Sir Frederic William Burton (1816-1900)
Hellelil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
Watercolour and gouache on paper, 95.5 x 60.8 cm
Bequeathed, Miss Margaret Stokes, 1900
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This is one of the most famous images in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland. The subject is taken from a medieval Danish ballad which was translated into English and published in 1855. It tells the story of Hellelil, who falls in love with one of her personal guards, Hildebrand, Prince of Engelland. Her father is angered by this and sends his seven sons to kill the young prince. Rather than directly showing an episode from the story, Burton has chosen to depict the final meeting of the two lovers. The image has been given added poignancy and strength by the obscured faces of the figures, who look away from each other, and the tender touch between them. The rose petals on the step next to Hellelil symbolise the transience of beauty.
Burton’s interest in medieval imagery was not unusual in the mid-19th century. The Pre-Raphaelites, with whom he was friendly, were taking a similar interest, and Gothic architecture was being studied seriously for the first time. However, Burton’s attention to detail is almost scientific in its precision. He was a close friend of the Irish antiquary and artist, George Petrie, and often travelled with him, becoming knowledgeable in these matters.
Although Burton never worked in oils, the intensity and precise layering of colour in this watercolour give an effect similar to an oil painting.
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