The Third Marquess of Bute: Real and Imagined

Our second ever stage production, Tiger Bay The Musial, focuses on a young girl’s struggle to challenge society’s injustices, follow her heart and realise her dreams. Based in Cardiff’s revolutionary 20th century, Tiger Bay The Musical is an epic amalgamation of fact and fiction. Dr Andrew Richardson, of Cardiff University, gives us detailed insight into what one of our pivotal character’s, Third Marquess of Bute, was really like.

In Tiger Bay, we are first introduced to John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, Third Marquess of Bute*, staring deeply into his crystal-gazing machine seeking answers to his own seemingly insurmountable troubles. It is a scene that presents us with an intense, enigmatic and complex persona, occupying a mystical world.

Although this is a fictional portrayal, it is nevertheless a characterisation with a legitimate foundation. Bute was considered the ‘greatest Victorian romantic of them all’; a man of such eccentric interests and solitary pursuits that significantly shaped the perception of his life and legacy by contemporaries and historians alike.

Indeed, this is not the first time that Bute has undergone fictional portrayal. In 1870, Bute was characterised in one of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s novels, as Lothair, a wealthy young English aristocrat who had ‘no wish to enter the world’. The book was hugely successful, and its portrayal of Bute was formative in how he was perceived.

Although an imperfect portrayal of Bute’s life, what Lothair captured was the veritable web of intrigue that surrounded Bute’s life. The public and the press were fascinated by perhaps the most eligible, if somewhat eccentric, bachelor in the British Empire. Much of this fascination was focused on two things – his wealth and his religion. He was, for his entire adult life, the richest man in the world, a fact that many of his contemporaries seemed to be endlessly preoccupied by. His public image was also shaped by his then-controversial conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1868, seen by a largely Catholic-hostile press as a ‘perversion’ ascribed to ‘priestly influences acting upon a weak, ductile and naturally superstitious mind’.

These two aspects of Bute’s character defined his public profile, but the intensity of the interest shown in him made him distinctly uncomfortable. He was a shy and serious man and mostly considered the scale of his wealth a burden, to the great disappointment of society.

The Western Mail wrote in his obituary: “Lord Bute was not an ideal nobleman. He was too fond of ease, too retiring, and too modest. He can hardly be said to have risen to his great opportunities and vast responsibilities”. These responsibilities included inheriting the intimidating legacy of his father, the creator of modern Cardiff, including the vast estate in Glamorgan and the Bute Docks. These were the source of the ever-growing Bute fortune, as the industrial revolution and the export of Welsh coal, ‘black gold’, transformed Cardiff into the ‘Coal Metropolis of the World’.

In contrast to his father, he had little interest in estate management, business or politics – largely leaving his estate agents, solicitors and trustees to manage his affairs for his entire lifetime. Yet despite his natural inclination to privacy, he did not neglect his role as a public figure. His strong sense of duty led him to hold numerous offices and participate in public events, ceremonies and celebrations – all of which were largely torturous to him. He was a thoughtful philanthropist who also played a crucial part in the civic development of Cardiff, acting as patron to numerous charities and civic institutions. He even became the Mayor of Cardiff in 1890, the first aristocrat in Great Britain to hold civic office since 1727.

Yet Bute was a man who preferred the past over the present, and had the temperament, intellect and resources to indulge this. His love of seclusion was positively monastic, and he often retreated into a private antiquarian universe.  He was a polymath, a rigorous scholar who published widely on art, architecture, theology and history. Bute mastered twenty-one languages, ancient and modern, and spoke with authority on Celtic and Gaelic etymology. He was also interested in astrology and psychical research, as the opening scene suggests. He experimented with thought transference, crystal vision, telepathy and second sight, although he always maintained a cautious attitude towards the supernatural.

However, the fullest expression of his character and interests were his opulent and unique buildings. ‘Perhaps my favourite pursuit’, Bute once wrote, ‘is antiquarianism, as History is my favourite reading, but my luxury is art’. His compulsion to build, and build beautifully, was most fantastically realised in concert with one of the most imaginative architects of the age – the ‘soul-inspiring’ art-architect, William Burges. With Burges, he created the flamboyant medieval gothic fantasies of Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch. As the best ‘unprofessional architect of his generation’, he communicated his real study of the past through imagined architecture to splendid effect. For Bute, scholarship and design were part of the same endeavour, and the buildings he left behind are his most enduring legacy.

So, as we watch Bute gaze into his crystal portal to another world, we must remember that although this is a fictional moment, it is a legitimate window into the life of a man whose achievements were defined by the continuous endeavour to withdraw from the modern world, and retreat into others, both real and imagined.

 

Dr Andrew Richardson

School of History, Archaeology and Religion

Cardiff University

*(1847-1900)

Photo of John Owen-Jones, who stars as the Third Marquess of Bute in Tiger Bay. Credit to Polly Thomas.