Born in County Clare, Ireland, in 1816, Burton was the son of an amateur artist. He studied in Dublin and exhibited his first watercolour at the RHA in 1832. As a student he mixed with the leading intellectuals of the time, and developed an interest in the Irish landscape and the customs and dress of its people. In 1851 he left Ireland for Germany and spent the next seven years there employed by Maximillian II of Bavaria. During this time he became inspired by the work of the Old Masters. He then settled in London where he was appointed Director of the National Gallery, a post which he held for twenty years. In 1864 he painted his masterpiece The Meeting on the Turret Stairs an illustration of an episode from a Danish Ballad. On his death in 1900 he was taken back to Dublin to be buried.