Becoming Richard Burton - National Museum Cardiff

30 November 2020

Becoming Richard Burton which recently opened at the National Museum Cardiff, is a brand new exhibition which follows the remarkable story of how Richard Jenkins, the boy from Pontrhydyfen and Tai-bach, Port Talbot, became Richard Burton, the international star of stage and screen. The exhibition features Burton’s diaries, papers and personal objects – displayed for the first time – from the Richard Burton Archives held at Swansea University. This is a rare and delightful treat for any Burton fan.

As a self-confessed bibliophile, Burton would carry an average of ten books whenever he travelled. He professed to wishing he has actually been a full-time writer or academic instead of an actor, as he thought them much more nobler careers. The actor’s personal book collection, displayed as it was in his personal library at home in Celigny. Switzerland, is especially poignant.

His passion for prose evident; everyone from Shakespeare to Ted Hughes to Evelyn Waugh.

Burton’s monogrammed personal travelling bag, sturdy enough to carry his weighty tomes.

Also on display are some of Burton’s album collection, and as would be expected, Dylan Thomas features heavily.

Film fans will enjoy costumes worn by the actor on stage and film, including those from his various Shakespearian roles, and from 1963’s Cleaopatra in which he starred with Elizabeth Taylor.

This exhibition seeks to uncover the man behind the headlines and occasional excesses. Burton was a global celebrity who travelled the world on private jets and luxury yachts, had a penchant for acquiring expensive jewellery, and lived large in every way, but what this exhibition also shows, is a dedicated family man, who possessed an unwavering loyalty to Wales and its people.

Sally Burton, the actor’s widow, said the “shorthand way” to remember her late husband was through his two marriages to Elizabeth Taylor and “his excesses”. But Burton said she hoped people would take time to inspect objects, many of which are being seen in public for the first time, that tell the poignant story of his childhood, especially his formative years growing up in the Taibach area of Port Talbot as miner’s son Richard Jenkins.

Humorous letters from the woman he went on to marry twice, Elizabeth Taylor:

Sally Burton said: “One of the interesting things about Richard is that he emerged from Wales, rebuilding and recreating himself as the country was rebuilding and recreating after the war.

“People were drawn to him. Sometimes he would say, ‘What is it about me?’ I believe this exhibition will enable us to explore some of those intriguing answers.”

Becoming Richard Burton runs until 11 April 2021 at National Museum Cardiff. Further information here

Images by CELLOPHANELAND*, National Museum Cardiff and Milton H. Greene.