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Burd Helen

William Lindsay Windus, 1856

WAG 158

About this object

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.

Object specifics

  • Artist(s)
    William Lindsay Windus (British: English, born:1822-07-08, died:1907-10-09)
  • Date
  • Materials
    Oil paint; canvas
  • Measurements
    canvas/support: 84.4 cm x 66.6 cm
  • Physical description
    The setting is a bleak moorland landscape. On the right a man in red cap and black, gold and white clothing sits astride a white horse. To the left, a woman, dressed in male clothing of a long gold tunic and blue shirt, leans upon the horse. Her right had clasps her side.
  • Related people
    Mr Harrison (Previous owner) ; Frederick Dawson Leyland (Previous owner) ; John Miller (Previous owner) ; Thomas Edward Plint (Previous owner) ; William Lindsay Windus (Artist/maker) ; Sybil Frances Wingfield (Previous owner)
  • Other number(s)
    WAG Inventory Number: 158
  • Credit line
    Purchased by the Walker Art Gallery in 1956
  • Location
    Walker Art Gallery, Room 06
  • Collection
    From the Walker Art Gallery collections


Previous owners

  • Sybil Frances Wingfield

    Owned from: Unknown or unrecorded
    How acquired: by descent from her brother
    Owned until: Unknown or unrecorded
    Disposal method: Unknown or unrecorded
  • Frederick Dawson Leyland

    Owned from: 1862
    How acquired: bought at Christies (Plint sale 1862)
    Owned until: 1892-05-28
    Disposal method: Sold Christies, May 28th 1892 (lot 27) for £566:10:0
  • Thomas Edward Plint

    Owned from: Unknown or unrecorded
    How acquired: bought from Mr. Harrison, via Gambert
    Owned until: 1862
    Disposal method: Sold Christies (Plint sale 1862)
  • Mr Harrison

    Owned from: Unknown or unrecorded
    How acquired: Unknown or unrecorded
    Owned until: Unknown or unrecorded
    Disposal method: Sold to Mr. Plint via Gambert
  • John Miller

    Owned from: Unknown or unrecorded
    How acquired: bought from the artist
    Owned until: 1858-05-21
    Disposal method: Sold at Christies, May 21st 1858 (lot 172)


Item inscriptions

  • Inscription text: Lord John he rode, Burd Helen ran, / A livelong Summer's day, / until they came to Clyde water, / T'was filled frae bank to brae. / See'st thou yon water, Helen said he / That flows from bank to brim; / I trust in God, Lord John, she said / ThoU NE'ER
    Inscription method:
    Inscription note:
    Inscription location:
  • Inscription text: WWL / 1856 (initials (monogram), bottom left)
    Inscription method:
    Inscription note:
    Inscription location:
Object view = Fine Art
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