After a five-week campaign on RTÉ television, Radio and Online, the Irish public has chosen Frederic William Burton's Hellelil and Hildebrand, "The Meeting on the Turret Stairs" as its most-loved painting in a public gallery. The painting is a popular fixture in the National Gallery of Ireland, drawing interest for its romantic and tragic subject matter. Adding to its mystique is the fact that this watercolour is only available to view for three hours each week, due to its medium and sensitivity to light.
The richly-coloured piece captures the poignant final embrace of the ill-fated lovers Hellelil and Hildebrand. The story goes that the princess Hellelil's father regarded the young soldier Hildebrand as an unsuitable match for his daughter and ordered his sons to kill him. Painted in 1864, it was presented to the National Gallery of Ireland in 1900 by Margaret Stokes, a sister of Whitley Stokes, whose translation of the Danish Ballad inspired Burton, the Co Clare-born artist. Despite the tragedy portrayed, it is still viewed as one of the most romantic paintings in Ireland. For more about the painting watch here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ePWhHu9Wwc
President Michael D Higgins said: 'I think the winning piece is a very considerable and beautiful painting. The achievement in the medium is extraordinary in terms of the materials - the beautiful tones, the lovely colours, and the richness of them, the detail and the range. It's an extraordinarily detailed and very beautiful picture. I think there is a sense in the painting itself that one is on the verge of something that isn't temporary but that it is more in the mode of the tragedy that will unfold. I think the painting itself would stand anyway, even without the power of the narrative. It's a great achievement: it must be one of the greatest achievements for a child of Corofin, Co. Clare!'
Sharon Corr, who championed the Burton piece in the Masterpiece campaign said: 'This painting captures the essence of human nature and how profoundly we are touched and affected by each other. It absolutely deserved to win because it truly reflects our everlasting desire to love and be loved, and when we look at it we instantly feel the utter devastation of a love forbidden and also hope beyond hope. From their body language you get this huge sense of profound emotion that they're parting and may never be together again. I think it's a very emotional piece.'
Mike Murphy said: I'm delighted it won. It's a fantastic watercolour. Technically it is simply sensational. It is like a still from a movie, a really well-dressed movie. We're a nation of romantics; we love romance. I think it's going to be etched in the Irish consciousness from here on in.'
Of the Masterpiece campaign he said: 'I'm delighted about it. We were really trying to bring the Irish public into the art that we own and the galleries that we have at our disposal around Ireland. And I think it has worked. I think what it has done is opened a window into the beautiful things that we own. We have some absolute gems here. The response really has exceeded my expectations to be honest. I really like the idea that so many people have actually seen these things and we know that the footfall in many of the galleries has increased.'
The National Gallery of Ireland has reported increased footfall around the campaign, with visitors to the gallery in April 2012 up by approximately 20,000 on the same period for 2011, noting an increase in visitors and comments following the RTÉ broadcast of the documentary 'Masterpiece: Ireland's Favourite Painting'. In the Gallery Shop, sales of merchandise relating to all the shortlist paintings have doubled and merchandise relating to Burton's 'Meeting on the Turret Stairs' has increased by 400% on the same period in 2011.
Sean Rainbird, Director of the National Gallery of Ireland said: "We are delighted to hear that Frederic Burton's The Meeting on the Turret Stairs has been selected Ireland's favourite painting. It is one of the most popular watercolours in the National Gallery's collection due in part to the romance and mystery of the story of the lovers Hellelil and Hildebrand depicted in this richly coloured work. Painted by Burton when he was at the height of his career, The Meeting on the Turret Stairs has been popular since it was first exhibited in London in 1864. The writer George Eliot (who had her portrait painted by Burton in 1865) praised the picture saying: 'the face of the knight is the face of a man to whom the kiss is a sacrament.' 'Masterpiece: Ireland's Favourite Painting' has highlighted the valuable contribution that the country's museums and galleries play in people's lives today."
Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ, also held at the National Gallery, was the second most popular painting in the campaign, and vying closely for third place were Harry Clarke's The Eve of St Agnes, held at the Hugh Lane Gallery and William Leech's A Convent Garden, also held by the National Gallery of Ireland.
Hellelil and Hildebrand: The Meeting on the Turret Stairs is on view in the Millennium Wing of the National Gallery of Ireland on Mondays and Wednesdays (11am-12pm) and Saturdays (2-3pm). Viewing times will be extended this weekend: Friday 25 May and Saturday 26 May: 10am-5pm; Sunday 27 May: 12-5pm.
This was a hugely ambitious project which set out, through partnerships with galleries and public collections across Ireland, to bring a simple message to the Irish public: to treasure the art on display in Ireland's public collections. We have been overwhelmed by the positive public response to the campaign and would like to thank every person in the country who watched, listened, voted or visited a gallery during the campaign. The evidence is that it has worked: galleries across Ireland have been reporting increased visitor numbers and we have been receiving countless messages of thanks and congratulations from the audience for bringing these paintings to their attention. We've had wonderful engagement from schools all across Ireland, too, and we hope that the Masterpiece website and YouTube content about each of the paintings will remain useful teaching resources for generations to come.
We'd like to thank An Post's Business Response Unit for sponsoring a freepost address, which enabled many of you to vote by post for free. We were particularly delighted that so many adults and children chose to send us postcards that they had designed themselves via our freepost address - thank you to everyone who sent us an artwork of their own!
We'd also like to thank the galleries who have been hugely supportive of the project from the very beginning of this campaign. These are timeless and enriching places to visit - and we in Ireland are extremely lucky that many of our public art collections can be visited for free. We very much hope that people across Ireland will actively support our galleries nationwide and that the nation's love-affair with the visual arts will continue.
Find a public gallery near you in our "Go Visit' section here: http://www.rte.ie/tv/masterpiece/galleries.html