“Hellelil sitteth in bower there,
None knows my grief but God alone,
And seweth at the seam so fair,
I never wail my sorrow to any other one.
But there whereas the gold should be
With silk upon the cloth sewed she.
Where she should sew with silken thread
The gold upon the cloth she laid.
So to the Queen the word came in
That Hellelil wild work doth win.
Then did the Queen do furs on her
And went to Hellelil the fair.
“O swiftly sewest thou, Hellelil,
Yet nought but mad is thy sewing still!”
“Well may my sewing be but mad
Such evil hap as I have had.
My father was good king and lord,
Knights fifteen served before his board.
He taught me sewing royally,
Twelve knights had watch and ward of me.
Well served eleven day by day,
To folly the twelfth did me bewray.
And this same was hight Hildebrand,
The King’s son of the English Land.
But in bower were we no sooner laid
Than the truth thereof to my father was said.
Then loud he cried o’er garth and hall:
‘Stand up, my men, and arm ye all!
‘Yea draw on mail and dally not,
Hard neck lord Hildebrand hath got!’
They stood by the door with glaive and spear;
‘Hildebrand rise and hasten here!’
Lord Hildebrand stroked my white white cheek:
‘O love, forbear my name to speak.
‘Yea even if my blood thou see,
Name me not, lest my death thou be.’
Out from the door lord Hildebrand leapt,
And round about his good sword swept.
The first of all that he slew there
Were my seven brethren with golden hair.
Then before him stood the youngest one,
And dear he was in the days agone.
Then I cried out: ‘O Hildebrand,
In the name of God now stay thine hand.
‘O let my youngest brother live
Tidings hereof to my mother to give!’
No sooner was the word gone forth
Than with eight wounds fell my love to earth.
My brother took me by the golden hair,
And bound me to the saddle there.
There met me then no littlest root,
But it tore off somewhat of my foot.
No littlest brake the wild-wood bore,
But somewhat from my legs it tore.
No deepest dam we came unto
But my brother’s horse he swam it through.
But when to the castle gate we came,
There stood my mother in sorrow and shame.
My brother let raise a tower high,
Bestrewn with sharp thorns inwardly.
He took me in my silk shirt bare
And cast me into that tower there.
And wheresoe’er my legs I laid
Torment of the thorns I had.
Wheresoe’er on feet I stood
The prickles sharp drew forth my blood.
My youngest brother me would slay
But my mother would have me sold away.
A great new bell my price did buy
In Mary’s Church to hang on high.
But the first stroke that ever it strake
My mother’s heart asunder brake.”
So soon as her sorrow and woe was said,
None knows my grief but God alone,
In the arm of the Queen she sat there dead,
I never tell my sorrow to any other one.”
This richly coloured watercolour painting depicts the ill-fated lovers Hellelil and Hildebrand, meeting on the stone stairway of a medieval tower. The princess and her bodyguard had fallen in love but her father regarded the young soldier as an unsuitable match for his daughter and ordered his sons to kill him. The painting captures the couple’s poignant final embrace. Burton was inspired by the story of the ill-fated lovers told in an old Danish ballad. The poem had been translated into English in 1855 by Whitley Stokes, a lawyer and philologist, and friend of the artist.
This watercolour, painted by Frederic William Burton when he was at the height of his career, has been popular since it was first exhibited at the Old Watercolour Society’s Annual exhibition in London in 1864. The writer George Eliot (who had her portrait painted by Burton in 1865) praised it saying: ‘the subject might have been made the most vulgar thing in the world – the artist has raised it to the highest pitch of refined emotion’ and went on to focus on the romance in the picture: ‘the face of the knight is the face of a man to whom the kiss is a sacrament.’
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs is a very important work in Burton’s oeuvre, he made numerous preparatory studies for it, four of which are in the National Gallery of Ireland’s collection. Burton sold the painting to a dealer, Edward Fox White in 1864 but the contract they signed notes that Burton retained the copyright, presumably aware of how valuable the image would be as a print. The painting changed hands a number of times over the following 30 years but in 1898 it was bought by Miss Margaret McNair Stokes (sister of Whitley Stokes). An article by Jeanette Stokes in the Irish Arts Review, (Vol.26, no.3, 2009) refers to the fact that there are tantalising hints in some of Margaret Stokes’s letters to her family that her interest in Burton was something more than friendship. Margaret Stokes was writing a biography of Burton when she died in 1900, in her will she bequeathed the painting, along with a number of other works by Burton, to the National Gallery of Ireland.