Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Burton, Frederic William
BURTON, Sir FREDERIC WILLIAM (1816–1900), painter in water-colours and director of the National Gallery, London, was born on 8 April 1816 at Corofin House on Inchiquin Lake, co. Clare, Ireland. He was the third son of Samuel Frederic Burton, a gentleman of private means and distinguished as an amateur landscape painter, who possessed considerable property at Murgret, co. Limerick; he traced his descent in a direct line from Sir Edward Burton of York, who, for his loyalty and military services in the wars of the Roses, was made a knight-banneret by Edward IV in 1460. Sir Edward’s grandson Edward was the founder of the family of the Burtons of Longnor Hall in Shropshire. Thomas and Francis, two sons of Edward Burton of Longnor, settled in Ireland in 1610, and acquired considerable landed property in co. Clare. From this Francis Sir Frederic Burton’s father was lineally descended. His mother, Hannah, was the daughter of Robert Mallet, civil engineer of Dublin.
In 1826 the Burtons removed to Dublin for the purpose of completing the education of their younger children; and here Frederic, who had very early developed a great love of art, received his elementary instruction in drawing under the brothers Brocas. At this time, while copying a picture in the Dublin National Gallery, by his great personal beauty, as well as by the promise of his work, he attracted the attention of George Petrie [q. v.], landscape painter and archæologist, which grew into a lifelong friendship. For a time Burton’s artistic work was influenced by that of Petrie. But very early he developed a vigour in the grasp of his subject and a command of colour which Petrie, with all his refinement of feeling, never attained. He made such rapid progress in his art that in 1837, when he was only twenty-one, he was elected an associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy, of which he became a full member in 1839. He first acquired distinction as a painter of miniatures and water-colour portraits. But in 1839 a drawing of a Jewish rabbi gave promise of what he was to be in a higher field of art. This was confirmed in 1840 by his ‘Blind Girl at the Holy Well,’ and in 1841 by his ‘Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child,’ and his ‘Connaught Toilette.’ The first two of these drawings were acquired by the Irish Art Union, and finely engraved for their subscribers. The ‘Connaught Toilette,’ if a conclusion may be drawn from the considerably higher price paid for it at the time, was a still finer work, but was unfortunately burnt with a number of other pictures at an exhibition in London. A scene from ‘The Two Foscari,’ produced in 1842, seems to have been Burton’s only genre picture for several years. The demand upon his skill in portraiture kept him fully occupied down to the end of 1857. His portraits were marked by so much subtlety of expression, as well as beauty of execution, that the best people in Dublin thronged his studio, and his portraits became precious heirlooms in their families. Every year showed an advance in the mastery of this branch of art. It reached its highest point in two large drawings of Helen Faucit—onestanding as Antigone, the other seated in private dress. These were exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1839, and placed him among the leading water-colour painters of the day. For the next two years he remained in Dublin, fully occupied in painting portraits, true as likenesses, but with the added charm only to be given by the artist gifted with the power of showing the soul behind the face.
Burton’s handsome features, his peculiar distinction of manner, and great intelligence gave him at this time a distinguished place in Dublin society. He numbered among his intimate friends Dr. Stokes, Dr. Graves, Bishop Graves, Dr. James Todd, Lord Dunraven, Samuel Ferguson, Thomas Davies, Anster, Sir Thomas Larcom—in short, every man in Dublin who was eminent in science, archæology, law, literature, or art. With some of these he was actively associated in the council of the Royal Irish Academy and in the foundation of the Archæological Society of Ireland. During this period he occasionally visited Germany, where he began his studies of the old masters, which he afterwards prosecuted in all the galleries of Europe. While in Munich in 1844 he was engaged by the king of Bavaria to make copies of pictures, and also to restore some of the pictures in the royal collection.
At the end of 1851 Burton left Dublin for Germany, and settled in Munich, which formed his headquarters for the next seven years. During this period he made himself thoroughly familiar with all the German galleries, went deeply into the study of German art work in all its branches, and made innumerable studies for future use in flowers, landscape, figures, and costume. He also completed several elaborate drawings, which he brought over with him on his annual visits to London, the results of his wanderings in the forests of Franconia, in Nuremberg, Bamberg, and the villages of Muggendorf and Wöhlm. Of these the most distinguished were: ‘Peasantry of Franconia waiting for Confession,’ the ‘Procession in Bamberg Cathedral,’ and ‘The Widow of Wöhlm.’ Of the last of these the ‘Times’ wrote (7 May 1859): ‘No early master, not Hemling or Van Eyck, not Martin Schon, Cranach, or Holbein, ever painted an individual physiognomy more conscientiously than Mr. Burton has painted this widow. And with all the old master’s care, the modern draughtsman has immeasurably more refinement than any of them.’ This criticism well expresses the quality of Burton’s work. In luminous strength and harmony of colour, in truth to nature, in depth and sincerity of feeling, he recalled Mabuse, Van Eyck, and other great early masters, but he added to these qualities an accuracy of line, a refinement and suggestiveness of expression, with a pervading sense of beauty, which marked the hand and heart of an original as well as a highly accomplished artist. These qualities were quickly recognised, his drawings were eagerly sought for, and now, whenever they come into the market, fetch very high prices. They led to his admission, in 1855, as an associate of the ‘Old’ (now Royal) Water Colour Society, and to his promotion to full membership in 1856. Year by year until 1870 his drawings formed a conspicuous feature in the exhibitions of the society. They were few in number, for he worked slowly, sparing no pains to bring them up to the highest point of completeness, and retarded by a serious affection of his eyes which made continuous labour dangerous. Among the most conspicuous of these drawings were his ‘Iostephane,’ ‘Cassandra Fidele, the Muse of Venice,’ ‘Faust’s First Sight of Margaret,’ ‘The Meeting on the Turret Stairs’ (now in the National Gallery, Dublin), a life-size half-length portrait of Mrs. George Murray Smith (as powerful in effect as though painted in oil), and the portrait (in chalk) of ‘George Eliot’ (now in the National Portrait Gallery). During these years and on to 1874 Burton was unremitting in his studies of the history of art from its earliest epochs down to modern times. The lives as well as the works of all the great artists were made the subject of wide research. To his knowledge of the best literature of Italy, Germany, France, and England he was always making additions, and in all that concerned the antiquities of Ireland and its music he kept pace with those who had made them their special study. In 1863 he was elected a fellow of the London Society of Antiquaries, where the extent and accuracy of his information made themselves felt in all the discussions in which he took part.
It was a surprise to the outside world when, in 1874, Burton was appointed director of the National Gallery in London in succession to his friend. Sir William Boxall [q. v.] But it was no surprise to the friends who knew how thoroughly the studies of many years had fitted him for the office. The choice was a fortunate one for the nation. Invested with almost autocratic power in the expenditure of the liberal sum which for many years was voted for the purchase of additions to the national collection, he used it with a discretion founded upon sound knowledge, and governed by a resolution to add to the gallery only the best works that came into the market. During the twenty years he acted as director, no fewer than some 450 foreign, and some hundred English, pictures were added to the collection, chiefly by purchase. The foreign pictures were classified under his direction according to the different schools, making comparatively easy the study of the progressive development of the painter’s art in Europe from its infancy onwards. All his thoughts and all his time were devoted to the care and development of the gallery. It was a duty to which he sacrificed without a murmur his personal ambition as an artist. From the time of his appointment he laid aside his easel, and did not even finish work that he had begun and well advanced, or turn to account the great store of studies which he had made for pictures that would have added much to his reputation. By this renunciation art lost much, but the country gained by it in the formation and arrangement of a collection which for general excellence is unsurpassed, and by reason of its excellence has induced the possessors of paintings of the highest class to present them as gifts to fill up gaps in the collection, and still further to augment its reputation. Another service of the greatest value he also performed in the public interest by a work into which he poured the results of the study and observation of years: this was a catalogue raisonné of the pictures by foreign artists, with elaborate biographical and critical notices, furnishing in a compendious form the information which could not otherwise be gained by a student except at the cost of infinite labour and expense. Unfortunately this catalogue was issued in an uncouth and unwieldy form, which robs it of its attractiveness and half its utility. The volume, Sir Walter Armstrong writes, ‘contains nearly three hundred memoirs of the painters whose works are represented on the walls, and the analysis given of character in each individual instance is as remarkable for concentrated power as is the reverential tribute paid by him to all the greatest elements in their genius. In such writing as his notes on Rembrandt and Leonardo and Correggio, we feel that these passages alone would suffice as witness to the deep penetrative power of his mind, the large sympathy of his nature with the great old masters.’
Burton was knighted in 1884. On his retirement in 1894 from the directorship of the National Gallery, despite the leisure now at his command he did not resume painting nor touch again any of the studies which had for more than twenty years rested in his portfolios. Probably the increased weakness of his eyesight and the long disuse of his brush may have filled him with misgivings, and with a resolve not to hazard the production of anything below the level of the drawings of his youth and middle age. He did not even finish what a little more labour would have made one of his finest works, ‘A Venetian Lady seated at a Balcony,’ from which the linen sheet, thrown by him over it more than twenty-five years before, was removed only after his death. In 1896 he was gratified by having conferred upon him the degree of LL.D. of Trinity College, Dublin. Though so long absent from Ireland, his heart was there to the last. Always reserved and reticent in the extreme to strangers, he enjoyed his favourite studies and the pleasures of a limited social circle in which he was held in high esteem, till his health began to fail in 1899. He died unmarried at his house, 43 Argyll Road, Kensington, on 16 March 1900, and was buried on the 22nd in the Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin, where both his parents already rested.
There is a portrait of Burton by Wells, which is received as a good likeness of him in middle age. There are also several good photographs of him.
[Family records; personal knowledge; Times, 27 March 1900; Magazine of Art, May 1900, paper by Sir Walter Armstrong.]