CONFIRMATION OF Frederic William Burton’s Hellelil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs as Ireland’s favourite painting is a fair reflection of its enduring, unfailing popularity with visitors to the National Gallery of Ireland.
President Michael D Higgins announced it as the public’s choice last night. After a five-week, extensively publicised campaign during which people were invited to vote for one of 10 shortlisted works, Burton’s came through convincingly with some 22 per cent of votes cast.
The painting is an unusually large, lustrous watercolour from 1864 and derives from an exceptionally blood-spattered Danish ballad with echoes of the Whitney Houston–Kevin Costner blockbuster, The Bodyguard. The ballad relates how heroine Hellelil falls in love with her bodyguard, Hildebrand. Her disapproving father dispatches her seven brothers to kill him, but the tenacious Hildebrand kills her father and six of her brothers before she intercedes to save the life of the last. Hildebrand dies of his wounds and the heartbroken Hellelil also perishes. Burton imagines not the fearsome bloodshed but the lovers’ tender meeting on a turret stairs.
Burton was born in Corofin, Co Clare in 1816 and was the son of a painter. Precociously talented, he built a considerable reputation as a miniaturist, watercolourist and portrait painter. His 1841 composition The Arran Fisherman’s Drowned Child is another firm favourite in the National Gallery of Ireland. He gave up painting completely, however, when appointed director of the National Gallery London by prime minister William Gladstone in 1874. He died in 1900.
His watercolour brushed aside, so to speak, a formidable array of competitors were advanced, including Louis le Brocquy’s A Family, Johannes Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter and Seán Scully’s Wall of Light Orange Yellow. Surprisingly, none of these works were seriously in the running.
When the votes were counted, Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ came second to Burton with 16 per cent, followed by William Leech’s cheerfully sunny A Convent Garden and Harry Clarke’s stained glass masterpiece The Eve of St Agnes.
Mike Murphy, who presented the documentary laying out the shortlist in April, had lambasted RTÉ for neglecting its public service responsibilities by scheduling the coverage too late in the evening. It is unclear if his criticism led to a repeat at an earlier hour: RTÉ said it was always its intention to do so.
He was, he said, delighted with the project’s success. “We were really trying to bring the Irish public into the art that we own and the galleries that we have at our disposal around Ireland.”
The featured public galleries have reported increased visitor numbers throughout the campaign and postcard sales of the shortlisted paintings are up – by a staggering 400 per cent in the case of the Burton, judged against the same period in 2011.
It is significant that the accolade was for favourite – not necessarily best – painting. Vermeer and Caravaggio would have been ahead by some margin on quality. There are relatively few authenticated Vermeers in the world and that our National Gallery possesses an outstanding example, thanks to the Alfred Beit Foundation, is a feather in its cap. Equally, to have a first-rate Caravaggio is a big deal.
There was a feeling that le Brocquy and Lavery might have fared better had different works been chosen. A Family is a relatively austere work and more attractive Laverys exist than The Artist’s Studio. Conservatism in public taste was perhaps indicated by some snide comments about Scully’s big, abstract painting. By no means controversial or unorthodox, he is renowned worldwide, but at least some Irish viewers remained unconvinced.