words Edel Cassidy
Frederic William Burton (1816–1900) is an artist held in special esteem by the National Gallery of Ireland and its visitors. Hellelil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs is one of the Gallery’s best-loved works. It was voted by the Irish public as Ireland’s favourite painting in 2012 from among ten works shortlisted by critics. Part of its special status at the Gallery lies with the unusual conditions for viewing it: installed in its own cabinet, the doors are opened only four times a week for an hour at a time. Keeping it otherwise in darkness has helped preserve its luminosity and exquisite colours. The restricted access to it has also heightened its mystique. Burton, who worked almost exclusively on paper, was not limited to this one artwork and the Gallery is fortunate in possessing large holdings of his works.
Burton was born in April 1816 and his early years were spent in County Clare. Clifden House, Corofin, was the seat of the Burton family from the late eighteenth into the nineteenth century. They were High Sheriffs and Justices of the Peace in the county. His childhood was plagued by ill health and he also suffered an injury to his right arm that resulted in his painting with his left hand.
Encouraged by his father, Burton undertook artistic training in Dublin and became an associate member of the RHA in 1837, at the age of twenty-one, and a full member two years later. His reputation for fine modelling in pen, ink and chalks, combined with his delicate brushwork in watercolour on ivory and paper, ensured his early success as a miniaturist and portrait painter.
He was spotted by the topographical artist, antiquarian and music collector George Petrie, when copying a painting in a Dublin gallery. The two men became very friendly and Petrie influenced Burton’s mind and art for a time. Between 1839 and 1841 Burton visited the west of Ireland with Petrie and became captivated by the people and wild landscape of Connemara.