Richard Walter Jenkins (Richard Burton) was born on 10th November 1925 in the mining village of Pontrhydyfen, situated in the Afan Valley in South Wales. He was the tenth of eleven children. After his mother's death when he was only two years old, he went to live at the home of his eldest sister and her husband, Cecilia ('Cis') and Elfed James, in nearby Taibach, Port Talbot. He passed the scholarship for Port Talbot Secondary School and started there in the autumn of 1937. He was a keen sportsman, particularly talented in and enthusiastic about rugby, and was a regular member of his local Youth Centre, whose pivotal point was its drama group. At the age of seventeen, he moved into the home of Philip Burton, his English teacher and mentor. Philip Burton later became Richard's legal guardian and Richard subsequently adopted his surname.
Burton's first professional stage appearance occurred after he auditioned successfully for a small part in Emlyn Williams's play, The Druid's Rest, which opened at the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool in November 1943. After leaving school, he entered Exeter College, Oxford to read English Literature and Italian. Here he met and became friends with fellow actor Robert ('Tim') Hardy and Nevill Coghill, Fellow in English Literature and Director of the Friends of the Oxford University Dramatic Society. Burton followed a compressed six month course, offered by the University during wartime for those proceeding to military service, and afterwards joined the Royal Air Force.
After de-mobilisation at the end of the war, Burton moved to London and performed in a handful of supporting roles in the West End under the patronage of the influential theatre manager, Hugh ('Binkie') Beaumont. He made his film debut in 1948 in another Emlyn Williams's play, The Last Days of Dolwyn. His performance as Prince Hal in the 1951 production of Henry V at Stratford-upon-Avon earned him glowing notices from critics, including - significantly - Kenneth Tynan.
After a brief spell in Hollywood, during which he received his first Oscar nomination for his role in the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novel My Cousin Rachel, Burton returned to London, playing Hamlet and Coriolanus in the 1953/4 London Old Vic Season and then Henry V and Othello/ Iago in their 1955/6 Season. He was presented with the Evening Standard Drama Award for his performance as Henry V and was hailed by Tynan among other critics as 'the natural successor to Olivier'.
In 1957 Burton bought a villa, which he named 'Le Pays de Galles', and set up residence in Celigny, Switzerland. Here he began to accumulate a personal entourage of agents, lawyers and assistants, including Aaron Frosch, Valerie Douglas, Pierre Folliet. His relationship with the actress Elizabeth Taylor, whom he had met on the set of Cleopatra in 1961, became the subject of an international scandal, attracting a relentless media scrutiny which was to become a pervasive and frequently oppressive presence throughout Burton's life. Their marriage in 1964 was also the start of a number of onscreen collaborations, including perhaps most notably Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
After the move to Switzerland, Burton turned his attention increasingly to screen acting. In the mid 1960s, he attained the zenith of his box office power. This period resulted in such critically acclaimed films as Becket, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold,The Night of the Iguana and The Taming of the Shrew, as well as a number of indifferent productions. He was nominated for an Oscar seven times but never awarded one. His last film role was as the Party leader, O'Brien, in an adaptation of George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four, which was also made in 1984, the year of Burton's death. Burton made various recordings for radio, including famously as the Narrator in Douglas Cleverdon's production of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood, and also performed in a handful of television dramas, including the epic serial Wagner in 1983, although he had little regard for television as a medium. His theatre career also included two runs on Broadway as King Arthur in the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot (1960 and 1980-1). His last stage appearance was with Elizabeth Taylor in a 1983 production of the Noel Coward comedy, Private Lives.
Burton was married five times: to Sybil Williams in 1949, to Elizabeth Taylor in 1964 and again in 1975, to Susan Hunt in 1976 and lastly to Sally Hay in 1983. He had two daughters, Kate and Jessica, with his first wife Sybil, three step-children, Michael and Christopher Wilding and Liza Todd, and one adopted daughter, Maria. He died on 5th August 1984 from a cerebral haemorrhage.
For details of the books used to write the administrative history and for other useful references, see the bibliography listed under Publication Note below
At the heart of the Collection are the diaries (RWB/1/1), whose coverage is most concentrated during the 1960s and early 1970s, the years in which Burton resided mainly in Switzerland and which he spent with Elizabeth Taylor. The diaries have been extensively used by Melvyn Bragg, the most authoritative of his biographers to date. Several of the diaries, in offering a daily account of life on a filmset, effectively document the process of film production, including script revisions, financing, casting, costume design, location, directing, publicity and critical reception. Films treated in some detail include The Taming of the Shrew, The Spy who came in from the Cold, The Comedians, Anne of the Thousand Days and The Battle of Sutjeska. Burton's work in the theatre, particularly his early performances in Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon and with the Old Vic Company in London, are less well represented, although there is a fair amount of material relating to the productions of Camelot and of Noel Coward's Private Lives.
The Collection sheds further light on well-publicised aspects of Burton's life, such as his marriages to Elizabeth Taylor, his struggle with alcohol and his often ambivalent attitude towards his profession. Both the diaries (RWB/1/1) and the correspondence (RWB/1/2) document the activities of the entourage of agents, lawyers and assistants which surrounded Burton and the pressures which the Burton-Taylor industry at times exerted upon his family and internal life. The collection of press cuttings (RWB/1/9) and the newspaper cartoons within the Pictures series (RWB/1/10) attest to the continued interest and speculation he attracted in the popular discourse of the time.
As a pre-eminent actor of both stage and screen, Burton had a wide acquaintance in both fields. In addition, his relationship with Elizabeth Taylor afforded an opportunity to meet and mix with some of the most wealthy and influential people in society. Some of the numerous significant figures represented in the archive include John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Peter Hall, Emlyn Williams, Nevil Coghill, Robert Hardy, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quayle, Frank Sinatra, John Osborne, Noel Coward, Franco Zeffirelli, Alexander Korda, Rex Harrison, Guy and Marie-Helene Rothschild, Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly of Monaco, Henry Kissinger and Marshall Tito.
The Archive also affords perspectives on Burton's life and work which are less generally known, such as his intellectual interests (apparent, for example, in his diary commentaries on his reading, a short period of tenure as a Fellow at St Peter's, Oxford and in his attempts to teach himself foreign languages) and in his ambitions as a writer. Burton himself commented that the compulsion he felt towards writing was far stronger than that which he felt towards acting. He counted among his literary acquaintances Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, Noel Coward and T.H. White. His correspondence files include drafts and final versions of various published articles on Dylan Thomas, rugby and the Welsh language among other subjects. The script and film recording of a largely autobiographical piece, A Christmas Story - the only work of creative writing he published - are held within the collection. The later diaries contain references to his unfulfilled intention to write an autobiography and also adumbrate the idea for a novel based on the history of the Peregrina pearl (a jewel supposedly once owned by Mary Queen of Scots which Burton purchased for Elizabeth Taylor). The entries reveal a keen intelligence and a naturally curious and agile mind; he was continually eager to acquaint himself with the peoples, customs, language and politics of the places in which he resided. The 1971-2 Diary, one of the most detailed in the series, contains an extensive account of the filming of The Battle of Sutjeska in Yugoslavia and of several meetings with Marshall Tito. Reflections on the Slav people and on the impact of communism punctuate these entries.
The archive is the most comprehensive source of primary information to date about Burton's life and work. It forms a significant resource for twentieth-century film and theatre history. Some broad areas of interest represented within the archive include: debates about the relative merits of stage and film acting, the 'studio' dominance of the film industry, the founding of a national theatre and the cult of celebrity.
The archive also has research potential for the study of social history. RWB/1/1, for example, contains a diary from 1940, kept by Burton between the ages of fourteen and fifteen, while he was living at the home of his sister and her husband in Taibach, Port Talbot. In entries which are short but frequently evocative, a narrative of daily life is juxtaposed with glimpses of the impact of wartime on the life of the immediate community and beyond. The autobiography of his mentor and legal guardian, Philip Burton (held at RWB/1/12/1) includes his reflections on working as a lecturer for the Workers' Educational Association in Port Talbot and his association with amateur dramatic societies in South Wales. Furthermore, in documenting his strong affiliation with the political and cultural landscape of South Wales, the archive offers insight into the importance of Burton's Welsh identity, thus offering some apposite material for cultural studies disciplines relating to the study of subjectivity and cultural identity.
In addition, there is a small quantity of posthumous papers collected by his widow, Sally Burton, including a file of material relating to the publication of Melvyn Bragg's biography, Rich, published in 1988 (RWB/1/2/2/18).