Frederic William Burton (1816-1900)
Hellelil and Hildebrand, The Meeting on the Turret Stairs
Watercolour and gouache on paper, 95.5 x 60.8 cm
Bequeathed, Miss Margaret Stokes, 1900
Mondays and Wednesdays: 11.30am to 12.30pm, excluding bank holidays.
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This richly coloured watercolour painting depicts the ill-fated lovers Hellelil and Hildebrand, meeting on the stone stairway of a medieval tower. The princess and her bodyguard had fallen in love but her father regarded the young soldier as an unsuitable match for his daughter and ordered his sons to kill him. The painting captures the couple’s poignant final embrace. Burton was inspired by the story of the ill-fated lovers told in an old Danish ballad. The poem had been translated into English in 1855 by Whitley Stokes, a lawyer and philologist, and friend of the artist.
This watercolour, painted by Burton when he was at the height of his career, has been popular since it was first exhibited at the Old Watercolour Society’s Annual exhibition in London in 1864. The writer George Eliot (who had her portrait painted by Burton in 1865) praised it saying: ‘the subject might have been made the most vulgar thing in the world – the artist has raised it to the highest pitch of refined emotion’ and went on to focus on the romance in the picture: ‘the face of the knight is the face of a man to whom the kiss is a sacrament.’
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs is a very important work in Burton’s oeuvre, he made numerous preparatory studies for it, four of which are in the National Gallery of Ireland’s collection. Burton sold the painting to a dealer, Edward Fox White in 1864 but the contract they signed notes that Burton retained the copyright, presumably aware of how valuable the image would be as a print. The painting changed hands a number of times over the following 30 years but in 1898 it was bought by Miss Margaret McNair Stokes (sister of Whitley Stokes). An article by Jeanette Stokes in the Irish Arts Review, (Vol.26, no.3, 2009) refers to the fact that there are tantalising hints in some of Margaret Stokes’s letters to her family that her interest in Burton was something more than friendship. Margaret Stokes was writing a biography of Burton when she died in 1900, in her will she bequeathed the painting, along with a number of other works by Burton, to the National Gallery of Ireland.
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Researching Burton at the National Gallery of Ireland