Frederic Burton was born on 8 April 1816 at Clifden House, Corofin, in Co. Clare, Ireland. The Burtons could trace their lineage back to the fifteenth century, and Frederic's father, Samuel Frederic Burton, was an amateur landscape painter of independent means. In 1826 the family moved to Dublin, where Frederic recieved some artistic training from the Brocas brothers and the landscape painter and antiquary George Petrie. His dual interest in the practice of art and art-historical scholarship would seem to owe much to the influence of Petrie, who remained a lifelong friend. By 1837, when he was still only twenty-one, he had made such artistic progress that he was elected an associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy, graduating to full membership two years later. His handsome features, keen intelligence and natural distinction of manner gave him ready access to Dublin society and local intellectual circles. Many sat to him for portraits and miniatures, although his best-known early portraits were two likenesses of the English actress Helen Faucit, exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1849. Meanwhile he was experimenting with landscape, historical subjects, and genre. Some of his genre scenes, such as The Aran Fisherman's Drowned Child and A Connaught Toilet, became well known through engravings; another notable example, The Blind Girl at the Holy Well, shown at the R.H.A. in 1840, was sold at Christie's in London on 10 March 1995 (lot 148A). All this early work was in watercolour, which remained his favourite medium.
Contact with Dublin's intelligentsia developed Burton's historical sense, and in 1851 he settled in Munich to begin a six-year study of German art. He continued to paint, taking his subjects from the lives of the local peasantry and developing a style which led critics to compare him to Van Eyck, Memling, Holbein, and other early Flemish and German masters.
On his return to Britain, Burton settled in London. He had exhibited at the Royal Academy since 1842, and in 1855 he was elected an associate of the Old Water-Colour Society, proceeding to full membership the following year. From the 1840s he seems to have felt the influence of Ruskin; witness the detailed naturalism of his portrait of Annie Callwell, or the study of a pine-stump in the Tyrol, both in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Now he came into personal contact with the Pre-Raphalite circle, and this too left its mark. The outstanding example is Hellelil and Hildebrand: The Meeting on the Turret Stairs (National Gallery of Ireland), a subject: inspired by a Norse ballad that he exhibited at the Old Water-Colour Society in 1864. Rossettian in its medieval theme and emotional intensity, the picture also shows awareness of Millais' paintings of star-crossed lovers, such as A Huguenot (1852; private collection) and The Black Brunswicker (1860; Port Sunlight). However, the artist to whom Burton was personally closest was Edward Burne-Jones, his junior by seventeen years but a man who shared his scholarly approach to painting and art-historical interests. When Burne-Jones resigned from the Old Water-Colour Society in 1870 after objections were raised to the nudity of one of his figures, Burton withdrew in sympathy and refused to reconsider his decision.
Throughout these years, Burton maintained his scholarly interests, which embraced not only the history of European painting but literature, music, and anything to do with Irish antiquities. He was involved with a number of organisations promoting research on these subjects, helping to found the Archaeological Society of Ireland and becoming a member of the London Society of Antiquaries in 1863. In 1874 his art-historical eminence was recognised when he was appointed Director of the National Gallery in London. It was usual at this time for the post to be held by an artist of scholarly inclinations. Burton succeeded Sir William Boxall, who in turn had succeeded Eastlake, and he himself was to be followed by Poynter in 1894. During his twenty-year regime, Burton's knowledge and connoiseurship were to be fully deployed. The Gallery not only acquired no fewer than 450 pictures, including some of its most familiar and best-loved masterpieces, but progress was made on the arrangement, classification and cataloguing of the collection. Burton devoted himself to the task, abandoning his brushes entirely, nor did he return to the practice of painting on his retirement. He was knighted in 1884, and given the degree of LL.D. of Trinity College, Dublin, in 1896. Although his later career had unfolded in London, where he died, unmarried , in 1900, Ireland never lost its place in his affections, and he was buried beside his parents in Mount Jerome cemetary, Dublin.
This present watercolour has all the hallmarks of Burton's style: restrained sentiment, scrupulous draughtsmanship, and an obvious awareness of the Old Masters. It almost certainly dates from the early 1860s and may well have been exhibited, although the venue, if any, has not yet been identified.
The subject seems to be an Italian or Irish child on her way to church. The image is a little reminiscent of Holman Hunt's painting The School-Girl's Hymn (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), a work of 1859 representing, as its first owner, Thomas Combe, put it, 'a school girl on a smiling summer morning, singing her hymn as she walks along'. Burton's child, in holding a lily, almost becomes an infant version of the Angel of the Annunciation, and it is tantalising that a word that could be construed as 'Salve' (hail) is written on the back. However, it is far from clear, and in any case the Angel in the Vulgate version of St Luke's Gospel uses the word 'Ave' by way of greeting the Virgin.
Although Burton's curtailed working career means that his work is rare Christie's has had a distinguished record of handling his watercolours in recent years. The Child Miranda, an enchanting study of 1864 (fig.2), was sold on 11 November 1999 for the record price of £265,500, The Wife of Hassan Aga, a slightly earlier example of 1862, followed on 19 May 2000, and Weary, which appeared at the O.W.C.S. in 1867, on 17 May 2001.