Men I Have Painted/Charles Marquedant Burns

Hamilton Men I Have Painted 198f Charles Marquedant Burns.jpg


I HAVE always associated Charley Burns with two friends of similar tastes and distastes—Henry Thouron and Robert Arthur. Three of us could often have been found together, but rarely all four. Although there was a great harmony between any two of us, when four were assembled discords began that led to embarrassment. Thouron held positive views on subjects which Burns and Arthur ignored completely, while I, being more catholic in disposition, held dissolving views upon many questions, and strong opinions only upon essentials.

Charles Burns is the youngest old man I have ever known, for although he is eighty-two, his capacity for enjoyment seems to be unlimited. Whenever I feel the need for rejuvenation, I seek him out for my cicerone.

There is only one thing upon which Burns is silent—his achievements in architecture. On all other subjects he is even garrulous. In our frequent journeyings together over Europe and in England, he has been an instructive companion on all matters connected with Gothic cathedrals. Had he been as communicative upon the creation of edifices in America from plans inspired by his own genius, it would have been an inspiring subject. But his genius far exceeded his opportunities. From an early age he had absorbed a knowledge of the masterpieces of Gothic architecture in Europe, but his ambition to put that knowledge into practice had little hope of gratification in America, where no religious community had at that time the taste or the means to build that costliest of all structures—a Gothic cathedral.

His performances having, perforce, fallen far short of his ideals, he became obsessed with the idea that his achievements were so unworthy of comparison with the masterpieces of the great Gothic period in Europe that he made no effort to make them known. Nevertheless, in the history of American church-building, Charles M. Burns stands out as the designer of the best example of Gothic architecture in the country prior to the end of the nineteenth century.

This chaste specimen of his work is the South Memorial Church that stands in Diamond Street, west of Broad Street, Philadelphia. The interior is remarkable for the purity and simplicity of its lines, and for the extraordinary impression of grandeur produced by the architect's innate sense of proportion. The church is a model of elegance and of fidelity to the spirit of French Gothic.

Mr. Frank Darley, the well-known organist, invited our architect to remodel his house in Broad Street, which was so well done that at the death of the owner it was purchased by the great jurist, Mr. John G. Johnson, for his remarkable collection of Old Masters. It was Mr. Johnson's intention to make this house a permanent gallery of paintings for the city of Philadelphia; but the genius of the advocate overreached itself in the making of his own will, which was so involved in legal phraseology of an indeterminate character, that it admitted a construction that was far removed from the intention of the donor. Through a lack of foresight on the part of Mr. Johnson, a charming old garden adjoining the house, which, had it been secured to the property, would have provided against any future need for expansion, was allowed to be sacrificed to the base uses of commerce. With a little thought and a moderate expenditure the Johnson house might have become the home of another Wallace Collection, and South Broad Street redeemed in part from the slough into which it has been allowed to sink.

Travellers with an observant sense for the beautiful, going between New York and Philadelphia, may have been struck with the design of an old-world-looking building, near Torresdale, on the right of the railway, which in autumn is covered with rust-coloured creeping vines that harmonize with the tone of the structure. This convent is also Burns' design: and it would not be surprising to discover that when, throughout the length and breadth of the land, some unusually picturesque bit of architecture comes into view, it is the handiwork of that matchless builder, Charles Marquedant Burns.

He arrived years before his country was ready to receive him, before the field was cleared of the horrors of the "Centennial" period. It was Burns who ploughed the field and prepared the soil; and he has lived long enough to see younger men reap the harvest.

He might have been first among the husbandmen, had he not been the pioneer of Gothic renaissance in America.