F. W. Burton: Art and Irish Antiquarianism

Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting the Frederick William Burton: For the Love of Art exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland. The exhibition closes on 14th January, so if you have a chance to see it this week, I urge you to do so. F. W. Burton was born in Co. Wicklow in 1816. By the time he died, in London in 1900, he had cemented his reputation as a significant artist and successful director of the National Gallery. Indeed, it can certainly be argued that he was the most important Irish artist of the nineteenth century.

My own interest in Burton arose from his involvement with Irish antiquarian and scholarly circles in Dublin from the 1830s onwards, and in particular his associations with the Stokes family. This aspect of Burton’s life – and the pivotal role it played in his artistic development – is extremely well covered by the exhibition. Burton accompanied George Petrie on trips to important historical and archaeological sites, and many of his sketches, studies and watercolours from this period of his life are on display.

Aside from field trips, Burton read the popular and scholarly periodicals of his day, and the translations of Danish and Slavic ballads published by his friend Whitley Stokes (1830-1909) provided inspiration for some of his best-known paintings, notably Hellalil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs (1864), which was donated to the National Gallery of Ireland by Stokes’s sister, the art historian Margaret Stokes. This complex interplay between literature, linguistic study, translation, antiquarianism, archaeology, and art history is laid bare in the exhibition, and, significantly, it precedes Burton’s contact with the pre-Raphaelites, who also drew inspiration from medieval history and literature.

It is clear that the pre-Raphaelite circle had a strong influence on Burton, and this is most intensely evidenced in the attention to detail in point of fabrics, drapery and headdresses, flora and fauna, some of which seem almost hyper-real, as well as in his broader choice of themes and imagery.


Burton’s 1864 painting Hellalil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs used to great promotional effect at the National Gallery of Ireland

Even though I have written about Burton and his friendship with Stokes, I have never been a big fan of his most famous painting, The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, since I have always found it too sentimental for my taste. But the exhibition was an absolute revelation to me, opening my eyes to Burton’s talent and skill, both as a portraitist and a landscape painter. Some of my favourite exhibits were his preparatory sketches, studies and cartoons, which displayed a drawing technique of the highest order, and a transcendent power of observation.

Burton’s time spent in Germany had a major influence on his artistic technique, perhaps almost as much as his time in London, and his international significance is also well demonstrated in the display of some of the most important work of European art which he acquired during his tenure as director of the National Gallery in London (a position to which he was appointed by Gladstone). Ireland’s leading proponents of the visual arts often languish in the shadows of her more famous writers, but this brilliant and well-curated exhibition helps to rectify that situation and brings Frederick William Burton into the well-deserved spotlight.

I would like to thank the curator, Marie Bourke, for her generosity in providing me with complimentary tickets to see the exhibition.

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