This exquisite watercolour was formerly attributed to Alfred Walter Bayes (1832-1909), but recent research has shown that the artist is in fact Frederic William Burton, who was sixteen years Bayes' senior. Dreams (fig. 1), a study of a young girl by Burton datable to circa 1861, is very comparable, while Springtime: Girl with Violets, in the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, which acquired it in 1943 as part of the Grenville L. Winthrop bequest, is so close to our study that it could well be described as a variant. The model is clearly the same, and the composition, pose and accessory details are remarkbly similar.
Frederic Burton was born on 8 April 1816 at Clifden House on Inchiquin Lake, Corofin. in Co. Clare, Ireland. The Burtons could trace their lineage back to the 15th 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 received 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 these early works were in watercolour, which remained his favourity 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. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, his work was particularly admired for its 'luminous strenth and harmony of colour'. its 'truth to nature', 'depth and sincerity of feeling', 'refinement and suggestiveness of expression', and 'pervading sense of beauty'. These qualities, so clearly revealed in the present example, 'were quickly recognised, his drawings were eagerly sought for, and now, whenever they come into the market, fetch very high prices'.
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-Raphaelite 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. In her biography of her husband, Lady Burne-Jones notes their intimacy with Burton in the 1860s, and adds: 'in those days we thought he much resembled Garibaldi in appearance'.
Throughout these years, Burton maintained his scholarly interests, which embraced note 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 connoisseurship 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 retierment. He was knighted in 1884, and given the degree of LL.D. at 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 cemetery, Dublin.
As we have seen, Burton's work was always admired, and it is noticeable how much of it is now in public collections. The National Gallery of Ireland has a large holding, and there are examples in the British and Victoria and Albert Museums, at Birmingham, Manchester, and Oxford. The watercolours at Yale and Harvard have been mentioned, and it is no accident that the Fogg's Springtime, the picture so close to ours in composition and conception, forms part of the Winthrop bequest, that marvellous assemblage of Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces which has only become better known following the exhibition of a significant part of it at the National Gallery, London, last year. Burton's best-known subject picture is Hellelil and Hildebrand: The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, although the work that is probably most familiar to the general public is his 1865 drawing of George Eliot (National Portrait Gallery, London), an image of the novelist that must be known to thousands who are unaware of its authorship.
The re-attribution of the present picture makes it an important discovery and a significant addition to Burton's restricted oeuvre. It is dated 1864, and can be identified as The Child Miranda, one of two pictures that he showed with Hellelil and Hildebrand at the Old Water-Colour Society that year. (The other, now apparently lost, was L'Ecuyer, which showed 'a youth holding a helmet in his hand'). It was accompanied in the catalogue by a quotation from Caliban's lyrical description of the remote island where the action takes place in The Tempest (Act III, Scene 2):
Be not afeared; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had wak'd after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again.
The picture was much admired by the critics. Inevitably, Hellelil and Hildebrand, which occupied what the Art Journal called 'the post of honour' in the exhibition, received the longest notices; indeed the Art Journal itself found room to mention nothing else. But the Illustrated London News observed that 'another drawing by Mr Burton, of "The Child Miranda", shell-bedecked, and holding a nautilus-shell she has perhaps just placed to her ear, sitting listening to the enchanted "noises and sweet airs" of her island home, is as graceful a fancy as it is masterly in execution'. Tom Taylor, in the Times, also liked 'Mr Burton's other drawings, "The Child Miranda" and "L'Ecuyer'", two 'highly finished heads, mainly remarkable for the purity of style and perfection of their workmanship'; while F.G. Stephens, writing in the Athenaeum, was 'more pleased' with The Child Miranda than either of Burton's other contributions. 'Its sober and powerful colour proves the painter's knowledge of that element of Art; its modelling of flesh leaves nothing to be wished...To appreciate the feeling for expression of a subtle kind displayed, the reader must study the picture. In that respect it is triumphant'.
Like the contemporary Hellelil and Hildebrand, the picture is a prime example of Burton's most Pre-Raphaelite phase. Ruskins's influence still seems strong, not only in the emphasis on naturalistic detail, passion-flowers and shells, but in the picture's celebration of the beauty and innocence of youth. Taken together with the Fogg Springtime and the Yale Dreams (fig. 1), which may well also show the same model at a slightly younger age, it suggests that Burton was deeply responsive to the appeal of childhood, subscribing to a cult which numbered Ruskin, Lewis Carroll, Leighton and other eminent Victorians among its devotees. At the same time, the picture's composition and central motif - a female beauty with long crimped hair, seen half-length against a floral backdrop - owe an unmistable debt to Rossetti. The watercolour conforms to a pattern that Rossetti repeated time and again in his later work, and Burton must have seen such early examples as the Bocca Baciata of 1859 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). By this date Rossetti was not exhibiting, but Burton would have had access to his studio, or might even have seen Bocca Baciata at the home of its owner, the landscape painter and recent recruit to the O.W.C.S., George Boyce. Burne-Jones (who, like Boyce, made his debut at the O.W.C.S. in 1864, showing, to the horror of the more conservative members, The Merciful Knight (Birmingham) and three other works), was also painting half-length female figures in the early 1860s. Indeed there was a vogue for them throughout the Pre-Raphaelite circle, with much of the inspiration coming from Venetial painting. Rossetti actually described Bocca Baciata as having 'a rather Venetian aspect;. Burton, with his intimage knowledge of the Old Masters, would have been keenly aware of this source. He tells us as much in La Marchesa, a watercolour he showed at the O.W.C.S. in 1865, which, though lost, is known from an old reproduction; and there is a distinct Venetian dimension to our picture as well. Nor does the Old Master influence end here. The child's gesture, raising her hand as if in blessing, surely echoes the numerous Renaissance images of the Salvator Mundi with which Burton would have been familiar.
The Venetian style of the 1860s was an early vehicle for the Aesthetic ideal, the notion, revolutionary in the Victorian context, that art should concern itself with formal and decorative values rather than telling a story or pointing a moral. Burton's watercolour is ostensibly an ilustration to Shakespeare, and there is no doubt a concession to narrative in the fairy, who is presuably intended to represent Ariel himself. One has only, however, to compare the picture with Millais' well-known Ferdinand lured by Ariel (private collection), exhibited at the Royal Academy fourteen years earlier, to see that The Child Miranda is essentially an enchanting essay in the early Aesthtic style. A hymn to natural beauty, and a powerful yet subtle colour harmony based on the hues of the iridescent shells, it even makes a refernce ('sounds, and sweet airs ... twangling instruments') to music, the art which, as Walter Pater was soon to state so memorably, encapsulates the Aesthetic ideal on account of its abstract nature.
In practice, Aesthetic pictures are seldom wholly abstract. Crude narrative and even cruder moralising may be absent, but there is often an understated symbolism, bearing out the paradox that, for all its vaunted emphasis on formal values, Aesthetiism did much to pave the way for the Symbolist movement at the end of the 19th Century. The Child Miranda is a picture of this kind far more than a conventional treatment of a Shakespearian theme. The shells, the fairy, the passion-flowers (emblematic of refusal to the Victorians), the child's serious expression and curious gesture of blessing - all these have less to do with illustrating Shakespeare's text than with creating an enigmatic effect and hinting at layers of meaning which, as the artist no doubt intended, will never be fully revealed.