Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

The Scottish School of Painting
Chapter V. Wilkie, 1785-1841


Whilst Raeburn was laying the foundations of a strong school of portraiture in Edinburgh, another influence appeared in the person of David Wilkie. Younger than the portrait-painter by about thirty years, Wilkie may yet be said to share with him the honour of being a founder of the Scottish School; and though his place is secondary in point of time, his influence was, during his lifetime and the succeeding generation, much more marked than that of the earlier master.

Their careers present a striking contrast, and, had biographical narration been the writer’s purpose, he would have had to tell how the painter of all that was strongest and loveliest amongst Scottish men and women of his time lived in comparative obscurity, whilst the stripling painter of Village Politicians, awoke one morning to find himself famous. This fame was well deserved, and still abides, though the trump of the fickle goddess may have lost something of its earlier note. Raeburn, as has been seen, stumbled on a technique of his own, and a manner of seeing which associates him in a peculiar way with modem methods. It was different with Wilkie. From the day he could handle a brush, he seems to have accepted the Dutch and Flemish genre painters as his models, both in respect of technique and arrangement. In his earliest attempts even his manner of seeing nature seems to have been derived from the same source ; for the peasant groups of these works—notably two in the possession of Mr. Boyd Kinnear—have more of the Dutch boor than the Fifeshire hind about them. It is not definitely known whether, at this time, Wilkie had seen any examples of Brouwer or Ostade, with whom those studies associate him; but it is not unlikely that in Edinburgh, or in the collections of some of the Fife county gentry, which would be accessible to him, examples of these masters or their followers had come under his observation. At all events, he would know them well through prints and engravings.

David Allan has been called a precursor of Wilkie, but he is so only in virtue of having had the courage to turn from the conventional classic themes of the period to the rustic and pastoral life of his own country. There is not a hint in the most immature of Wilkie’s studies that he is otherwise indebted to Allan. The painter instinct of the boy would enable him to discern his infinitely superior was the craft of even such second-rate masters of the schools of the Low Countries as he would be likely to see; nor is it to be forgotten that in his master Graham he had a very competent guide and example in all that pertained to technique. He did not long remain a slavish follower of his chosen ideals, for already in The Village Recruit, Pitlessie Fair, and Village Politicians, all painted2before he had well passed twenty, though the methods remain, his keen observation of nature is gradually emancipating him from the hideous types associated with the work of the seventeenth century masters. Uncouth enough they are, some of those Fifeshire carles, but the big-headed, bulbous-nosed, Brouwer-like peasant is giving way to the canny Scot of his own neighbourhood. In the crowded canvas of Pitlessie Fair, which must have occupied him during a considerable period of 1804, one can read the growth of the young artist, both as regards this faculty of observation and technical ability, in the finer types and more sensitive touch which distinguish certain of its figures and incidents. As yet the painter shows nothing of his later gifts of design and chiaroscuro; in many of the groups the colour is unpleasantly red and the execution heavy, whilst the types chosen still recall the merry miakings of the Low Countries. But here and there, as in the old farmer with his hand on the head of the fair-haired urchin while he fumbles in his pocket for a coin; in the boy playing the Jew’s-harp; and in various touches of a kindlier humour, there is a hint of what the near future was to reveal.

In London, at any rate, to which he removed about this time, taking with him the two completed Fifeshire pictures and the sketch for Village Politicians, he would not lack opportunity of seeing the works of his favourite masters. We know that his success with the last-named picture threw open to him the choicest collections of the metropolis, and that when he commenced The Blind Fiddler for Sir George Beaumont, it was with a Teniers beside him, lent by his liberal friend and patron.

The last-named picture, the most typical of Wilkie’s first period, was painted in his twenty-first year, and shows the artist adding to the qualities which had already brought him fame in his Village Politicians. Any lengthened description of the theme and arrangement is superfluous, it is as familiar through Burnet’s fine engraving as is the appearance of Buonaparte or Walter Scott. There is scope for a kindlier humanity in this homely subject than was afforded by the previous year’s picture. In the one, political controversy emphasises, in a humorous way, the individualities of the groups about the alehouse table aijd fireside; in the other, the strains of the violin supply the influence which makes that humble world kin. And though the technique may resemble more closely that of Teniers, the arrangement is less like. It is the almost universal practice of the Fleming, in his interior subjects, to have the main and subordinate groups on different planes. To this Village Politicians conforms. Not so the other, where Wilkie has grouped his rustic company in a manner entirely his own.

In the painting he follows'his model frankly, if rather timidly, as was to be expected in one so young. Alike in the prevalence of the negative colours of which Teniers was fond—here taking the form of a rather slaty grey—in the dainty manipulation, and in the introduction of the full note of red in the Fiddler’s cowl, we recognise the Flemish master. As with him also, the pigment is limpid and thin, even in the lighter surfaces of the draperies, and its consistency is scarcely greater in the flesh, the high lights only having a slightly heavier impasto. The positive red of the cowl is skilfully echoed in various of the draperies and accessories throughout the picture, whilst the ambers and yellows of the central group, and the greenish dress of the child, lead from the more positive colours to the olives of the darker draperies and the umbers of the background. The design is quite original, and the drawing is careful throughout, though it has not all the ease and grace he afterwards attained. One misses something of litheness in the forms of the two little girls —the face of the sleeping child is rather unchildlike—and of the figures on the extreme right, the girl is of too masculine a type, and the boy, though intended as a foil, smacks too much of caricature.

As regards sentiment and feeling it is all Wilkie. Neither Fleming nor Dutchman has given us anything like this homely incident of cottage life. Greuze was a sentimentalist, Hogarth bitterly satirical, Chardin less dramatic. Here nothing is forced, a fine unconsciousness pervades the group. The face and figure of the principal actor in the scene, his grizzled locks, unshaven chin and agile hands, the slightly bent figure, the foot beating time to the music, and the weather-worn habiliments in which he is clad—all rendered with a deftness which leaves nothing to be desired—combine to make it one of the notable achievements of modern genre. One gathers from the action of the father snapping his fingers to the child dandled on its mother’s knee, and from the vigorous pantomime of the boy with tongs and bellows, that the music discoursed is some reel or strathspey, or one of those airs with a lilt, so dear to the Scottish people. The less demonstrative, though by no means irresponsive expression of the old man with his back to the fire gives the same idea, and a foil is provided in the stolid looks of the wayfarer’s wife, to whom custom has staled his melodies, the wondering attitude of the children and the armed neutrality of the dog, half hidden under its mistress’s chair.

This picture, with a pathos all its own, may be said to have secured Wilkie’s position in the affections of the people. Its defects are those incident to very early works, but one of his latest biographers has not overshot the mark in classing it, as a work of youthful genius, with Potter’s Young Bull at the Hague.

A painter’s career is never a continuous growth, and it was only natural that there should be failures, or comparative failures, in the succession of Wilkie’s works. But, at least during the first twenty years of his practice, he fell short of himself only to rise to new triumphs. Alfred in the Neatherd's Cottage, and other more trivial productions, were before long succeeded by The Rent Day, and that again after a somewhat longer interval by The Village Festival. Both belong to the series by which he is best remembered. As the latter differs materially in style and arrangement from the work already dwelt on, an analysis of its qualities will furnish some idea of the trend of the painter’s genius when as yet in its early prime.

The picture, exhibited in 1812, was painted for Mr. Angerstein, whose collection afterwards formed the nucleus of the National Gallery. Pour years separated it from his last considerable effort—The Rent Day—and it may be inferred from its numerous figures and the variety and complexity of its grouping, that it occupied the artist during a considerable portion of the intervening time. It is well known that, in spite of royal and noble commissions, the modest value Wilkie put on his more elaborate compositions compelled him, whilst they were in progress, to produce pictures less exacting on his time and talents, single figures sometimes, and portraits, that the wolf might be kept from the door. This is the true and sufficient explanation of the considerable intervals which separate his greater works from each other. But to return to the picture under consideration: The Village Festival stands apart not only from the works already mentioned, but from the series generally. It differs in respect of the smaller proportion of the figures to their surroundings, and the scattered grouping so often commenced on; but also for another characteristic not so generally noted, viz., that of the whole series, it is the most thoroughly English. The painter had come to London in 1805. The pictures painted immediately thereafter, Village Politicians and The Blind Fiddler, naturally bore the strong impress of Scottish character; and the same, though less markedly, may be affirmed of The Rent Day, which, we are told, was designed during a visit he paid to his home at Cults in 1807. But the lapse of years and the influence of his surroundings tended gradually to the loss of any strongly national character. Even when the subject treated is Scottish, one begins to feel a certain artificiality in the types. Scots models can always be had in a cosmopolitan centre like London, but that is a poor substitute for the daily contact and observation oh which Pitlessie Fair and Village Politicians had been constructed. In this picture of 1812, he is frankly English. In its every feature this great rambling inn, with its timber beams and latticed windows, its portico and balustrades, its creeper-clad walls and wide courtyard, is, in spite of the lion rampant on its sign, of the south. So, too, are the groups of merrymakers seated aboiit the tables or clustering round the inebriated peasant of the central group. The folks o’ Fife would never disport themselves so.

In regard to technique also, there is a change from the picture of five or six years earlier, which one can the more readily realise from their being hung in close proximity in the National Gallery. Here there is little of either Teniers or Ostade except that skill of handling they share with the “little masters” generally, in which Wilkie now rivals the best of them. The slaty negative tones of the Fleming are gone, nor can the warmer browns he uses later in such works as Blind Maris Buff be said to be much in evidence. The fact of its being an open-air picture may have something to do with it, but it seems as if here Wilkie’s manner is hardly that of either the works that preceded or those which followed it. There is nowhere else in the artist’s work, so far as the writer is acquainted with it, a technique quite like that in some of the heads of the central group and of those at the adjoining table. Richer in colour, they are wrought with a full brush and a delicacy of touch he has never surpassed. The expression of Bacchanalian revelry in the former is delicious, whilst for the general gusto and abandon with which it moves and sways about, the group of which they form part is as fine as anything ever accomplished by Rubens or Jordaens in their countless dedications to the wine god. This group furnishes the leading motive of the picture both as regards narrative interest and pictorial arrangement. Its central figure, the man in the smock frock, is being dragged one way by his wife and child, and another by his boon companions; the forces of good and evil tug and strain, and victory still hangs in the balance. The struggle has its pathetic as well as its humorous aspect evinced in the anxious face of the woman, the appealing action of the girl, and in the limp attitude and vacuous countenance of Hodge himself, who has reached the stage of blessed indifference to all mundane considerations. As is the centre of interest, so the scattered lights are focused in his ample smock of creamy white, which, in conjunction with the light draperies of his better half, dominates the higher notes of a finely distributed chiaroscuro. Leaving this main group, the eye wanders to the table on the left where Boniface pours the foaming ale, the warmth of his beaming visage kept in check by his scarlet waistcoat, as are those of his customers generally by the more positive hues of the stronger toned draperies.

The action and interest of the scene is sustained in the revellers who swarm about the tables, the doorways, and on the window-sills behind, whilst on the gallery over the portico a young man offers a glass—presumably of wine or strong waters—to a girl who shrinks from it with a look of mingled coyness and horror. The painting of this bit of by-play is delicious. With touch light as a feather, Wilkie has expressed in this figure and a companion seated beside her all the grace and charm of girlhood. Let those who talk of “ mere painting” note how inseparable are delicacy of expression and sensitiveness of touch. What would a clumsy manipulation have made of the features of these half-inch faces, or of the soft white draperies and rustic bonnets here so perfectly rendered and deftly wrought by a hand trained to unison with the most subtle perceptions of the brain?

The picture is not without its flaws, both of composition and colour. Besides the scattered nature of the former the group in the right foreground is not only unsatisfactory in itself, it lacks cohesion with the rest of the picture. One feels that the undulating and flowing lines of the composition are too abruptly stopped by the upright figure of the girl, and that the expedients of poodle dog, boxes, and scattered articles of various sorts fail to unite this dark comer with the other groups. The colour, too, is somewhat liyi^i in the breast and arms of the anxious wife, and unpleasantly winey in the faces of some off the subordinate figures. The sky and background generally are heavy in colour, though they form an effective setting for the figures. But these are slight defects ip a work in some ways unique in Wilkie’s practice, where one can feel here and there the influence of artists not usually associated with his work—of Rubens, npt in the Silenus-bke grqup Ofnly, but in the thinner painting of the figures about the windowrsill; and pf Morland in the subject-matter and the types.

This notable picture was followed at shorter intervals by several of his most popular works. To the exhibition of 1813 he contributed Blind Man's Buff, and within the next three years he completed The Letter of Introduction, Duncan Gray, 'The Pedlar, Distraining for Rent, and The Rabbit on the Wall. The first-named is perhaps the best known and most popular of all his works. With various other Wilkies of different periods it is in the Royal collection, but there is at the Tate Gallery* a study which, as it corresponds closely with the finished picture, and is more readily accessible to the public, has been used as the basis of what follows. Was eyer scene of rustic merrymaking depicted like this? In vividness it ranks with the finest creations of the literary art in a similar genre. It has the true inwardness, the spontaneity of Halloween or The Jolly Beggars. Instinctively one takes part in this shifting drama with its kaleidoscopic movement, its racket of falling furniture and trampling feet; it requires an effort to pass from the enjoyment of the abounding mirth and humorous by-play of the scene itself to an analysis of the work of art. And this speaks volumes for the composition; for any awkwardness or disjointedness of arrangement, such as that just noted in The Village Festival, would at once relieve us from the effort. But here all is of a piece, it is the art which conceals art. Not only is it Wilkie’s finest work in this respect, it is one of the finest compositions ever placed on canvas. Judged frpm the reproductions, as a piece of black and white, how those flowing lines and finely-balanced masses of light and shadow fill the space ! Again, what a variety and complexity of form and lighting is contained within the broader masses! How grateful to the eye is the suppleness of what one may call the consenting parts of the scheme, and the subtlety with which the lights and darks lead up to the white bandaged central figure ! The colour is richer than in the early pictures, having something of the deeper tones which distinguish Ostade from Teniers; browns and ambers are gaining on the more chilly material of hi§ first efforts. Here again one is reminded how large a part the handcraft plfys in the rendering of expression; in every one of these miniature heads one can feel the sympathy between the thought and the craft which gives it being. In the study the limpid and flowing brushwork is sometimes accented with a line, as in the profile of the nearest girl, vitalising what might otherwise tend to over softness. Nor can one overlook here that which is a feature in mpst of Wilkie’s pictures, the expression conveyed by the hands. That outstretched arm and groping left hand of the principal figure, and its manner of rendering, is a touch of genius. It is in such passages that one realises the distance that separates this master of modern genre from the scores of capable men who have followed in his footsteps.

It were tedious to follow in detail the succession of his works. In The Letter of Introduction the ;theme is simpler, but the rendering of the mingled gravity and humour of the occasion no less exquisite; “one of the most finely characterised pictures he has painted—a composition, one would say, taken from a romance of Balzac,” says Burger in his “Art Treasures of England.” And competent critics who have had an opportunity of studying the picture are agreed that Wilkie has here attained his high-water mark as a craftsman. Distraining for Rent, which touches a more pathetic chord, was purchased by the Directors of the British Institution. In 1819, some half-dozen years after the completion of Blind Mari's Buff, we find the painter again represented by a subject which gave all his qualities full play.

Like the last-named picture, The Penny Wedding is Royal property, and forms for it an ideal companion. As a composition it lacks the compactness of its pendant, but it is no less successful as a rendering of another aspect of the drama of rustic life. Here Wilkie returns to the national types demanded by his theme, and we know that he had made extensive studies and sketches for it during his long visit to the north in the summer and autumn of 1817. In this respect it differs from Blind Man’s Buff, where the types are not markedly Scotch and the setting is thoroughly English ; for that great apartment with its oaken settle, jack wheel and bacon racks, belongs—like the background of The Village Festival—rather to the south than to the north. In The Penny Wedding there is a thoroughly Scottish interior, somewhat expanded to suit the artistic presentment of the subject, and the various groups exhibit the national traits both of feature and deportment. Music and dancing and feasting go on apace. A foursome reel is up, and neither Wilkie himself nor any other master has excelled this spirited and vivacious rendering of these exponents of the national institution.

"Nae cotillon brent-new frae France
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys and reels
Put life and mettle i’ their heels.”

Was ever action depicted like that of the youth with the flying coat-tails, who leaps and bounds and snaps his fingers over against his strapping though less demonstrative partner who, hand on haunch and bare arm akimbo, regards him with an amused smile. Or that other who fairly doubles himself up as he leans towards the sonsy lass, bobbing and twisting and twirling in front of him. One can hear- the “ Hooch ” to which he gives vent.

In technique there is again a change, for one finds here, combined with the sensitive craftsmanship of the preceding ten years, a treatment of the flesh in which reflected light is largely used in the shadows and halftones. Since he painted Blind Maris Buff, Wilkie has seen something of the Continent and its art treasures, having visited Paris in 1814, when he had Hay don as a companion, and the Low Countries with Raimbach in 1816. We know from the painter’s journals and letters that he was ever on the outlook for anything that would aid the development of his beloved art; and doubtless the more luminous treatment now alluded to was largely due to his observations on these two occasions. As yet it is distinctly beneficial, though later the use of the reflected light became a mannerism with Wilkie and his followers.

Reading the Will, 1821, Chelsea Pensioners, and The Parish Beadle of 1822 and 1823 may be said to conclude the series of pictures with which Wilkie’s fame is indelibly associated. The picture of 1822, painted for the Duke of Wellington, he had in hand for six years, though he seems to have accomplished the bulk of it within two. The story of the Duke’s visit to the studio, his suggestion of the subject, and the artist’s eager compliance, as also the manner in which payment was made, are too well known to bear repetition. Chelsea Pensioners reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo—to give it its full title—had a phenomenal success. By artists, the press, and the general public alike, it was received with enthusiasm. “This magical performance,” comments one paper, is by the hand of Wilkie, and we hail its appearance on more accounts than one. 'Richard is himself again!' In saying this we mean that Wilkie has here recovered all his original force, brilliancy, and truth.” And Gericault, who visited London that year, writing to an artist friend, singles out this picture—the subject could hardly have commended it—as an example to the painters of his own country. In truth the artist’s hand has lost nothing of its cunning. In this vivid memorial of the greatest event of his age, he has better vindicated his title to be considered a painter of history than in the John Knox and Queen Mary episodes of later years.

Soon there came the great change, to be regretted in more senses than one, which characterised the last fifteen years of Wilkie’s practice. Overtaken in the full tide of prosperity by a succession of misfortunes which seriously affected his health, foreign travel was recommended as a restorative. Unable for months to exercise his calling, his active mind was ever at work, seeking to assimilate something of the glow of colour and of the larger handling of the Italian masters, whom now for the first time he had leisure to study in their appropriate surroundings. His letters from various foreign cities to Sir Thomas Lawrence, Collins, and others, are full of the discoveries he is making, and of resolutions for the future founded on his wider experience. From Rome he writes to the latter on December 3, 1825, an interesting narrative of his journey thitherwards via Milan, Genoa, Pisa, and Florence, with the impressions he had gathered from the collections in those local centres. Winding up with a glowing estimate of Raphael and Michael Angelo, in the latter of whom he finds not only a master of design but a great colourist, he adds regarding Italy: “I am thankful that I have seen it; and if I should recover my health and powers of application, I shall bless the present affliction for having put this long-looked-for gratification within my reach, at a period that I hope is not too late for benefiting by it.” Nearly two years later he writes to the same friend, from Geneva, a still more interesting letter, in which he enlarges on the paramount importance of colour “if not the first”—“at least an essential quality in painting: no master has as yet maintained his ground beyond his own time without it”:— “in oil painting it is richness and depth alone that can do justice to the material.” And again from Bayonne, after having spent the winter in Madrid, he writes with all his impressions and resolutions in regard to depth and glow of colour confirmed: “With me, no starved surface now: no dread of oil, no ‘perplexity for fear of change.’”

From another phrase in this Bayonne letter, “I feel the wisdom of Sir George Beaumont’s advice to me, to reflect that white is not light, and detail is not finish?” at least from the latter part of it, we can gather that, along with greater depth and glow of colour, Wilkie is aiming after a larger manner of painting. “I have now,” he writes to Lawrence, “from the study of the old masters, adopted a bolder, and, I think, a more effective style; and one result is rapidity.” One cannot but admire the ardour with which the painter, no longer young in years, and already mature in accomplishment, sought after the larger manifestations of technique with which he was confronted in the masterpieces of Italy and Spain. What the result might have been had Wilkie visited those countries twenty years earlier it is impossible to say. On the whole it is perhaps well that he did not, for it is difficult to imagine an adequate compensation for the work he gave us during those years. All gifts are not committed to one, and, fortunately for us, the artist followed his original bent for a period sufficient to secure for him an enduring fame. Coming at the time it did, this three years study of the old masters, while it doubtless gave variety to the sum total of his work, robbed it of much of its character. In those life-size portraits and illustrations of long past or recent history, one recognises many admirable artistic qualities, but no longer the unique Wilkie. He seems indeed to have fallen into the very error—no unusual thing—he was so quick to detect in the painters of the decadence, who, he writes, in a letter already quoted from, “have allowed technicalities to get the better of them, until, simplicity giving way to intricacy, they appear to have painted more for the artist and the connoisseur than for the untutored apprehensions of ordinary men.”

It is easy to understand the attractions “rapidity” would have for him coming at the time it did, for to his other misfortunes there was added, whilst he was in Rome, the news of the failure of his printsellers, Hurst and Robinson, a failure which involved him in serious financial difficulties. Like his countryman, Sir Walter Scott, he faced these embarrassments bravely. Given only a renewal of health, he feels capable of surmounting them, contesting them inch by inch, as he puts it. To this end the rapidity of the “ more effective style ” he has adopted would be a powerful auxiliary. In place of labouring for years on the multitudinous details of such pictures as The Penny Wedding and Chelsea Pensioners, which left him poor in spite of the seemingly large prices obtained, he is now, he writes to Collins, to paint his whole picture as that artist painted his skies—whilst it is still wet; an ideal which has haunted many, and which has been attained on rare occasions by some few masters of the larger technique. But Wilkie was not of these, and the hand so agile and adroit, after twenty years of such work as satisfied the “little masters” of Holland, refused to conform itself to the new ideal.

The result of all this is observable in the larger scale generally adopted and in the greatly increased output of work from about 1828 onwards. His first essay in portraiture on a large scale, that of the Earl of Kellie for the County Hall, Cupar, is remarkably successful, as is Viscount Melville, painted two years later, in 1831, for the University of St. Andrews. Both are full of character, and contrast favourably with the full length of His Majesty George IV. in Highland Costume, of the intervening year. The portraits of Lord Kellie and of Lord Melville are treated in a somewhat similar manner; both are full front, in robes of office, and seated. The former, an old man, with high bald forehead and scanty locks of grey hair, is of rather insignificant appearance, but, by the adoption of a strong chiaroscuro, the artist has given character to the penetrating eyes and thin lips, which saves the head from being swamped in the strong colour-scheme of official robes and other adjuncts. In Lord Melville’s portrait the light and shade is less pronounced, the fine head is low toned, and a more sober arrangement has been necessitated by the character of the Chancellor’s robes in which he is represented. Both pictures are in good condition; as yet no evil has resulted from his change of theories.

The same cannot be said of the important work of the following year, The Preaching of Knox before the Lords of the Congregation. This picture, painted for Sir Robert Peel, Wilkie had on hand for many years. So far back as 1822, when they visited Edinburgh together. Collins notes his having taken a “rather cumbrous” oil sketch of it for Sir Walter Scott’s opinion; and Eugene Delacroix speaks of having seen a sketch of the subject— perhaps the same—at Wilkie’s studio when he visited London three years later. The work would thus seem to have been designed before the breakdown in the artist’s health and his consequent residence abroad, but seeing it was not exhibited till some four years after his return from Spain, there is little doubt that the bulk of the picture would be painted after the change of style brought about as we have seen. The glow and depth, the chief aim of the new manner, here reveals itself in a forcing of the whole scheme of light and shade. Many of the faces in shadow are quite livid in tone, with a sort of coppery blackness, and the contrast of these with the figures in full light results in a lurid and exaggerated chiaroscuro very unlike that of his earlier practice. For though Wilkie was never of those who finely observed the tones and values, like Terburg and others amongst the Dutch genre painters, his good taste had hitherto preserved him from such a forcing of the note as we find here. Neither does his touch seem to adapt itself so well to these medium-sized heads as to the life-size of the portraits just mentioned. Strangest of all, and this perhaps accounts partly for the other defects, the shadowed parts have lost surface, have got clotted and unpleasant, and are breaking up find changing colour. "The First Earring,* exhibited in 1835, betrays the same slackness and lack of character in the brush work; the colour is luminous, the pigment limpid, but the modelling has lost firmness; if something has been gained in glow and depth, more has been lost in other directions.

Two of the most important of his later works belong to the year 1838—Sir David Baird discovering the body of Tippoo Sahib f and Queen Victoria presiding at the Council upon Her Majesty's Accession, June 20,1837. So far as the writer is aware the former is, with the exception of Napoleon and Pope Pius VII. at Fontainebleau, the only subject-picture of Wilkie’s in which the figures are on the scale of life. The circumstances of the commission, and the difficulties which attended the execution of it, may be gathered from the numerous letters which passed between Lady Baird and the artist, given in the concluding volume of Cunningham’s “ Life.” The figure of Sir David Baird had to be adapted from Raeburn’s portrait and another slight drawing, and those of the dead Tippoo and his followers from some Indian soldiers who happened to be in London at the time, and who manifested the greatest reluctance at being associated in any way with the fallen ruler of Mysore. Though somewhat melodramatic in conception the picture possesses many fine qualities, the subordinate figures are grouped with great skill around their leader, and the sense of animation and action is heightened by the weird and fantastic lighting adopted—that of a lantern and torches. Mysterious shadows are cast upward and backwards into the recesses of the vaulted eastern apartment, where a struggle is still going on. The head of the woman who points to the body of Tippoo, and whose cheek and naked breast are strongly illumined by the lantern she holds, makes a fine contrast with those of the fighting men around her. The horizontal lines of the dead Sultan, and those who have died with him, in the foreground, are the least satisfactory feature of an arrangement otherwise fine, both in regard to composition and light and shade. Of the Royal commission of the same date, the writer can speak only from a recollection of some years back, but the impression left is of a technique which conforms itself better to the scale of the work. It is difficult to draw any definite conclusion from work left in progress, but it almost seems as if in Knox Administering the Sacrament at Calder House Etching was an art not much practised by the painters of those days, but of the seven plates published by Wilkie in 1824, two at least, 'The Pope Examining a Censer and Gentleman at his Desk are masterpieces. Hamerton, in his remarks on the former, devotes some lines to the charm of Wilkie’s drawing which are interesting in connection with those to be quoted from the “Journal of Eugene Delacroix.” “The draughtsmanship,” he says, “is of that happy kind which, fully possessing precision, allows itself perfect freedom.” This he likens to “the freedom of the most beautiful manners.” In truth, both here and in The Lost Receipt, as the other is sometimes called, there is all that sensitiveness in the management of the graver which characterises his touch in Blind Mari's Buff' and The Letter of Introduction. In the first-named and most highly finished plate, the Pontiff, seated in an arm-chair, examines through raised eye-glasses the work of the goldsmith, with “ a royal naturalness of attitude,” to quote Mr. Hamerton again. The aristocratic profile and long-fingered hands refined by age are expressed with lines at once incisive and tender, which contrast with the more brusque rendering of the kneeling artificer. The accessories of costume and sumptuous background are appropriately handled with more open and closer cross-hatchings respectively. The Lost Receipt is even more fascinating in its slighter treatment, for here the expression and attitudes of the waiting tradesman and the gentleman and his wife who anxiously rummage for the missing document, are given in delicate lines and with a minimum of shadow. Yet these are sufficient, and the plate has the charm of those ibauches and esquisses which so excited the admiration of the French romanticist. When Mr. Ruskin called etching “the bungler’s art,” he had certainly neither of these plates in his mind’s eye.

Wilkie is one of the most interesting personalities in British Art, and it is fortunate that we have in Cunningham’s three volumes, and in the numerous references to him by artists and others with whom he was associated, ample materials in relation to his views on art, and the place he held in the art world of his time. His letters to friends and brother artists, and the extracts from journals of which the “Life” is largely made up, depict for us minutely the phases and tendencies of his art life from beginning to end. The outstanding feature of his early years is the omission of the Roman apprenticeship. Whether this was at first from choice or necessity hardly appears ; certainly he could have accomplished it, if so minded, within a few years of his settling in London. The Napoleonic wars were in full swing, but such risk as there was would not have hindered one of Wilkie’s ardent temperament from reaching his goal. Was it that his preoccupation during those years with the Dutch and Flemish masters prevailed against a practice which had become habitual with his conntrymen, or that the greater interest manifested in modern and native art about that date was tending to break down a convention of long standing? When he does get to Rome in 1825, he speaks, indeed, of its being a “long-expected pleasure,” but it does not appear that he ever regretted not having studied in Rome in the old sense of the phrase.

His success in London was phenomenal, To realise the vivid interest which his works aroused, it is only necessary to glance over the cuttings from contemporary press notices kept in the Fine Art Library at South Kensington. With few exceptions the pictures from Village Politicians to Chelsea Pensioners were received with sympathetic and warm approval, the best known of the series with something akin to an ovation. For the praise was far from indiscriminate; indeed, what strikes one about those early nineteenth century articles is the intelligence with which they appraise the relative merits of the various pictures in their turn. Though written mostly from the popular point of view, the gist of the criticism still holds good, both as regards the narrative and technical aspects of the works reviewed. It is only in the nature of things that, since Wilkie’s day, both art and art criticism should have passed through various phases, and the net result of two generations of the latter may have been to detract somewhat from the estimate placed on his work by some of the writers alluded to. But those sixty-five years have brought nothing to justify the rather slighting tone often adopted in art circles towards Wilkie and his work. The term “literary” is applied in a vague way to the interest of such pictures as his, with the implication that they are thereby relegated to a lower class. Now, though it is quite true that the narrative or human interest does not constitute a picture a work of art, it is absurd to hold that it precludes it from being so, or lessens its chance of attaining that distinction. Nothing can raise it to the region of art but its art qualities; in other words, its harmonious arrangement of line, form, colour, and chiaroscuro—the elements with which the artist has specially to deal. But a picture, like a poem or a romance, is not only a work of art, it is a message from its author to a public he desires to interest, and so long as he works on aesthetic lines the width of the appeal does not lessen its art possibilities. A quotation already given from a letter to Collins on the importance of colour—“no master has yet maintained his ground beyond his own time without it”—shows that Wilkie was under no delusion as to narrative interest being a substitute for art qualities. But he was equally awake to the danger of losing touch with the elemental interests of humanity, and to the neglect of this, as we know from another quotation, and the concerning themselves exclusively with technicalities, he attributed that loss of simplicity which characterises the painters of the decadence. In truth, the appeal to “unlearned observers” and to “the common people” seems to have in it a saving power, as of a salt to keep art sane and healthy. The 6C literary interest ” insinuation carries a sort of half-truth which is apt to confuse the mind, but in regard to Wilkie it is altogether beside the mark. His merits on the artistic side are undeniable. Though not of the robust order, his technique has that sympathetic quality which, in its higher manifestations, distinguishes genius from mere cleverness or talent. His exquisite sense of line and form might be demonstrated from a score of passages in his best-known pictures, not in the accurate academic sense, it is true, which never can express action and it is especially in connection with figures in motion that Wilkie draws so marvellously but in the far higher sense which brings interior passion to supplement nature. Delacroix recognises in him one of those who have drawn by instinct. Writing in his journal for 1840, of the secret of drawing belonging only to such, he goes on: “It is not at the moment of setting to work that one must elaborate one’s study with precise measurements and the plumb line. Long habit is necessary to have this exactness, which in presence of nature will of itself assist the impassioned desire of rendering it. Wilkie also has the secret.” And is it not this same attribute of genius which makes possible such delicate renderings of expression as those referred to in the girls on the balcony in The Village Festival, and the outstretched arm and groping hand in Blind Man's Buff? Sir George Beaumont has left it on record that when Wilkie painted he seemed scarcely to breathe, so intense was his application; and when studying such passages as these, one can almost feel that a breath would have deflected the hand or broken the spell which, for the time being, made it, like the tongue of the orator, one with the working brain.

In truth, Wilkie’s technique in the works by which he is best remembered is never small, though he worked on a small scale. There has lately been a tendency with some critics to identify this very useful term with a slashing style. One reads, for instance, that such a one, whatever his deficiencies, has technique. Substitute the English equivalent and the phrase is meaningless. Technique is simply workmanship, and it is good or otherwise as it is appropriate to the scale or sentiment of the work. But fine technique is always large, though the picture may be on the scale of inches, and one could find passages in Wilkie and Meissonier—the smaller pictures at Hertford House, for instance—which place them amongst the masters, nor would it be difficult to demonstrate that much of the paint-slinging to which the term is applied, in a complimentary sense, is as little entitled to it as the smallest niggling. What signifies the elbow of Hals without his brain and hand? Often, it is true, Wilkie’s more laboured work loses the vivacity inseparable from the finest craftsmanship, but that is true more or less of all painters. To quote again Delacroix, “J’ai 6te chez M. Wilkie et je ne l’apprecie que depuis ce moment. Ses tableaux acheves m’avient deplu, et dans le fait ses ebauches et ses esquisses sont au-dessus de tous les loges. Comme tous les peintres des tous les ages et de tous les pays, il gate regulierement ce qu’il fait de beau”; and, again, “J’ai vu chez Wilkie une esquisse de Knox le pwritain prechant devant Marie Stuart. Je ne peux l’exprimer combien c’est beau, mais je crains qu’il ne la gate; c’est une manie fatale.” And, writing long years afterwards of this same occasion, “ Je m’etais permis de lui dire en le voyant, avec une impetuosity toute Frari^aise ‘ qu’Appollon lui-meme, prenant le pinceau, ne pouvait que la gater en la finissant.’ ” f Few will question the Frenchman’s right to speak on such a subject, or the measure of truth contained in the criticism of the finished pictures. Another master of the brush, of the same great school, one who can as little be suspected of partiality for work such as Wilkie’s, is equally complimentary, and though the reference is primarily to the rendering of expression, it would never have excited the artist’s enthusiasm unless conveyed through a sympathetic technique. Writing from London to Horace Vernet, in 1822, Gericault thus refers to the Chelsea Pensioners. “In a little picture, very simple in subject, he appears to great advantage. The scene takes place near the Military Hospital (Chelsea); it supposes that at the news of a battle those veterans meet to read the Bulletin and to enjoy themselves. He has differentiated all his characters with much feeling. I will speak to you only of one figure, which seemed to me the most perfect, and whose attitude and expression draw tears, whether one will or no. It is the wife of a soldier, who, preoccupied with her husband, scans the list of the dead, with unquiet and haggard eye. Your imagination will tell you all that that troubled countenance expresses. There is neither crape nor mourning—on the contrary, the wine circulates at all the tables—nor is the sky streaked with the lightnings of mournful prophecy. It attains, nevertheless, the utmost pathos; like nature itself.” The facile handcraft which can limn such emotion is Wilkie’s finest legacy to the Scottish school. Half a century later an English critic, speaking of Mr. Pettie’s diploma picture, says that it has “ the never-failing dexterity of the Scotch.” It is not clear whether he meant it as a compliment, but no artist can for a moment doubt that it is so. This “never-failing dexterity” derives from Wilkie, and it more than outweighs the undoubted mannerisms and the questionable methods of his later practice, inherited by the school from the same source.

Wilkie’s later development, though it will hardly add to his ultimate reputation, certainly drew out qualities not conspicuous in his earlier pictures. Glow and depth of tone and colour are amongst the greatest aims of the artist, and undoubtedly these qualities are more in evidence in some of the work of the less popular period. But this attainment was more than counterbalanced by the failure of his technique to adapt itself to the larger scale on which he worked. His touch gets slack and characterless. Preoccupied with colour, he loses sight of the structure of things, with the result that a certain want of firmness pervades these larger compositions. Their merits and defects are indicated in a sentence of Burger’s concerning the Napoleon and Pope Pius VII. at Fontainebleau. "The figures are of the size of life, a little shadowy, it is true, and slackly put together; but there are, nevertheless, true qualities of execution in this picture, especially in the background.” Unfortunately, owing to the scumblings and varnishings and floodings with oil, which he had at this time adopted, these pictures are fast losing the qualities for which so much had been sacrificed.

But who can read the letters and journals of those years abroad and remain unaffected by the buoyant and eager spirit of this middle-aged enthusiast? Broken in health and tracked by news of misfortune, he wanders from gallery to gallery, questioning, as it were, the dead masters, analysing their processes and weighing their results. His six months in Spain are especially interesting. The first British artist who made himself acquainted with the treasures of the Peninsula—Reynolds had just touched its shores—he finds in its school of portraiture an unexpected resemblance to that of England, and especially to the works of his countryman Raeburn, which he hastens to communicate to his artist correspondents. Velasquez was a revelation to him—the name was not yet on every novice’s lip—and though some of his remarks on the great Spaniard may not exactly square with the latest nineteenth century criticism, there can be no doubt of the serious study he devoted to his works. Viardot, in his “Musees d'Espagne,' gives a delightful reminiscence of him. He is discussing the picture known as Los Borrachos, and how it is necessary to see such a picture again and again, and to concentrate on it the whole force of one’s attention. “They tell me,” he proceeds, “that the Englishman Wilkie, the painter of Blind Man's Buff and The Rent Day, came from London to Madrid expressly to study Velasquez; and that, simplifying still more the object of his journey, of all the works of Velasquez, he had studied only this picture. But it was not the method of synthesis, as the philosophers call it, that he had employed; it was that of analysis. He had taken the picture by one corner, and had gone over it, dissecting and dividing it inch by inch to the opposite corner. Each day, whatever the weather, he came to the museum, set himself down before his beloved canvas, spent three hours in a silent ecstasy, then, when fatigue and admiration had exhausted him, with a deep sigh, he took up his hat.” Whatever view one may take of the productions based on such like researches, the record of them lends interest to the personality of one of the founders of the Scottish School.

Small critics have cast at him the epithets “parochial" and “provincial,” but the larger-minded amongst them, and the great painters, both his contemporaries and more recent, have recognised in him one of the finest spirits and most capable craftsmen of our school. To those already given there need only be added the following tribute. Writing to the Secretary of the Scottish Academy, on the occasion of the celebration of Wilkie’s Centenary, Sir John Millais says: “Only a few days ago I was surrounded by engravings of his inimitable works, and I was daily surprised with the excellence of his productions. In the history of Art there has been no superior to him for knowledge of composition, beautiful and subtle drawing, portrayal of character and originality. You may well be proud of your greatest painter.”


Return to Book Index Page

 


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus

Quantcast