Burton, Sir Frederic William (1816–1900), watercolour painter, was born 8 April 1816 at Clifden House, Corofin, Co. Clare, the third son of Samuel Frederic Burton, a wealthy landowner and amateur landscape painter, and Hannah Burton (née Mallet) of Dublin. An injury in childhood left his right arm permanently disabled. In 1826 his family moved to Dublin, after which he trained at the Dublin Society Schools, under Henry Brocas senior (qv) and Robert Lucius West (qv). Having first exhibited with the RHA at the age of sixteen, he soon made his name as a successful miniaturist, and as such he was influenced by Samuel Lover (qv), who gave him lessons. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s he produced successful full-size portraits, many of leading members of Dublin society. Having been elected ARHA in 1837, he received full membership two years later. His scholarly interests brought him into contact with historians and antiquarians such as Sir Samuel Ferguson (qv), Lord Dunraven (qv), George Petrie (qv), and Professor Eugene O'Curry (qv). He travelled extensively throughout Ireland, painting and sketching, and between 1838 and 1841 made several trips to the Aran Islands, sometimes with Petrie. His knowledge of Irish folklife and legends resulted in subject paintings such as ‘The blind girl at the holy well’ (RHA, 1840) and ‘The Aran fisherman's drowned child’ (RHA, 1841; RA, 1842), for which he made more than fifty preparatory sketches. This work proved very successful as a print. The subject matter of these compositions led his friend Thomas Davis (qv), the leader of Young Ireland, to consider Burton as an ideal candidate for establishing a movement of nationalist art. Although he did anonymously design the cover for the Young Ireland anthology, The spirit of the Nation (1843), he was not prepared to become involved in politics, and advised Davis to concentrate on poetry and music to promote national identity. He designed the Grecian heads for the Bank of Ireland notes. A founder member of the Irish Archaeological Society in 1840, he was also associated with the Royal Irish Art Union, the RIA, and the RSAI.
Having visited Germany in 1842 and 1844, in 1851 Burton settled there as an employee of Maximillian II of Bavaria. As curator of the royal collection he made copies of the king's paintings. He also studied the old masters and made studies of the German peasantry, among them ‘Peasantry of Upper Franconia waiting for confession’ (1855) and ‘The widow of Wohlm’ (1859), both exhibited at the Old Watercolour Society (later the Royal Watercolour Society). During this period he regularly exhibited in London, most particularly with that society, of which he was elected a member in 1856. On leaving Germany in 1858 he established himself in London, though he maintained close connections with Ireland. Although he was never a member of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, the influence of Rossetti, and of German painting, is evident in Burton's most famous work, ‘Helellil and Hildebrand, or, The meeting on the turret stairs’, first exhibited in 1864. George Eliot, a friend and admirer, whom he painted (RA 1867), having seen the picture wrote: ‘The subject might have been made the most vulgar thing in the world, the artist had raised it to the highest pitch of refined emotion.’
In 1874, to the surprise of many, Burton was appointed director of the National Gallery, London, a post he held until 1894. He abandoned painting entirely, and instead concentrated on building up the gallery's collection. Significant purchases made under his directorship included Leonardo's ‘The Virgin of the rocks’, Hogarth's ‘The shrimp girl’, and Van Dyck's ‘Charles I’. He was knighted in 1884. He resigned his membership of the RWS in 1869, but subsequently accepted honorary membership in 1886. He was also the recipient of an honorary LLD from the University of Dublin, and in 1863 was appointed fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in London. Although unmarried, he brought up the orphaned family of his brother the Rev. Robert Burton. He died 16 March 1900 at his home in Kensington, London, and was buried in the family plot at Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin. Among the portraits of Burton is one by George Francis Mulvany (qv), executed c.1840, in the NGI.