Irish painter Sir Frederic William Burton RHA is born in County Wicklow on April 8, 1816. The third son of Samuel Frederick Burton and his wife Hanna Mallett, he is taken by his parents to live in County Clare on the west coast of Ireland at the age of six. The old Burton seat is Clifden House, Corofin, County Clare, which is built around the middle of the eighteenth century. The artist’s grandparents were Major Edward William Burton, Clifden, who was High Sheriff of Clare in 1799, and his wife, Jane Blood of nearby Roxton, County Clare. In his youth he has strong sympathy with the Young Ireland movement.
Educated in Dublin, Burton is elected an associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy at the age of twenty-one and an academician two years later. In 1842 he begins to exhibit at the Royal Academy. A visit to Germany and Bavaria in 1842 is the first of a long series of trips to various parts of Europe, which give him a profound knowledge of the works of the Old Masters. From 1851 he spends seven years working as a painter in the service of Maximilian II of Bavaria.
Burton works with George Petrie on archaeological sketches and is on the council of the Royal Irish Academy and the Archaeological Society of Ireland. He is elected an associate of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours in 1855, and a full member in the following year. He resigns in 1870, and is reelected as an honorary member in 1886.
In 1874 Burton is appointed the third director of the National Gallery, London, in succession to Sir William Boxall RA. In June 1874, he obtains a special grant to acquire the art collection of Alexander Barker, which includes Piero della Francesca‘s Nativity and Sandro Botticelli‘s Venus and Mars. In 1876 a bequest of 94 paintings, mainly by Dutch artists but also including works by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Dieric Bouts and Canaletto, is made by the British haberdasher Wynne Ellis. Also in this year an extension to the Gallery by Edward Middleton Barry is completed.
During the twenty years that Burton holds this post he is responsible for many important purchases, among them Leonardo da Vinci‘s Virgin of the Rocks, Raphael‘s Ansidei Madonna, Anthony van Dyck‘s Equestrian portrait of Charles I, Hans Holbein the Younger‘s Ambassadors, and the Admiral Pulido Pareja, by Diego Velázquez (this subsequently attributed to Velázquez’s assistant Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo). He also adds to the noted series of Early Italian pictures in the gallery. The number of acquisitions made to the collection during his period of office exceeds 500.
Burton’s best-known watercolours, The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child (1841) and The Meeting on Turret Stairs (1864) are in the National Gallery of Ireland. The Meeting on Turret Stairs is voted by the Irish public as Ireland’s favourite painting in 2012 from among ten works shortlisted by critics. A knighthood is conferred on him in 1884, and the degree of LL.D. of Dublin in 1889.
(Pictured: “Sir Frederic William Burton,” painting by Henry Tanworth Wells (died 1903), given to the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1913)