The most romantic painting in Ireland – a Valentine’s tale of forbidden love

The Meeting on the Turret Stairs – This is the tale of forbidden love between lady Helleliel and prince Hildebrand who was appointed to guard her.

Here, a stolen moment on the stairs is full of longing and passion; Hellelil’s face is turned away while her hand braces the wall for strength to continue to do her duty as her father has prescribed. Her father has forbidden the relationship; he dispatches Helleliel’s seven brothers to kill her paramour. Her body curves snugly into him, she seems to want to stand still even for a moment to preserve the memory of their relationship knowing that in a heartbeat she must take the next step away from her lover. Hellelil’s arm is outstretched and has been captured in an embrace by Prince Hidebrand, his crossed hands dressed in a barrier of chainmail as he seeks the touch and smell of even her sleeve to remember her by. George Elliot described the painting of one of the “finest emotion” where the knight “is a man of whom the kiss is a sacrament”

It is by some miracle that this painting was created and survives at all. The artist Frederic William Burton injured his right hand as a toddler and had to learn to paint with his left. His eyesight was poor, he hated the smell of paint, and he much preferred to paint in unfashionable watercolours rather than the more robust medium of oils used by his contemporaries whose vivid colour did not fade.

The ballad tells how Hellelils’ father once he finds out about their relationship and her loss of virginity sends his seven sons to kill Hildebrand. Hildebrand then kills six of the seven sons, Hellelil hides the surviving son who returns the favour by torturing her, imprisoning her, and selling her into slavery. Hidebrand dies of his wounds and Hellelil in slavery of a broken heart.

Burton was an introvert, an observer, and a quiet methodical sort, was unlike the gregarious clique that populated the Dublin arts scene in the late 1800s. After his death he fell into obscurity, however in 2012 The Meeting on the Turret Stairs was voted Ireland favourite painting.

The painting is on display in The National Gallery of Ireland though like their love the painting must be hidden away as daylight fades and destroys watercolours. Painted in 1864 over 150 years ago it is carefully exhibited for two days each week – currently on Thursdays 11.30 to 12.30 and Sunday 2pm to 3pm – in a specially constructed windowless room in the National Gallery of Ireland – admission is free.

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