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Masterpiece 2: Frederic William Burton Masterpiece 2 - Hellelil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
Photo © National Gallery of Ireland

Frederic William Burton (Corofin, Co. Clare 1816-1900, London)
Hellelil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs,1864
Watercolour and gouche, 95.5 x 60.8cm
Margaret Stokes Besquest, 1900.)
National Gallery Of Ireland, Dublin
The Artist

Frederic William Burton was born in Clifden House in Corofin, Co. Clare. Burton's father Samuel was an amateur painter who encouraged his son. As a young man, Burton trained at the Dublin Society's Drawing Schools and started his career as a painter of miniature portraits. He then moved to London to make his living as a watercolour painter.

The antiquarian and artist George Petrie was a mentor and friend who brought Burton to Connemara in 1838 and encouraged him to become involved in the Royal Irish Academy. Burton established himself in London as a painter of subject pictures and portraits. Other significant works include: The Blind Girl at the Holy Well (1840); The Aran Fisherman's Drowned Child (1841) and Faust's First Sight of Marguerite (1857). Burton worked in watercolours throughout his career; no oil paintings by him are known of. He greatly admired the work of the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which was founded in 1848.

He was appointed Director of the National Gallery in London in 1874 where he remained until his retirement in 1894. He acquired many significant works while Director including Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks.

The Painting

The subject of this painting is taken from a medieval Danish ballad which was translated into English in 1855 by Whitley Stokes, a lawyer and philologist, and friend of the artist.

This richly coloured watercolour painting depicts Hellelil and Hildebrand, meeting on the stone stairway of a tower. The princess's father regarded the young soldier, Hildebrand as an unsuitable match for his daughter and ordered his sons to kill him. The painting captures the poignant final embrace of the ill-fated lovers.

The image is one of the most popular in the National Gallery's collection. Despite the tragic story portrayed, it is still viewed as one of the most romantic paintings in Ireland. There have even been marriage proposals made before it.

Note: Due to its medium and sensitivity to light, the painting is only available to view for a limited period on the following days: Mondays and Wednesdays 11-12pm; Saturdays 2-3pm. The painting is located in the Millennium Wing (Room 1) of the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.


Foreword by Mike Murphy Foreword by Mike Murphy

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