The scene pictured in this painting is from a Scottish border ballad called ‘Burd Helen’ or sometimes ‘Child Waters’. Verses from the ballad have been inscribed on the frame. The story tells of how when Burd Helen falls pregnant by her heartless lover, she is forced to run by his side disguised as his male page, whilst he travels on horseback. She wears male clothing to maintain the disguise and conceal her bump. Windus depicts the moment when, she is about to swim the River Clyde to ensure he remains by her side and does not abandon her.
Windus was a Liverpool artist whose earlier work is in a deeply shadowed style. In 1850, at the suggestion of the Liverpool collector John Miller (about 1796 - 1876) , Windus visited London and saw the Pre-Raphaelite paintings at the Royal Academy. The plight of the ‘fallen woman’ was a favourite Pre-Raphaelite subject. Burd Helen,was Windus’s first picture to show Pre-Raphaelite influence.
The detailed landscape background is supposed to have been painted in North Sannox Glen on the Scottish Isle of Arran. In his 1904 book 'The Liverpool School of Painters', Henry C Marillier (1865 - 1951) writes about the sitters: ‘Mr Wilfred Steele, a connection of the Miller family, sat for the face of the cruel lover, and a Mrs Burns for that of the lady.’ Mrs Burns is as yet unidentified. Steele's sister Dinah was married to one of the sons (also called John) of the collectorJohn Miller, who was the painting's first owner.