Burges was born on 2 December, 1827, the son of Alfred Burges (1796-1886), a wealthy civil engineer who undertook work in Cardiff for John Crichton-Stuart, 2nd Marquess of Bute, himself the father of Burges' later, greatest, patron, the 3rd Marquess. His family's wealth enabled Burges to devote his life to the study and practice of architecture, without requiring that he actually earn a living.
Burges entered King's College London in 1839 and remained for four years before joining the office of Edward Blore, surveyor to Westminster Abbey. Blore was, by then, a prestigious architect, who had made his reputation as a gothic revivalist. However, it was not Blore but Augustus Welby Pugin who made the greatest early impression on Burges. Pugin's championing, almost leading, of the Gothic Revival provided the inspiration that fuelled Burges' life's work.
After five years, Burges moved to the offices of Matthew Digby Wyatt. Wyatt was then almost at the height of his influence and public prominence, culminating in his leading role in the direction of the 1851 Great Exhibition. Burges' work on the Medieval Court for this exhibition can, perhaps, fairly be said to have set the course of the remainder of his life.
Of equal importance and influence was Burges' travelling. "All architects should travel, but more especially the art-architect." Enabled by his private income, Burges moved through England, then France, Italy, Greece and finally into Turkey, studying and drawing on a prodigious scale. What he saw, and sketched, provided a repository of influences and ideas that he used, and re-used, for the whole of his career.
In 1856 Burges established his own architectural practice at 15 Buckingham Street, The Strand. Some of his early items of furniture were created for this office and later moved to The Tower House, Melbury Road, Kensington, the home he built for himself towards the end of his life. His early architectural career was relatively unsuccessful although he won, at an early age, prestigious commissions for Lille Cathedral and the Crimea Memorial Church, both of which remained unbuilt. However, imbued by the belief that Early French provided the answer to the crisis of architectural style that beset mid-Victorian England; "I was brought up in the 13th century belief and in that belief I intend to die"; he finally secured his first major commission for St. Fin Barre's Cathedral Cork in 1863. Vastly exceeding the intended budget, he produced a building that in size is little more than a large parish church but in impression fully merits the title of cathedral.
Other commissions, both ecclesiastical and domestic, followed until, in 1865, he met John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute. The connection may have occurred as a result of Burges' father's own connection with the 2nd Marquess but this is uncertain.
However occasioned, the connection lasted the rest of Burges' life and led to his most important works, the castle at Cardiff, and Castell Coch. To the Marquess, and his wife, Burges was the "soul-inspiring one", and the relationship between them had some similarities to that of Ludwig II of Bavaria and Richard Wagner, and led to some similar results. Funded by the Marquess' almost limitless resources, Burges' re-building of Cardiff Castle and the complete reconstruction of the ruin of Castell Coch, (the Red Castle), north of the city, represent his highest achievements. Both present a fantasy of the medieval world undertaken with a brio, an inventiveness and a sheer architectural and decorative ability that sets them far apart from 19th century feudal pastiches.
Burges began building at Cardiff Castle in 1868 and continued to work on the project, and at Castell Coch, until his death in 1881. During this period, he also completed his work at Knightshayes Court, although unfortunately not the building itself, for the Heathcoat-Amory family; designed and built two fabulous churches, the Church of Christ the Consoler at Skelton-on-Ure and St Mary's, Studley Royal for the 1st Marquess of Ripon; created Park House, the fore-runner of his own, for Lord Bute's engineer, James McConnochie; and built his own "Palace of the Arts", The Tower House in Kensington.
Burges died, aged 53, on 20 April 1881, at The Tower House, Melbury Road. He was buried in the tomb he designed for his mother at West Norwood, a suitably gothic cemetery designed by the architect William Tite. Mordaunt Crook chooses Lady Bute's words as his epitaph; "ugly Burges who designed such lovely things - what a duck." Perhaps more arguably, Mordaunt Crook suggests that "the intensity of [Burges'] vision was(...) diluted by a luxurious lifestyle." It can surely be contended that the Arabic Room and the Summer Smoking Room in Cardiff Castle, the Drawing Room at Castell Coch, the rooms at The Tower House, the Cat Cup and the drawings for the Sabrina Fountain in Gloucester represent a more intense and more dazzling vision of the gothic revival than any other works of architecture, craftsmanship or draughtsmanship produced in 19th century Britain.
Burges' limited output, and the general unpopularity of his work for much of the century following his death, meant that he was little studied. However, the past thirty years have seen a significant revival of interest in Burges, and the prices paid for examples of his painted furniture are now astronomical. By far the best, indeed the only, full study is J. Mordaunt Crook's (JMC) William Burges and the High Victorian Dream (1981, John Murray, and now out of print).
In addition to J. Mordaunt Crook's William Burges and the High Victorian Dream, other valuable sources on Burges, from a limited range, are two articles on Cardiff Castle and Castle Coch in Mark Girouard's The Victorian Country House (1979, Yale University Press, now out of print); the catalogue to the exhibition held in Cardiff in 1981 to commemorate the centenary of his death, entitled The Strange Genius of William Burges (1981, edited by J Mordaunt Crook, published by The National Museum of Wales, also out of print); and John Newman's The Buildings of Wales: Glamorgan (1995, Pevsner Architectural Guides series). The current curator of Cardiff Castle, Matthew Williams, has also written a number of Burgesian/Bute articles for the architectural press.