Frederick William Burton
Biography of 19th Century Irish Subject & Genre Painter.

The Meeting on the Turret Stairs
(1864) (Hellelil and Hildebrand)

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Sir Frederick William Burton (1816-1900)

Born in Corofin, County Clare, the son of an amateur landscape painter, Burton studied drawing under the Brocas brothers at the Royal Dublin Society School, alongside Henry Brocas and Robert West. A fast developer he achieved distinction as a painter of watercolour portraits and colourful miniatures on ivory. In 1837, he showed three portraits at the Royal Hibernian Academy and shortly afterwards was elected an Associate Member. Two years later, at the age of only 23, he was elected a full Academician and continued showing at the RHA for many years, even after he moved to London. Meantime, in 1842, he began to exhibit at the Royal Academy. During his early painting career in Dublin, Burton was mainly occupied in portraiture, and painted a large number of notable individuals. In 1851, he started on the first of several prolonged trips around Europe - 7-year tour of Bavaria and other parts of Germany - which gave him with a deep and intimate knowledge of the works of the Old Masters. In addition to visiting numerous art museums, he made copious sketches, figurative and genre studies, which provided the basis for a number of drawings he exhibited in London on his annual return visits. He was elected an Associate Member of the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours in 1855, and a full member in the following year.

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An exceptionally erudite man, he was also acquainted with a wide circle of historians, writers and antiquaries, including George Petrie (an early influence with whom he collaborated on a series of archeological drawings), Sir Samuel Ferguson, Thomas Davis, and Professor Eugene O’Curry. He was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy, as well as a founder member of the Archaeological Society of Ireland, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. He stopped painting in 1874, upon his appointment by William Gladstone as the third director of the National Gallery in London, where he was responsible for a string of astute acquisitions, which greatly improved the Gallery’s collection. These included: The Virgin of the Rocks (Leonardo Davinci), The Ambassadors (Hans Holbein), Charles I on Horseback (Anthony Van Dyck), A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal (Jan Vermeer), Admiral Pulido Pareja (Velasquez) and The Shrimp Girl (William Hogarth). In addition, he made significant additions to the noted series of Early Italian pictures in the gallery. Total acquisitions on behalf of the collection completed during his period of office amounted to more than 500 works. Burton was knighted for his efforts in 1884, and received an Honorary Doctorate of Law in Dublin in 1889. He died in London.


As an artist, Sir Frederic William Burton worked almost entirely in watercolours, or chalks, although his style was such that at first glance his paintings like like oils. His most notable work was his masterpiece The Meeting on the Turret Stairs (1864) - depicting an episode from the Danish folk story concerning the tragic affair between Hellelil and Hildebrand. Burton's work illustrates the final meeting of the lovers. The painting exemplifies Burton's slow but meticulous style of work. Typically, before starting on a final composition, he would prepare numerous studies in pencil and watercolour, and we know of several dozen studies for The Meeting on the Turret Stairs.

He was also an outstanding draughtsman, renowned for his figurework as well as his Renaissance-like studies of drapery. One remarkable facet of his work was the fact that he painted exclusively with his left hand, due to a childhood accident which rendered his right hand and arm useless. Burton was influenced by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the leader of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, although he never became a member himself. Examples of his sketches, drawings and watercolours reside in numerous public collections in Ireland and Britain.

Most Expensive Work by Frederick William Burton

The auction record for a work by Frederick William Burton was set in 1999, when his portrait painting, entitled The Child Miranda, was sold at Christie's, London, for £265,500.

More Information

• For details of other creative practitioners from Ireland, see: Irish Artists: Painters and Sculptors.
• For more about watercolour portraitists like Frederick William Burton, see: Irish Art Guide.
• For more about painting in Ireland, see: Homepage.

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