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Major exhibition celebrating the life and work of Frederic William Burton on view at the National Gallery of Ireland
Frederic William Burton (1816-1900), Hellelil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland.

DUBLIN.- The National Gallery of Ireland is presenting 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 also give insights to his tenure as director of The National Gallery, London, where over twenty years, he was responsible for extending the Gallery and creating more public access as well as overseeing the acquisition 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’ best-known watercolours, The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child (1841) and the romantic Hellelil and Hildebrand, The Meeting on the Turret Stairs (1864), voted Ireland’s favourite painting in 2012, 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 The 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 painting 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. He remained as director for 20 years before he retired in 1894.

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 Gallery’s collection. 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).

The exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated book, edited by Claire Crowley, with essay contributions by Dr Marie Bourke, Professor Patrick Duffy, Dr Alison FitzGerald, Elena Greer, Anne Hodge and Janet McLean.

The exhibition is curated by Dr Marie Bourke: “Sir Frederic William Burton RHA 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 The 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.”

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