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Síghle Bhreathnach-Lynch on 'The Meeting on the Turret Stairs'


21-09-2015 12:00

FREDERICK WILLIAM BURTON (1816-1900)

The Meeting on the Turret Stairs NGI (1864)

Watercolour and gouache on paper, 95.5 x 60.8cm

The Meeting on the Turret Stairs was voted Ireland’s most popular watercolour painting in 2012. It is my own all time favourite watercolour and I was thrilled when Gill Books chose it for the cover of 50 Works Of Irish Art You Need To Know. One on level it is a work that has instant appeal even if you know nothing about the story, the artist’s life or the technique used in its production. Looking at it for the first time with little or no background knowledge, it is very easy to ‘read’. The scene looks realistic, it has an obvious romantic theme and the colours chosen by the artist are stunning. So it can be enjoyed on a first viewing. However I believe that the more you know about what you are looking at, the greater your satisfaction. In my book I point out several features that permit the viewer to study the scene with a deeper appreciation.

For instance, knowing the details of the story depicted by Burton explains why the lover’s meeting on the turret stairs is so instantly evocative. It is based on a Danish medieval ballad, translated into English in 1855. It tells of Hellelil who fell in love with one of her personal guards, Prince Hildebrand, and he with her. Unfortunately her father didn’t approve and sent his seven sons to kill the prince. Prince Hildebrand managed to slaughter the king and six brothers. Hellelil pleaded with him to spare the life of her remaining brother but the latter managed to slay Hildebrand. Naturally she died of a broken heart!

Being acquainted with this background information I think further enhances the poignancy of the moment the artist chose to depict, that of their final meeting as Hildebrand passes her on the turret stairs to go to meet certain death. He could have picked a more histrionic moment like when the King initially finds out about the lovers or Hildebrand killing the six brothers. But instead a private moment is chosen, when they pass each other on the narrow staircase. The gestures and poses of both figures and in particular their downcast facial expressions tell their own heart-breaking story.

A fascinating feature of The Meeting on the Turret Stairs is that it although it looks like an oil painting, it is in fact a watercolour. Instead of mixing the pigments (colours) with water, a white chalk like substance (gouache) was added to produce an opaque finish. Burton layered each colour painstakingly and precisely in order to produce the brilliant jewel-like composition. Interesting too to note that Frederick William Burton was left-handed because of a childhood accident, had problems with his eye-sight and never used oils because he disliked their smell.

 

 

Síghle Bhreathnach-Lynch

 

50 Works of Irish Art You Need to Know is out now, priced at €19.99.

The book will be launched by James Hanley on Friday, 25 September at 6.30pm at Adam’s Fine Art Auctioneers (26 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2). If you are interested in attending the launch, please RSVP to rsvp@gill.ie.

 

About the Author:

Dr Síghle Bhreathnach-Lynch is an art historian, writer and former Curator of Irish Art at the National Gallery of Ireland (1998–2009).

Although her fascination with art began as a child, Síghle originally studied languages at UCD and later the Montessori education method. It wasn’t until the age of 40 that she followed her true passion and returned to college to study art as a mature student. She went on to complete a PhD and became a lecturer at UCD, as well as a regular guide and speaker at the National Gallery of Ireland. In 1998 she was appointed as the first curator dedicated exclusively to the Irish collections in the National Gallery’s history. She retired 11 years later and continues to research, publish and lecture on all aspects of Irish art. She lives in Dalkey.



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