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The Scottish Nation

WILKIE, WILLIAM, D.D., author of an epic poem, now only known by name, entitled ‘The Epigoniad,’ the son of a respectable farmer, was born at Echlin, in the parish of Dalmeny, Linlithgowshire, October 5, 1721. He received his elementary education at the parish school, and at the age of fourteen was sent to the university of Edinburgh. During his attendance at college his father died, and left him, with the charge of his mother and three sisters, the stock and unexpired lease of a small farm, at Fisher’s Tryst, a few miles west from Edinburgh, the management of which he was in consequence obliged to undertake. He continued, however, to prosecute his studies in divinity till he was licensed to preach the gospel. In May 1753 he was appointed assistant minister of the parish of Ratho; and became so great a favourite with the earl of Lauderdale, the patron of the parish, that, on the death of the incumbent, three years afterwards, his lordship conferred on him the living.

While yet a mere youth, he is said to have evinced strong indications of poetical talent. In the Statistical Account of the parish of Dalmeny, there is a copy of some indifferent verses ‘On a Storm,’ alleged to have been written by him when in his tenth year; but with more probability the period of their composition may be referred to his sixteenth or seventeenth year. In 1757 he published at Edinburgh his celebrated epic, entitled ‘The Epigoniad, a Poem in Nine Books,’ the fruit of many years’ study and application. This learned poem, which is founded on a subject in the fourth Iliad of Homer, relative to the sacking of Thebes, met with much temporary success in Scotland, but in England it had few readers, and was very severely handled by the critical and monthly reviewers. Nevertheless, the first impression being soon exhausted, a second edition, corrected and improved, was published in 1759, to which was added ‘A Dream, in the Manner of Spenser.’ In spite of this lively and elegant apology for his Epigoniad, for such it really was, and of a letter by Hume in its favour, addressed to the editors of the ‘’Critical Review,’ appended to its tail, as it were, as boys affix bits of paper to a kite to make it mount, the work was too cumbrous, and had too much of a gravitating tendency ever to keep itself before the public, and is now consigned to undisturbed silence and neglect.

In 1759 Mr. Wilkie was elected professor of natural philosophy in the university of St. Andrews, and, on removing thither, he took his sisters to reside with him. With about £200, which at this period was all he possessed, he purchased a few acres of almost waste land in the neighbourhood, and resumed his farming occupations, by which, and his frugal habits, he was enabled to leave, at his death, property to the amount of £3,000. In 1766 the university of St. Andrews conferred upon him the degree of D.D. In 1768 he published a series of sixteen ‘Moral Fables, in Verse,’ dedicated to his early patron the earl of Lauderdale; but, though these pieces possessed much propriety of sentiment and ease of expression, they did not add to his reputation as a poet. Dr. Wilkie died at St. Andrews, after a lingering illness, October 10, 1772, in the 51st year of his age. Several amusing stories are told of his eccentricities. He suffered so much from ague, that, to keep up a perspiration, he used to lie in bed with no less than two dozen pairs of blankets upon him; and, to avoid all chance of the cold damp, he never slept in clean sheets, either at home or in a friend’s house! His street dress usually consisted of several flannel jackets, waistcoats, and topcoat, and over all a greatcoat and gown, which gave him a very grotesque appearance. Although of parsimonious habits, he had a benevolent disposition, and in his latter years was in the habit of giving away £20 annually in charity. He was at times so very absent, that he would even forget when in the pulpit to take off his hat; once he forgot to pronounce the blessing after public service, and at another time he dispensed the Sacrament, without consecrating the elements! Added to these peculiarities, he indulged in the use of tobacco to an immoderate excess.

WILKIE, SIR DAVID, a distinguished painter, styled by Haydon “the Raffaele of domestic art,” was the son of the Rev. David Wilkie, minister of Cults, near Cupar Fife, where he was born in 1785. At fifteen years of age he entered the Trustees’ Academy at Edinburgh, then under the direction of Mr. John Graham, where he remained for four years, and during that period he had for his fellow-students Sir William Allan, the celebrated painter, and John Burnet, who became the first engraver in Europe. At nineteen years of age Wilkie painted his wonderful picture of the ‘Fair,’ without having ever seen a picture by Teniers. While he remained at Edinburgh, he also finished a small picture of the ‘Village Politicians,’ for an engraver; and, on repairing to London in 1805, with a letter to Mr. Greville, he was introduced to the earl of Mansfield, who gave him a commission for a picture, when he repeated the ‘Politicians’ for his lordship, and in the following year it was exhibited at the Royal Academy. Wilkie, in the meantime, supported himself chiefly by the produce of some of his small pictures exposed in a window at Charing-Cross. In 1807 he exhibited his ‘Blind Fiddler,’ painted for Sir George Beaumont, now in the National Gallery, the surpassing excellence of which at once placed him at the head of his own style. In 1808 he exhibited ‘the Card Players;’ and in 1809, ‘the Cut Finger’ and ‘the Rent Day;’ and in November of the latter year he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. IN February 1811 he was made a Royal Academician, and gave for his diploma-picture ‘Boys Digging for Rats.’ From this time until 1825 he regularly produced and sold at increasing prices, year by year, his well-known and most celebrated works, most of which have been engraved. The following is a brief enumeration of them: -- In 1811, ‘A Gamekeeper’ and ‘A Humorous Scene;’ in 1812, ‘Blind Man’s Buff,’ a Sketch, and ‘The Village Festival,’ now in the National Gallery; in 1813, the finished picture of ‘Blind Man’s Buff;’ in 1814, ‘The Letter of Introduction,’ and ‘Duncan Gray;’ in 1815, ‘Distraining for Rent;’ in 1816, ‘The Rabbit on the Wall;’ in 1817, ‘The Breakfast;’ in 1818, ‘The Errand Boy’ and ‘The Abbotsford Family;’ in 1819, ‘The Penny Wedding;’ in 1820, ‘The Reading of the Will;’ in 1821, ‘Guess my Name’ and ‘Newsmongers;’ in 1822, ‘Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo;’ in 1823, ‘The Parish Beadle;’ in 1824, ‘Smugglers offering Run Goods for Sale or Concealment,’ and ‘The Cottage Toilet;’ and, in 1825, ‘The Highland Family.’

In the latter year Wilkie lost a considerable sum in a speculation in which he had engaged, a circumstance that had a visible effect upon his constitution, and for the recovery of his health his medical attendants advised a tour on the Continent. On this occasion he visited Rome and Madrid, and was absent for about three years. During this period he was not idle; besides making a great number of studies, he nearly completed some pictures both in Italy and Spain. Soon after his return in 1828, he began to display a total change in the style of his execution, the choice of his subject, and the principle of his light and shades. In his earlier paintings he adopted the principle of the Flemish and Dutch schools. The mingled beauties of Teniers, Wouvremans, and Ostade, were present, without the grossness of their subjects, or the coarseness of their incidents. He was no imitator, however, of any of them. He saw nature through the same medium through which those great artists had contemplated her, and, his judgment assuring him that the course they pursued was correct, he adopted it as his own. In the same manner, on arriving amidst the accumulated treasures of the Spanish school at Madrid, he was struck with admiration at the powerful effects its artists had produced; and he resolved on the hazardous experiment of resting his future fame on a style utterly opposed to that in which he then stood unrivalled amidst European artists. Instead of a general breadth of light, he adopted powerful contrasts, in place of rendering his darks valuable by the great prevalence of light, he made his brilliancy of light to depend upon the predominance of the dark. The following are the principal pictures painted by him in his second style: -- ‘The Spanish Posada;’ ‘The Maid of Saragossa;’ ‘The Guerilla’s Departure;’ ‘The Guerilla’s Return;’ ‘John Knox Preaching before Mary Queen of Scots,’ exhibited in 1832; ‘Spanish Monks,’ exhibited in 1833; ‘Not at Home,’ and ‘Spanish Mother and Child,’ in 1834; ‘Columbus,’ in 1835; ‘Peep-o’day Boys’ Cabin,’ in 1836; ‘Mary Queen of Scots escaping from Lochleven Castle,’ ‘The Cottar’s Saturday Night,’ ‘The Empress Josephine,’ and ‘The Fortune-teller,’ in 1837; ‘Queen Victoria’s First Council,’ in 1838; ‘The Discovery of the Body of Tippoo Saib,’ and ‘Grace before Meat,’ in 1839; and ‘Benvenuto Cellini and the Pope,’ and ‘The Irish Whisky Still,’ in 1840. Besides these, he left an unfinished picture of ‘John Knox Administering the Sacrament,’ one of his principal pictures. ‘The Preaching of John Knox,’ which is a most magnificent and truly national picture, was purchased by Sir Robert Peel at a considerable sum.

Mr. R.B. Haydon, himself a painter of great eminence, thus speaks of Wilkie’s change of style: “He first startled the British artists from their absurd excess in imitating Reynolds, by the power and beauty of his ‘Village Politicians,’ and founded our unrivalled domestic school. Had he persevered in the path which Nature had carved out for him, had he wisely gone on adding perfection to perfection, there is no calculating on the extent of excellence to which he must have carried his works, for his invention was flowing and continual, his eye for the quantities of composition exquisite, his taste simple, his eagerness for improvement great, and, at that time, his industry incessant; but, alas! He soon observed that power and competence were seldom obtained in England by inventive art, and having a great relish for society, where a man can hardly keep to a great and solitary principle, he listened to the flatteries of those who wished to have their heads immortalized by the hand of him who was so celebrated in Europe for his own peculiar department. This was the origin of that singular and unfortunate change in his progress, and he soon began to prefer the more profitable ease and lazy luxury of portrait to the energy of invention, the industry of selecting models, and the inadequate reward for his earlier and more beautiful works. From portrait, the full size, the transition seemed to Wilkie easy into ‘high art;’ but here, again, his ignorance of the naked form, his want of poetry of mind, proved him to be more unqualified than for elevated portrait; and, with the single exception of Knox, his attempts in that style were painful.”
On the death of Sir Thomas Lawrence, January 7, 1830, Wilkie, through the influence of the late Sir William Knighton, was appointed principal painter in ordinary to his majesty, and sergeant-painter to the king. At this time he was busily employed upon his portrait of George IV. in the Highland costume, and on his picture of the Reception of his Majesty at Holyrood-house. On the accession of William IV., who had a great regard for him, his appointments were continued, and in 1836 he was knighted. When Queen Victoria came to the throne, Sir David was honoured by sittings from her majesty for his elaborate picture of her first council, and also with a few for a portrait of herself. But he was not commanded to execute any of the numerous likenesses of the monarch which are usually called for at the commencement of a new reign, and the performance of which is generally held to be the privilege of the painter to the court. This apparent neglect wounded the sensitive mind of Sir David, but the impression was soon effaced by the amiable consideration of his royal mistress, who sent him on a mission to Constantinople, to paint the portrait of the sultan for the royal collection. After visiting Syria and Egypt, he arrived at Malta on board the Oriental steamer, on his return to England, in perfect health and high spirits, having everywhere been received with the honours due to his genius. During his absence from England he had been busily employed, and his portfolio was filled with materials for future pictures. One of his last works was a portrait of Mehemet Ali. At Malta he was induced by the climate to partake too incautionsly of fruit, and he increased the feverish disposition which ensued by resorting to the cooling effects of ice. After leaving the island, his illness increased so much that he was for two days confined to his cabin. On the night of the 31st of May the Oriental entered Gibraltar Bay, and, having received the mail on board, made sail for England, no one having been permitted to go on shore. Shortly after the ship had got under weigh, at six o’clock on the morning of June 1, his companion, Mr. Woodburne, went into Sir David’s berth, to request him to come up and breakfast with the company. Sir David replied that he would probably do son, but would like first to see the doctor. Mr. Gattie, a medical gentleman, was called for the purpose, but he was so much alarmed by Sir David’s appearance, that he sought the assistance of the medical attendant of Sir James Carnac from Bombay, who was one of the passengers. The latter accordingly visited the patient, and he agreed with Mr. Gattie that he was in great danger. All the remedies within their reach were applied by the medical gentlemen, and every exertion was used to save the illustrious sufferer, but without avail. Sir David gradually sunk; he became unconscious about half-past seven, and at eight o’clock he died, June 1, 1841, in the 55th year of his age. At the request of the passengers the vessel put back to Gibraltar, but, owing to the strictness of the quarantine laws, and the dread of the plague, the body was not allowed to be sent on shore for interment, and it was judged best to commit the remains of the great painter to the deep, which was done in the most solemn and impressive manner, as the Oriental stood out of the bay on her way to England.

Sir David Wilkie was never married. He resided of late years in the neighbourhood of Kensington, his establishment being superintended by a most amiable, affectionate, and devoted sister. He had also a brother, Mr. Thomas Wilkie, a merchant in the city. “In private live,” says Mr. Haydon, “his character was simple, honourable, prudent, and decorous; a tender heart was concealed by a timid manner, which to strangers more than bordered on apparent coldness. He had been a dutiful son, an affectionate brother, and was an attached friend. His address was reserved, as if he feared to offend more than he wished to please. His early struggles had taught him submission and docility, which he never lost even in the society of his equals. His education had been imperfect, but his great capacity, sound common sense, and shrewd observation, made him a delightful companion with an intimate friend. Though in private life he was always consistent in the practice of his art, he betrayed a perpetual appetite for new modes. He was not only at the mercy of his own whims, but of those of infinitely inferior men, and, like Reynolds, believed every night he had hit the right thing, which the first ray of the morning sun dispelled like a vapour.” A writer in the Times, after giving a short sketch of his life, says: -- “He was fond of amusing himself occasionally, when in the society of his literary and artistic friends, in the representation of tableaux vivans, an amusement extremely characteristic of his long and unvarying habit of observation, which appears to have been one of the qualities for which he was most remarkable. At such periods he would propose a subject, and by the use of costumes and draperies, of which he possessed a large store, and the judicious application and management of light, impress an effect upon the eye similar to that produced by the pictures of many of the great masters. A close and careful observation of every variety of composition or of form always preceded the production of his greater works, more especially those which he painted in what may be termed his first style. Every article of furniture depicted, or of accessory, however minute or humble, introduced into his composition, was modelled or carved for the purpose, and each was transferred to the canvass from the thing itself. Nor was the perspective less accurately considered, for the interiors we see in his pictures, conveying to the eyes such exactness of delineation, were the faithful transcripts of the models he had already planned and procured to be executed for him. Early habits of care in pecuniary matters led him, as he advanced in life, to a rigidness of expenditure bordering on parsimony, but his warmth of heart and affection for his family prompted his aid to them, when wanted, with unsparing liberality. In his intercourse with society he would freely state his opinions, and though he was careful not to offend the prejudices of others, he never shrank from a plain and straightforward assertion of his views. He who sought his professional advice was sure to have a courteous reception, and could never leave him without benefiting by his judgment. No petty feeling of jealousy induced him to withhold his stores of knowledge, nor could his profound intimacy with the principles of his art ever render him impatient of the task of giving to his less gifted brethren the results of his study, or the fruits of his experience. His strong natural sense, his shrewdness of remark, and his quiet vein of humour, rendered his conversation as instructive as it was agreeable; so much so, indeed, that George Colman, on one occasion, observed to a mutual friend, that ‘That Scotchman’s conversation was worth a guinea an hour, for his sly wit and acute observation.’” His portrait is subjoined.

[portrait of Sir David Wilkie]

Sir David Wilkie’s unfinished works and original sketches were exposed to sale in May 1842, and brought the sum of £6,663 14s. 6d. The sale lasted six days. A memoir of his life was published in 1844 by Allan Cunningham.

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