William Shakespeare Burton

(1 June 1824 (26?) - 26 January 1916)

Less than a year ago, while looking at Mr. Albert Wood's large, yet choice, collection of pictures at Bodlondeb, my attention was arrested by a painting, evidently by one of the earlier English Pre-Raphaelites. My host, after remaining silent for a few minutes while I examined it, challenged me, with a twinkle in his eye, to assign it to its author. There was something of Holman Hunt -- especially the butterfly -- something of Millais, something of Madox Brown; but I was baffled by an individuality, a quality of difference that forbade me to commit myself. "It is by Burton," said Mr. Wood. "Surely not Sir Frederick Burton?" I replied; "this is utterly unlike anything of his that I have seen." "No, this is by William Shakespeare Burton," was his answer. I was humbled. Here was a man evidently in the front rank of the Pre-Raphaelites as regards accomplishment, and I had never heard of him.

I have since regained some measure of self-respect, for though I have asked many painters and lovers of pictures about the artist, and have heard many interesting details about various Burtons. great and small, I have met very few who had even heard of the subject of this paper, and their stock of information, excepting in one or two instances, was of a very meagre description. From books on art and artists there is even less to be gleaned.

Mr. William Shakespeare Burton was born in London on the 1st of June, 1826. His father was William Evans Burton, also a Londoner, whose eminence in another art won for him in America, where the latter part of his life was spent, the description of "the greatest low comedian of the age." A tendency to the polite arts began at least a generation earlier, for the grandfather Burton, who was a printer, is described as a man of learning and piety with literary leanings, one fruit of which was his "Researches as to the Religion of the Eastern Nations." From a roving father such as his, and a mother cast in no ordinary mould, a commonplace son was not to be expected. The boy grew up in a home not wholly altered since his father had deserted it in quest of peace. Though sympathising with the wanderer, however, he resolutely stood by his mother. He was educated at King's College, Somerset House, until he was sixteen; at which age a sense of duty impelled him to begin the battle of life in order to support his mother and himself.

What to do seems to have been a question easily answered: artistry was in his blood. From infancy, the lonely babyhood of an only child, he had dwelt with books and pictures. He fingered books, built houses with them, read them, grew to love them. Delicate and sensitive, he was keenly alive to beauty of form and of thought, and the longing was born in his mind to devote life to the creation of beautiful things. At first he leaned to the august Mother of the Arts, but passionate delight in colour led him inevitably to the service of painting. The path for him was not flower-strewn: he must not only study but earn money. Black and white designs for printers, and tentative pictorial efforts were done for pay, while all his remaining time and energy were given to copying in the National Gallery, and solitary study in a spacious and much-loved garret which he was allowed to use by a kindly print-seller in the Strand who admired his courage and industry. This good fellow lent him pictures to copy, and exhibited his productions in the shop window.

One of these, a copy made in the National Gallery, attracted the notice of Tom Taylor, dramatist and critic. When he had learned the boy's pathetic history he sent for him, encouraged him, found him work, and befriended him in other ways. The friendship thus formed only ended at Tom Taylor's death. "He was such a plucky little chap," said this opportune patron; '"he was so delicate-looking, and yet he was so tough. He had a mind of his own and a will of his own, and there he was, tackling that very eccentric lady, his mother, attending the School of Design at Somerset House, pegging away at black and white in that garret all by himself, placing his work with any printers who would have it, and copying pictures in the National Gallery, and no one to wish him God-speed. That is what he was when I saw him first." Through Tom Taylor he had some initial letters accepted for early numbers of "Punch."

To be a Royal Academy student and a bread-winner as well was no small matter for a delicate youth, and his working day was usually one of sixteen hours. Fortunately, Burton père (“father”) somehow had tidings of the filial struggles, and his heart went out to his offspring. Remittances came and also an invitation to the boy to give up the project of becoming "a beggarly painter" and come across to him. The youngster was tempted, but was able to say "No." He meant to be a painter, and he meant to look after his mother, so he remained in England.

In dealing with a life so long and fruitfully employed, so full of vicissitudes, as that of Mr. Burton, I do not intend to exhaust the subject-matter, but content myself with notes on some of the most interesting incidents. His career at the Royal Academy Schools was crowned by the award of the gold medal for historical painting in 1851, to his "Delilah begging the forgiveness of Samson in Captivity." Until four weeks before sending-in day, the shy, despondent, and over-worked artist had no intention of competing. Urged, however, by friends, whose estimate of his powers was much beyond his own, and by Tom Taylor in particular, he at last resolved to make the attempt. I have not seen the picture, and cannot ascertain where it is, but Mrs. Burton has described it to me from her recollection of the original cartoon, now lost. Samson, nude save for a tiger-skin, lies chained against a tree-trunk, guarded by armed Philistines. Delilah, beautiful enough to make us extenuate her victim's folly, kneels beside him, torn by the anguish of penitence; but his head is disdainfully averted. With her are two girls daintily dressed in tender clinging draperies. Behind, a boy is playing with a serpent; a detail which may be taken either for a symbolical epitome of the story, or a subtle reference to the Greek mythological hero, who, in his feats of strength and amatory misadventures, presented so many resemblances to the son of Manoah.

The picture did not come uppermost in the first voting. But, as is the case with much of Mr. Burton's subsequent work, the elusive but pregnant spiritual sentiment gradually made its effect, and at last the medal was awarded to him, very greatly to the surprise of himself and several very confident expectants. To have produced so complex and finely-finished a picture at all in so short a time was a remarkable tour de force. It was only accomplished by great application, and the constant labour both by daylight and gaslight seriously affected the young painter's eyesight, and probably contributed to the tendency to violent headaches which has been the bane of a great part of his life.

Mr. Burton's first exhibit at the Royal Academy Exhibition was in 1846, when he showed a picture of a favourite dog. During the thirty following years his contributions to the annual displays at Somerset House, according to Mr. Graves, numbered seventeen.

In 1852 Mr. Burton was commissioned by Lord Dufferin to illustrate a poem by his Lordship, which had for its theme catholicity of thought: the need for patient tolerance between minds which are striving by many ways to reach the common goal of Truth. The poem found a congenial mind in Mr. Burton, and his thorough appreciation of it resulted in a series of designs remarkable for elegance, fecundity of invention and sympathetic insight. The pleased author said, "You are the better poet as well as being a draughtsman."

The first great success was in 1856, when "The Wounded Cavalier" was hung on the line next Mr. Holman Hunt's "The Scapegoat." It attracted a great deal of notice and admiration, although, through some irregularity, the title and artist's name were omitted from the official catalogue. Mr. Burton has not hesitated to publish his opinion that this was deliberately done; that it was a link in a long chain of slights and injuries dealt out to him by the Academy, and due in part to remissness in paying blackmail to those all-potent though obscure functionaries, the porters! It seems that the picture had a narrow escape of being rejected. Cope, rambling about the galleries, noticed a solitary picture with its face to the wall in a remote room. Idle curiosity made him do what most of us would do -- he looked at it, and, being greatly impressed, made inquiries. Nobody knew anything about it, and the assembled Academicians when he took it to them declared with one voice that they had never seen it before. They admired it, but the walls were covered and no suitable place was left. Cope very generously withdrew one of his own pictures and so solved the difficulty. From this it will be seen that however wicked Academicians may as a body be considered by outsiders, they are moved by noble disinterestedness.

It was "The Wounded Cavalier" that introduced me to Mr. Burton's art. A more favourable introduction could not have been, for it is in some respects his most remarkable picture. That acute critic, Mr. W. M. Rossetti, is said to have characterised it (very much to the painter's annoyance) as the work of a man who depended for effect on detail and truthful imitation of natural objects and effects apart from emotion. In this estimate, however, he was, I think, mistaken. Marvelous skill in imitation is certainly shown -- one can scarcely conceive it carried further; but the ethical purpose of the composition is neither insignificant nor obscure.

The incident imagined by the painter having often been misunderstood, it may be well to describe it. The cavalier, while faithfully discharging some such duty as the carrying of letters or dispatches, has been set upon in a lonely wood, and after a brave defense, desperately wounded, robbed, and then left to die; the assailants escaping by the suggestive breach in the wall. The puritans on their way to meeting have found him. The man stands aloof, full of sectarian hatred, and glares angrily at the gorgeous apparel and the scattered playing cards of the victim. The girl's simpler, more humane nature blinds her to everything but the crying need for help. Compassion rises superior to party and prejudice.

Such a picture was obviously produced only as a result of long and unremitting labor. Begun late in the summer of 1855, it kept Mr. Burton very hard at work till late in the winter. It is worth recording as an illustration of the passionately conscientious method of early Pre-Raphaelite days that the painter was careful to select his landscape setting in the grounds surrounding an old cavalier mansion near Guildford, occupied at the period of the picture by Sir Thomas More. In order to get a true view of the scene and to study the fern, bramble, and other growths, Mr. Burton had a deep hole dug for the accommodation of himself and his easel, and there he sat day by day, to the vast astonishment, doubtless, of all who passed by. The picture was purchased by Mr. Agnew. who sold it to Sir. J. Arden, of Rickmansworth. At his death it passed, again through the medium of Mr. Agnew, to its present possessor.

The method is uncompromisingly Pre-Raphaelite. Mr. Burton never had any connection with the famous brotherhood, but, as with other distinguished painters, the new tenets found a fruited soil in the eager sincerity of his temperament. The need for artistic reformation was in the air, and this lonely, convention-hating, earnest student at once reached out to offered means of escape from the cynically shallow, facile methods of painting which were in vogue.

Influenced by Mr. Rossetti's criticism, Mr. Burton selected a subject for his next picture which should be obviously emotional: "The London Magdalen." It represented a fallen woman, praying outside a church which, like Gretchen, she dared not enter. I do not know where the picture is; Tom Taylor greatly admired it, and said the girl's head was the best the artist had ever painted. The Academy, however, rejected it. The untiringly helpful critic invited some members of the Selecting Committee to dinner, and, confronting them with the picture, asked why it was not hung. They declared they had never seen it before.

The work, worry, and disappointment attending this fiasco, added to the continual strain of contact with his mother's difficult temperament, were too much for the painter to bear. His health broke down, and he entered continual torture from headaches and disorder of the eyes. Tom Taylor having carried him to Mr. Quain, he was ordered absolute rest in darkened rooms as the only preventive of blindness. So a rest ensued, during which he found several kind and helpful friends, prominent among them, Sir Alexander and Lady Duff-Gordon.

When the clouds lifted a little, Mr. Burton wisely determined to avoid one source of worry by setting up a home of his own. In spite of his troubles with the Royal Academy, he was making progress with the public and getting better prices for his work. So he fell in love with a beautified cousin and married her. The two young people were singularly alike in temperament -- shy, melancholy, and romantic -- but their married life promised to be a happy one. In seven years, however, it was ended by Mrs. Burton's shockingly sudden death: her husband left her laughing over some little mutual pleasantry, and returned into the room ten minutes later to find himself a widower.

In Guernsey, Mr. Burton undertook a commission for Mr. W. Vokins to paint a picture of the sea. He chose his station at a spot on the rocks very difficult of access. One day, when going to work loaded with the usual impediments, he had a fall so severe that he lay unconscious on the shore for a long time and only revived when the advancing tide was so close on him that some of the painting materials which had fallen with him had been carried away. Thereafter, nothing would induce him to return to his labours, and the picture was never finished. It is said that Mr. Ruskin remarked to him one day when he was at work on this canvas: "Why do you waste time on fine minuteness of a photograph?" Some days later the great critic came again, looked long at it, and exclaimed, "Ah, a noble study, a glorious rendering of the force and depth and breadth of light-filled water and wave-worn rock. Photography can give scenery, but it needs the heart of a human being, a painter, to reproduce the caprices of the overwhelming ocean."

In spite of ill-health and trouble, Mr. Burton pursued his much-loved art all with undiminished ardour during the years of his marriage and widower-hood, and produced some of his best-known pictures. "Tell's Son," shown at the Royal Academy in 1858 was purchased by Lord Dufferin. This picture has always been a favourite, and the artist, long afterwards at Florence, painted two replicas on commission.

In 1865, Mr. Burton was married to the lady who has ever since been his faithful, congenial, and helpful companion. In 1868 he removed to Italy, whence he did not return until his mother's death in 1876. The greater part of the interval was spent in Florence, which, with its splendid art galleries and artistic associations could not fail to be intensely attractive to him. In addition to original work, he studied the masterpieces of the great Pre-Raphaelites in the Pitti and Uflizi galleries, and made some memorable copies, such as those of Botticelli's circular "Incoronazione" and his "Madonna with the Singing Angels," for the Grand Duchess Marie of Russia.

This labour was interrupted for eight months by the accident of a severely scalded hand: and an original work, "Dante and Beatrice," was stopped by a more grievous disaster -- the sudden death, at the age of nine, of his only son.

The prostration following this cruel blow resulted in an attack of paralysis which disabled Mr. Burton for months. He left Florence for Naples, and thence went to Monte Cassino. The troubles were aggravated by a failure of supplies from home, due to the fact that the elder Mrs. Burton, regarding the death of her only grandson in the light of a personal wrong, could not be prevailed on by any argument to remit money due to her son. "He must come and get it himself," she said. At last her silence was broken by a message that she was dangerously ill. Mr. Burton hastened to find he was too late.

Apart from the joy of work in the service of art, Mr. Burton had but scant pleasure in life after his return from Italy, for his physical condition was unsatisfactory and that neuralgia of the brain which has clouded his life became a crushing, ever-present evil. Even art brought its contribution of distress, for "The Angel of Death," his most important picture at this time, was twice rejected at the Royal Academy. In 1882 a second break-down came, and it was not until a period of seven years had elapsed that he recovered suddenly and surprisingly from a state of cerebral exhaustion during which even art was laid aside and people who had known him concluded that he had passed out of life for ever. Since his remarkable recovery ten years ago Mr. Burton has enjoyed much better health, and, though frail and sensitive beyond most men, he is now erect and alert as few are at the age of seventy-three, with bright blue eyes as keen and unclouded as a boy's, and all perceptions undimmed. The last decade has been one fulfilled of good work -- portraits, genre- and other subject-pictures, designs of various kinds, including illustrations for girls, "Annabel." In all these activities Mr. Barton has given ample evidence of powers thoroughly repaired after his long period of inaction: one more proof, if any were needed, that the painter, like the pear tree, may blossom and bear choice fruit with undiminished vigour to the extremest limit of a long life. The most important pictures of recent years have been "The Blessed Damozel," "Auto da Fé." and "The King of Sorrows" (shown at Burlington House in 1897). In "The Blessed Damozel" Mr. Burton addressed himself to the seemingly hopeless task of realising on canvas that wonderful poem of the boy Rossetti which the middle-aged man Rossetti himself painted in most memorable and convincing fashion. The result, however, has justified the attempt. In art there are many ways, and in the subtle spiritual grace of Mr. Burton's "Damozel" there is no trace of imitation of the lusty super-sensual mediævalism of Rossetti's picture. For most of us, when we have brushed aside prepossessions, the former will come much nearer expressing our own inner conceptions of the theme. In "Auto da Fé," also known as "The Heretic," a moving illustratiim of old-time methods of conversion (now, happily, disallowed) is presented with true dramatic vigour -- forcible, yet restrained. The beautiful head of the central figure was painted from one of the three daughters, whose love has contributed not a little to the happiness of the painter's later life -- happiness sadly marred by the recent death of one of them and the illness of another. Several of his pictures contain portraits of one or more of them, as, for instance, "An Uninteresting Novel " and "The Fair Button-hole Maker." The latter is probably the last canvas which Mr. Burton painted with the intense fidelity to finish and detail of the early Pre-Raphaelite manner; for he, like Millais and others, soon recognised that it was no more than a valuable educational discipline, to be left behind when it had yielded its lesson of conscientiousness and fidelity in the translation of beauty.

It would be out of place and tedious to attempt even an approach to a full account of Mr. Burton's life-work. To the few of his chief pictures which have been mentioned I will only add his "Mary Mother," "Mary Magdalen," "Ecce Homo." "Angels at the Sepulchre," "Peace and War," "Flowers for Poor Mamma," and "The World's Ingratitude," this last a small but most impressive conception of the divine Sufferer for Sin. It is characteristic of the imperfectness with which Mr. Burton's art has been put before the public that so striking a conception and one so well calculated for wide popularity (despite its singular merit) is not known and has never been engraved. This is all of a piece with his history. Many men of fewer parts have figured largely on the Scene of Life, and their names and works have become familiar, while he has laboured on in shrinking retirement, avoiding that personal contact with his fellows by which alone a man's claims are likely to be asserted during his lifetime.

The Magazine of Art, Volume 2, By E. Rimbault Dibdin, 1899 div