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Sir Frederic William Burton, R.H.A.

Sir Frederic William Burton, R.H.A., water-colour painter and Director of the National Gallery, was born in Co. Wicklow on 8th April, 1816, the third son of Samuel Frederick Burton, also an Irish painter of distinction, by his wife, Hannah Mallet, of Dublin. The Burtons had a long connection with Clifden House, Corofin, which they built around the middle of the eighteenth century. The artist's grandparents were Edward William Burton, Clifden, who introduced the Moravians to Corofin, and his wife, Jane Blood of Roxton, Corofin.

Burton was quick to follow his father’s footsteps and, while still young, was sent to the Brocas brothers in Dublin to learn the rudiments of his art. Here he met George Petrie with whom he became very friendly and who influenced both his mind and his art for a time. Burton, however, with the help of his very keen colour sense, soon outstripped his friend and established his reputation as a painter of miniatures and watercolours. When only twenty-one he exhibited three portraits in the Royal Hibernian Academy and was elected an Associate; and, two years later, at the early age of twenty-three, he was elected a member.

He continued to paint and exhibit in Dublin until 1854, when he went to live and study on the Continent. During these years his best known works, apart from his portraits, were: ‘The Arran Fisherman’s Drowned Child’, and ‘A Connaught Toilette’, both painted in 1841. Among his early portraits were pencil sketches of Thomas Davis, George Elliot, Paddy Conneely, the Galway Piper, Sir Samuel Ferguson, Eugene O’Curry, Charlotte Grace O’Brien, Sir Lucius O’Brien, etc. In fact, there were few Irish celebrities of the period he did not paint or draw. When the famous collection of Irish songs and music was first published by Davis and Gavan Duffy, Burton designed the beautiful frontispiece, a work which was kept secret for many years.

He stayed in Germany for five years, working on the old masters as well as making sketches and studies for future use, and, when he took up residence in London, he used many of these latter for his exhibits to the Royal Academy and the Old Water-colour Society. He was an extremely popular painter, and, in being compared to Holbein, Cranach, Hemling and Van Eych, received greater praise from The Times than any painter during his lifetime. He was, however, a conscientious as well as a highly original and accomplished artist, and he earned the high price which his best works fetched. It is interesting to note that he always painted with the left hand, as his right one had been injured in a childhood accident, and that his eyesight was so weak that he was often compelled to stop work for long periods.

His best-known later works include ‘The Meeting on the Turret Stairs’ (1864) and ‘Cassandra Fedele’ (1869).

In 1874, Gladstone appointed him Director of the National Gallery in London, and he never painted another picture. In fact, ‘A Venetian Courtesan’, on which he was working when he received news of the appointment, was never finished.

However, his loss to painting was more than made up for by his magnificent work in accumulating the present great collection of the National Gallery, a collection which makes it one of the greatest in the world. His indefatigable energy, his knowledge and judgement in art, and his courage in buying were the qualities which made him the greatest Director the Gallery has known. Leonarda da Vinci’s ‘Madonna Among Rocks’, was acquired by him at a cost £9,00; Mantegna’s ‘Samson and Delilah’, Hogarth’s ‘Shrimp Girl’, Van Dyck’s ‘Charles I’, as well as fine works by Botticelli, Pierro della Francesca, Crevelli, Poussin, etc., were also bought by him for the Gallery.

For his great work he was knighted in 1884 and received the honorary degree of LL.D. from Trinity College, Dublin. He retired in 1894 and lived quietly in Kensington until his death on the 16th March, 1900. He never married but adopted the orphan family of his brother, Rev. Robert Burton of Borris, who had died young.

In the National Gallery of Ireland there are three portraits of Burton, as well as many of his own works in water-colours, chalks and pencil.

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The Meeting on the Turret Stairs
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Cassandra Fedele
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