. This attitude denotes a steadfast confidence in his talents and a genuine devotion to the aesthetic and intellectual value of art.
Burgess suffered greatly in his later life from rheumatism and the letters he wrote to Aspa in the 1870s show a man in great physical and emotional torment. He laments time wasted in ‘abominable teaching’ and seems to regret his lack of reputation. ‘If I could but work as you can,’ he wrote, ‘I should do something for my name. Fortune not so much. Now that I can’t spend the money it seems to flow in’. His thoughts became increasingly morbid and confused and he died on 11th June 1874 after a long and seemingly lonely illness. In his obituary, The Courier hailed him as ‘the foremost of the artists residing amongst us’.
Rosalyn Smith, October 2007
1 Rosario Aspa, The Late John Burgess Esq of the Society of Painters in Watercolours: A sketch (Leamington, 1879), p.8