The Meeting on the Turret Stairs


he power of painting shows that some art really does go to our core as human beings, as with one of my favorite paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs by Frederic William Burton (1864). The painting depicts the final meeting of the lovers Hellelil and Hildebrand and is inspired by a story of tragic love in a medieval Danish ballad. She was a Danish princess and he was one of her twelve bodyguards. As far as her dad was concerned he was unsuitable and her dad sent his seven sons to kill him. Hildebrand killed her father and six of his sons and at the very last minute Hellelil interceded to save her youngest brother and they both died, he died from his wounds and she died apparently from heartbreak.

Frederic William Burton, Irish, 1816-1900 Hellelil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs.

The first time I saw this painting I was with my girlfriend Jacinta or JC, we both stood hand in hand waiting for the painting to be unveiled. There were other couples around us and curious onlookers, all eager to see the painting. It’s kept in a special cabinet behind closed doors but that just adds to the paintings allure. Surrounded by stained glass windows by Harry Clarke, the light in the room is subdued because the painting is a watercolor and it could fade drastically with exposure to direct light. Once the doors of the cabinet were opened, I kissed my girlfriend softly on her lips, embraced her and told her that I love her. That’s a moment that I shall never forget. Both our heads touching like two Greek cats, that are happy to be in love. When you realize that love just like the painting is beautiful indeed. How great it is that a painting can enhance your love for someone. I was just happy that the very first time I got to see this painting was with Jacinta and how we were both touched by the painting. It’s definitely a painting that you feel something when you see it, and it’s important to be open and honest about art and how it makes you feel. As romantic paintings go, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs is worthy of acceptation. We both looked lovingly at the painting and I knew then why it was one of her favorite paintings. One of the reasons she loved the painting was because of Hellelil’s long red hair, that always reminded her of her daughter’s beautiful hair. The way she has her hair in the painting is like someone throwing their hair over their heads to dry in the sun.

What I get from the painting is that it’s showing the moment before the inevitable violence and the love and it’s almost like he’s taking a last final smell of her, perhaps to bring her earthly scent with him to the battle. The way both of their faces are in the painting, you can’t really see their expressions but from their body language, you can see how she has turned away from him, and how he is clutching her arm, you still get this huge depth of profound emotion but you can tell that they were destined for each other and accepted they will die of their love for each other. They are both bent left and right almost apart from each other both knowing that they will never be together again and this makes the painting certainly a very emotional piece. The depth of emotion depicted in the painting is serene, a quiet final moment between the two lovers and their love that is soon to pass by. The detail in the painting is beautiful, meticulous and stunning yet tenderhearted.

Frederic William Burton (1816 – 1900) was left-handed due to a childhood accident to his right arm, he painted only in watercolor and also had problems with his eyesight. The painting exemplifies Burton’s slow but meticulous style of work which drew on his background as a miniaturist, he painted the watercolor by building up layers in small, delicate brush-strokes, the faces modeled in subtle tones. Interestingly Gum Arabic was used to give substance to the hair. It was painted when Burton was at the peak of his career and demonstrates that he had excellent knowledge of the medieval world.

In 1864, Frederic William Burton sold the painting to an art dealer, Edward Fox White. However,  in the contract they both signed, Burton actually retained the copyright. The painting then changed hands a number of times over the next 30 years and then in 1898 it was bought by Miss Margaret Stokes. Apparently, her interest in Burton was more than just friendship according to letters to her family. Margaret Stokes was writing a biography of Frederic William Burton when she died in 1900, and in her will, she bequeathed the painting, along with a number of other works by Burton, to the National Gallery of Ireland.

The painting can be viewed in Room 20 at the National Gallery of Ireland at the following times:

Thursdays 5.30pm – 6.30pm

Sundays 2pm – 3pm


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