Frederic William Burton (1816-1900), 'The Meeting on the Turret Stairs' 1864 - detail. © National Gallery of Ireland.
Frederic William Burton (1816-1900), 'The Meeting on the Turret Stairs' - detail. © National Gallery of Ireland.Credit

Press release 18/9/2017

Frederic William Burton: For the Love of Art

25 October 2017 – 14 January 2018

Ticket booking is now open  Friends of the NGI go free.

The National Gallery of Ireland is delighted to present a major exhibition celebrating the life and work of Frederic William Burton (1816-1900), the distinguished Irish artist and influential director of The National Gallery, London, from 25 October 2017 to 14 January 2018.

Featuring c.100 works drawn from the National Gallery of Ireland, British Museum, The National Gallery, V&A, National Portrait Gallery, London, Yale Centre for British Art, and other international public and private collections, the exhibition will explore all aspects of Burton’s career as an artist, including his years in Germany and in London working alongside the Pre-Raphaelite Circle. It will give insights to his tenure as director of The National Gallery, London, where over twenty years, he was responsible for extending the Gallery, writing the 1889 edition of their catalogue, creating more public access as well as overseeing the acquisition by purchase, gift and bequest of 500 works including Leonardo’s Virgin on the Rocks (1485), Botticelli’s Venus and Mars (1483), Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533), and many other significant masterpieces.

Burton’s best-known watercolours, The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child (1841), the romantic Hellelil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs (1864), and his celebrated portrait of the novelist George Eliot, are among more than 70 works by Burton that will be shown alongside paintings and drawings by his contemporaries, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Maddox Brown, Daniel Maclise and William Mulready. The exhibition will feature a number of works Burton acquired for The National Gallery including Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, Veronese’s Dream of Saint Helena and Claude Lorrain’s A View in Rome.

Frederic William Burton was born in Co. Wicklow in 1816 the son of an amateur painter and spent his early childhood in Corofin, Co. Clare. His childhood, according to his friend, the novelist George Eliot, was ‘saddened by much trouble, his health miserably delicate’, not helped by an injury to his right arm that resulted in his painting with his left hand. However, he was precociously talented and, following training in Dublin, built a considerable reputation as a portrait, landscape, and narrative painter, showing work in Ireland and abroad.

In 1842, following an early summer tour of Germany, Burton visited Munich in 1844, when he reputedly made copies and restored paintings for the King of Bavaria, returning to spend seven years in Germany (1851-58). In 1858 Burton settled in London, where he established his career showing work at the Old Watercolour Society (now the Royal Watercolour Society) and at the Royal Academy of Arts. He greatly admired the work of the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in 1848, and established friendships with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and the novelist George Eliot, amongst many leading arts figures of the day. In 1874 Burton gave up painting completely when he was appointed director of The National Gallery, London by Prime Minister William Gladstone. Between 1874 and 1894, aided by the sales of the great English aristocratic collections in the 1880s, Burton acquired over 500 works by French, Spanish, British, Flemish, Dutch and Italian masters, thereby laying the foundations of the National Gallery, London’s collection. He remained as director for 20 years before he retired in 1894. 

Sir Nicholas Penny, former director of The National Gallery (2008-2015), noted that Burton effectively ‘created the National Gallery as we know it today’.

(Nicholas Penny, The Sixteenth-Century Italian Paintings, vol. 1 (London: National Gallery, 2004), p.xiii).

Curator of the exhibition, Dr Marie Bourke, says: 'Sir Frederic William Burton was recognised as an individual of artistic excellence and intellectual power in his lifetime, and acknowledged as one of the most significant Irish cultural figures of the nineteenth century. Yet, as an artist who features consistently in surveys of Irish and British art, and whose Meeting on the Turret Stairs is one of the most popular artworks in the National Gallery of Ireland, his contribution as an artist and museum director remains undervalued. It is hoped that this exhibition will encourage a serious reassessment of the achievements of this outstanding cultural figure'.



Exhibition Dates: 25 October 2017 – 14 January 2018

Curator: Dr Marie Bourke

Tickets: Online ticket booking €15 and €10 concession. €5 for students. Free for Friends of the NGI, children under 16, and pre-booked school groups. Audio Guide is free with ticket admission.

Publication: An accompanying publication Frederic William Burton: For the Love of Art (National Gallery of Ireland, €15.95pb) is edited by Claire Crowley, with essay contributions by Marie Bourke, Patrick Duffy, Alison FitzGerald, Elena Greer, Anne Hodge and Janet McLean.

Education and Public Engagement Programme: As part of the associated public engagement programme there will be an introductory talk on the exhibition by Dr Marie Bourke on Sunday 29 October, at 3pm (admission free). See What’s On



Frederic William Burton

1816    Born 8 April in Co. Wicklow. Early childhood in Corofin, Co. Clare.

1820s   Burton family moves to Dublin.

1830s   Studies  in Dublin with Henry Brocas senior and his son, Henry junior, masters at the Dublin Society School of Landscape and Ornament. Takes classes from portrait miniaturist, Samuel Lover. George Petrie becomes his mentor.

1832    Exhibits for the first time at the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA)

1838    Paints in Co. Claire and exhibits A Clare Peasant at the RHA.

1839    Elected a member of the RHA. Travels in the west of Ireland with George Petrie.

1840    Elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) and the Irish Archaeological Society.

1841    In London to oversee the engraving of A Blind Girl at the Holy Well. Travels in Kerry with George Petrie.

1842    Exhibits for the first time at the Royal Academy London. First trip to Germany.

1843    Death of his father in Dublin. Visits Sligo. Produces illustrations for publications including Rev. Nathanael Burton’s History of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham.

1844    In Munich. Copies paintings and restores artworks for the King of Bavaria.

1845    Becomes trustee of the RHA. Paints in Sligo.

1846    Elected to the RIA Committee of Antiquities.

1847    Based mainly in London.

1848    Visits western isles of Scotland.

1850    Death of his brothers Edward, aged 41, and Robert, aged 39.

1851    Based in Munich.

1852    Death of his mother in Somerset. Becomes member of the Munich Artists Association.

1853    Visits Austria.

1855    In Nuremberg. Elected member of the Old Watercolour Society (OWS), London.

1857    Exhibits at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition. Spends two weeks on the Aran Islands.

1858    Meets George Eliot in Munich.

1859    Based in London at 1 Lindsay Row, Chelsea.

1860    paints with William Evans of Eton, and again in 1862.

1861    Listed in UK census as Irish, unmarried, historical painter. Purchases a house at 43 Argyll Road, Kensington.

1862    Exhibits at London International Exhibition of first OWS Winter Exhibition.

1863    Elected a fellow of the London Society of Antiquities. Periodic eyesight problems.

1864    Trip to Italy with George Eliot and her companion George Henry Lewes. Begins portrait of Eliot.

1867    Provides illustrations for George Smith’s Cornhill Magazine and Pall Mall Gazette

1868    Becomes engaged to Mary Palliser of Comeragh House, Waterford, whose portrait he paints.

1869    Trip to Italy.

1870    Resigns from OWS in support of Edward Burne-Jones.

1873    Publishes articles in the Fortnightly Review, Saturday Review, and Portfolio.

1874    Appointed director of The National Gallery, London.

1876    Periodic trips to Italy, via Paris, and visits Ireland.

1879    His fiancée Mary Palliser dies of pneumonia.

1884    Awarded a knighthood.

1886    Becomes fellow of the Royal Watercolour Society (formerly OWS).

1887    Contributes to the Royal Jubilee Exhibition, Manchester.

1889    Publishes National Gallery, London catalogue.

1894    Retires from The National Gallery, London. Visits the west of Ireland.

1895    Confined to bed by illness. Receives frequent visits from Lady Gregory.

1899    Becomes a guarantor of the Irish Literary Theatre.

1900    Dies in Kensington, 16 March. Buried 22 March in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin. Memorial Loan Exhibition of Burton’s work at the National Gallery of Ireland, 6-31 December.


Quotes about Frederic William Burton: 

William Thackeray, following a visit to the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1843 where Burton was exhibiting, noted: ‘the drawings and reputation of Mr. Burton are well known in England: his pictures were the most admired in the collection’.

Queen Victoria noticed his portraits at the Royal Academy in 1849, asking: ‘Why does not Mr Burton come to London?’

Scottish author and historian Thomas Carlyle visited Ireland in 1849 and met Burton; he lauded him: ‘Burton, a young portrait–painter, with a look of real painter–talent’.

In 1864 when Hellelil and Hildebrand, The Meeting on the Turret Stairs (1864) was exhibited at the Old Watercolour Society, the painting was eloquently described by the novelist George Eliot (1819-80) in a letter:  ‘He has just painted a divine picture – better than Millais’ Huguenots, which is now to be seen at the OWS exhibition. The subject is from a Norse legend, but that is no matter, the picture tells its story. A knight in mailed armour and surcoat has met the fair tall woman he secretly loves on a turret stair. By an uncontrolled movement he has seized her arm and is kissing it. She, amazed, has dropped the flowers she held in her other hand. 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. The kiss is on the fur-lined sleeve that covers the arm, and the face of the knight is the face of a man to whom the kiss is a sacrament’.

When Burton showed his exquisite portrait of Mrs George Smith at the first Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, Oscar Wilde arranged with the editor of the Dublin University Magazine to write a piece about the exhibition: ‘Mr Frederick Burton, of whom all Irishmen are so justly proud, is represented by a fine water-colour portrait of Mrs George Smith; one would almost believe it to be in oils, so great is the lustre on this lady’s raven-black hair, and so rich and broad and vigorous is the painting of a Japanese scarf she is wearing’.

Henry James saw Burton’s portrait of George Eliot and wrote: ‘One of the greatest good fortunes perhaps - if not absolutely for posterity, at least for the original - is Sir Frederick Burton's admirable drawing of George Eliot, as fine an example as can be met of the "sympathetic" control of elements that might well at first have appeared uncontrollable’.