The son of a prominent surgeon, George Burgess was born in London in 1831 to a family with artistic talent. His grandfather had been a painter and three of his brothers were artists. His older brother William Oakley Burgess, who died at the early age of 27 in 1844 , was a talented mezzo-tint engraver known for portraits of famous London personalities (Becker 2006) , brother Charles became a photographer and portrait painter, and William Hubert was a talented jeweler who became known for his ink and pencil drawings and painted photographs. George showed an interest in art at an early age, went to study at the Somerset House School of Design, and began his career working in a lithography shop in the London.
George was one of four brothers to come to California from London seeking their fortunes. Conflicting information makes it unclear which brothers arrived first and which sibling traveled with George to California in 1850, but the most detailed account has younger brothers George and Charles following their older siblings Edward and William Hubert. Brothers George, Charles, and William Hubert quickly gave up mining to set up a jewelry and watch making shop in a tent in Sonora. They had to abandon the business when rioting broke out between the American and Latin American miners (Palmquist. 2002). George and his two brothers drifted around the mining regions sketching and painting watercolors, with William Hubert an excellent marksman providing game for the brothers and for sale to the miners.
In 1853 the three Burgess brothers joined a fourth brother Edward in Hawaii, then known as the Sandwich Islands. Edward had established himself as a merchant in the Honolulu-California trade, ran a coffee shop, and served as an agent for his sibling’s artwork (AskArt). Charles found work as a photographer and portrait painter while William Hubert plied his trade as a jeweler. In this first of three trips to the islands, George painted watercolors and sketched scenes on lithographic stones of the landscape and people that were later published as in San Francisco by lithographers Britton and Rey. His portrait paintings made at the time of King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma are regarded as some of his best works. Returning to California, George joined his elder brother William Hubert in a jewelry business in Mokelumne Hill specializing in finely crafted gold from the mines (Driesbach, 1998).
In 1858 he traveled by canoe up the Fraser river in British Columbia , Canada when gold was discovered making sketches and paintings (Driesbach, 1998; Becker 2006). In 1871 he became a co-founder of the San Francisco Art Association and became well established in the city’s art community while brother William started art programs in San Francisco’s public schools. George gave art lessons, worked for the lithography firm of Britton and Rey, one of the earliest and most successful art and commercial lithography companies in the city, and painted in oils and watercolors in his studio where he specialized in portraiture. In 1892 after working on the project for a number of years, he finished a large cityscape painting of San Francisco twelve feet long and five feet high from sketches made in 1849 (Becker 2006). This painting became so popular that it was reproduced as a large lithograph in 1894 by lithographer H.H. Crocker. In the late 1890’s Burgess held a “San Francisco in 1849” retrospective show of the early boom town. He died in Berkeley, California in 1905. The Society of California Pioneers has several drawings and prints and a portrait painting by George Burgess.
Becker, Donna, transcribed in 2006 from The Bay of San Francisco, Vol. 2 pages 184-185, Lewis Publishing Co, 1892. Found in California Biography Project at www.freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com
Driesbach, Janice T., Harvey L. Jones, and Katherine Church Holland. 1998. Art of the Gold Rush. University of California Press.
Forbes, David W. 1992. Encounters With Paradise:Views of Hawaii and its People, 1778-1941. Honolulu Academy of Arts.
Palmquist, Peter and Thomas Kailbourn. 2002. Pioneer Photographers of the Far West: A Biographical Dictionary, 1840-1865.Stanford University Press.