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Sir Frederic William Burton: The Accidental Lefty

Andréa Fernandes

Sir Frederic William Burton (1816-1900) was an Irish painter who worked almost exclusively in watercolors and chalks, but his works, such as The Meeting on the Turret Stairs (1864), sometimes look as though they were done in oils.

Burton began perfecting his technique at the age of 10 and, at age 16, exhibited a piece at the Royal Hibernian Academy. Just five years later, Burton exhibited three portraits at the Academy and was subsequently elected an associate of the group. Today, several of Burton's pieces—including The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child (1841) and The Meeting on the Turret Stairs (1864)—hang in the National Gallery of Ireland.

Though he found success at an early age and his artistic talent was clearly innate, painting wasn't exactly an easy task for Burton. As a result of a childhood accident, Burton's right arm had been paralyzed, forcing him to become left-handed and paint exclusively with his left hand (which was not his naturally dominant hand). Additionally, Burton's suffered from poor eyesight—so much so that he frequently had to take extended breaks from his work.

3. In 1874, Burton was appointed director of London's National Gallery. With the acceptance of the position, Burton stopped painting, leaving his "A Venetian Lady" unfinished. According to most sources, Burton never painted again, instead focusing on the Gallery until he retired in 1894. (He was succeeded by Sir Edward Poynter.)

4. Burton is considered to be responsible for many of the National Gallery's most important purchases in the 19th century, including works by Leonardo da Vinci, Sanzio "Raphael" Raffaello, Diego Velazquez, William Hogarth, and Johannes Vermeer. All in all, Burton made more than 500 acquisitions for the Gallery's collection.

5. Burton was an extremely popular painter, receiving "greater praise from The Times than any painter during his lifetime." According to one source, there were "few Irish celebrities of the period he did not paint or draw;" his subjects included George Eliot. In addition to being popular with the public, the media, and celebrities, Burton was also honored by Trinity College and the monarchy. He was knighted in 1884 and received an honorary doctorate of law from Trinity five years later, in 1889.