The Great Bookcase: The most important example of Victorian painted furniture ever made

The Great Bookcase, as exhibited in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK. Author: Gts-tg. CC BY-SA 4.0

William Burges was among the greatest English architects and designers of the Victorian era. He started designing furniture sometime in the mid-1850s and continued doing so until his death in 1881. His furniture was usually massive, carved, and intricately painted. The prominent usage of painted decoration was the main distinction between his and other furniture designs of the time.

In 1859 he designed a large piece of painted furniture called the Great Bookcase. This unique piece of Gothic Revival furniture, 3.18 meters high and 1.7 meters wide, was designed by Burges to hold his collections of art and architecture books. It has been described as “the most important example of Victorian furniture ever made“.

It is believed that the bookcase was constructed by Thomas Sneddon’s firm and then painted by fourteen different artists, most of them Pre-Raphaelite. Burges commissioned the artists between 1859 and 1862 to paint the bookcase with scenes from Christian and Pagan art. The painters involved were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Albert Moore, Edward Poynter, John Anster Fitzgerald, Stacy Marks, Edward Burne-Jones, Henry Holiday, Thomas Morten, Frederick Smallfield, Frederic Weeks, Nathaniel Westlake, William Frederic Yeames, Charles Rositter, and Simon Solomon. Some of the painted decoration was done by William Burges himself. As it was the case with Burges’ other designs, the center of focus was the lively colors and the painting. As he himself once wrote: “covered with paintings; it not only did its duty as furniture but spoke and told a story.”

Portrait of architect William Burges.

The decoration at the front of the bookcase is divided into two sides with Christian themes painted on the left and Pagan themes painted on the right. The Christian paintings include St. John and the New Jerusalem by Solomon, The apparition of Beatrice to Dante by Rossetti and Poynter, Moore’s Edward I and Torrel and Morten’s Fra Angelico painting the Virgin. The side with the Pagan motif features Rhodopis commissioning a pyramid by Poynter, Sappho serenading Phaon by Holiday, Apelles painting the first portrait by Smallfield, and Solomon’s Pygmalion and Galatea“.

The Great Bookcase, as exhibited in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK. Author: Gts-tg. CC BY-SA 4.0

Representations of Saint Augustin, Plato, Saint Cecilia, Orpheus, sirens, and harpies were painted on the sides of the bookcase. The base includes depictions of metamorphic figures painted by Marks, including Arachne, Syrinx, and the Muses. Horizontal decorative bands are placed between every section illustrating Poynter’s portrayals of the Sea, the Earth, and the AirShells and Fishes of the Ocean; Flowers and Beasts of the Field, the Birds of the Air, and the Stars of the Firmament. Burges contributed to the painting of the bands with two designs: the story of Cock Robin and Aesop’s fables. The cornice above the front panels was decorated by Poynter; the gables on top of the cornice have Religion and Love by Westlake and Art“ by Burne-Jones.

The Great Bookcase, detail, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Author: Gts-tg. CC BY-SA 4.0

The interior was also painted but since craftsmanship wasn’t the strongest quality of the Great Bookcase, it collapsed in 1878 and required complete restoration. When the bookcase fell, the paintings by Fitzgerald inside were damaged so they were replaced with paintings done by Weeks.

The bookcase was finished in 1862 and was a part of the “Medieval Court” at the International Exhibition in London the same year along with other pieces of furniture designed by Burges. The reviews that he received at the Exhibition were negative.

Right side view. Author: Gts-tg. CC BY-SA 4.0


Left side view. Author: Gts-tg. CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1933, the Great Bookcase was purchased for the Ashmolean Museum by Kenneth Clark for only £50. At the time, Victorian Art wasn’t much appreciated and was generally mocked and degraded. Clark wrote on the subject: “though not acceptable to present taste, it will always remain an important document in the history of the [Pre-Raphaelite] movement“. Although the bookcase was initially bought to be displayed at the Ashmolean, in 1952 it was lent to the Victoria and Albert Museum for an exhibition of Victorian and Edwardian decorative art. In 1980, it was taken from the V&A Museum and moved to Knightshayes Court, a Victorian country house in Devon also designed by William Burges. It remained in Devon until 2015 when it was returned to the Ashmolean to be displayed with the rest of the Museum’s Pre-Raphaelite collection, as Clark had intended when he bought it decades ago.