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Significant Scots
Sir David Wilkie


Sir David WilkieWILKIE, SIR DAVID.—While the wondrous discovery of the power of steam was going on, and those experiments commencing by which our whole island was to be contracted into a day’s journey, the doom of Scotland’s nationality was sealed. It was evident that our country would soon be absorbed into England, and Edinburgh be converted into a suburban village of London. But while our distinctive national manners were thus about to pass away, and even our country to be moulded into new forms, three Scottish master-minds appeared, by whose genius the whole aspect of the country, as well as the character of the people, were to be electrotyped, before they had vanished for ever. Burns, Scott, Wilkie—these were the honoured three by whom the face and features, the life and expression of Scotland were limned at the best, and by whose portraitures it will be known in future ages, however the original itself may change or wither. The strongly-marked and homely, but intellectual physiognomy of the Scot; his rural occupations and modes of life; his sports and pleasures, nay, even the Doric Saxon of his speech, will all continue as living realities, when the Scotchman himself will be as indiscernible as the native of Kent or Middlesex.

The third of this patriotic triumvirate, David Wilkie, was born at Cults, Fifeshire, on the 18th of November, 1785. His father, the Rev. David Wilkie, minister of the parish of Cults, was an amiable specimen of the Scottish divines of the old patriarchal school, who, besides attending to the duties of his sacred calling, was a most diligent student, as was shown by his "Theory of Interest," a work which he published in 1794. As his stipend was one of the smallest in Scotland, amounting to only £113 per annum, out of which a family was to be maintained, as well as the hospitality of a country manse supported, the painter learned from his earliest years those practices of honourable economy, self-denial, and independence, that characterized the whole of his after life. When his education had been continued for some time at home, David, at the age of seven, was sent to the parish school of Pitlessie, which was about a mile from the manse of Cults. But already he had found out more congenial occupations than learning the rules of grammar and arithmetic: even when a little child, his chief occupation was to sketch upon the floor with a piece of chalk such figures as struck his fancy; and when he went to school, his slate and paper were soon employed for other purposes than those of counting and penmanship. He became the portrait painter of the school, and was usually surrounded by a group of boys and girls, all waiting to have their likenesses taken in turn. That which in others is a passing freak, a mere boyish love of imitation, was in him the commencement of the serious business of life: he was thus unconsciously training himself to his vocation while he was handling chalk, charcoal, keel, or ink, watching the effects of light and shade, or studying, with his hands in his pockets, the attitudes and expressions of his school-fellows when they were busy at their play. With this was combined that love of tale and history which characterizes the painter of life and action, while the narratives that most interested his fancy were those that related to Scotland. He thus showed that he was to be a national painter. In some cases, enthusiastic young aspirants seem to start into excellence at a single bound, and produce works in their early boyhood which their more matured experience can scarcely amend. But with Wilkie the case was different. He was studying without a guide, while his standard was so high that every attempt was an effort which still fell short of the mark. In the meantime, his memory and his scrap-book were gradually accumulating those germs, which were afterwards to expand into such a rich harvest. From the school of Pitlessie, Wilkie went to that of Kettle, and afterwards to the academy of Cupar; but his progress was still the same—a very mediocre proficiency in the ordinary departments of education, because they were held in check by one favourite pursuit. The minister of Cults at length perceived that his son would be a painter, and nothing else, and, therefore, yielded as to an unwelcome necessity; and therein he was right, as it was a field new to Scottish enterprise, as well as of uncertain promise. But the chief difficulty was to find a school in which Wilkie should study his future profession, as those of Rome and London were too expensive for his father’s means. Fortunately, the Trustees’ Academy of Edinburgh was accessible, and there he was admitted as a pupil at the age of fourteen, through the recommendation of the Earl of Leven, where he was so fortunate as to have John Graham for his teacher, and William Allan for his class-fellow. "The progress he (Wilkie) made in art," says the latter, "was marvellous. Everything he attempted indicated a knowledge far beyond his years; and he soon took up that position in art which he maintained to the last. He was always on the look-out for character; he frequented trystes, fairs, and market-places, where there is generally a large assemblage of the country people of all ages, bargaining, or disposing of their various commodities. These were the sources whence he drew his best materials; there he found that vigorous variety of character impressed on his very earliest works, which has made them take such a lasting hold on the public mind."

The Blind Fiddler
Sir David Wilkie. The Blind Fiddler. 1806. Oil on panel. Tate Gallery, London, UK

After remaining in the Trustees’ Academy five years, and obtaining a ten guinea prize, Wilkie returned to Cults, and resolved to commence his profession in earnest, by producing some original painting worthy of public attention. His choice was a truly Scottish subject—the "Fair of Pitlessie," a village in his own neighbourhood. While the grouping and incidents were to be original, the characters were to be veritable persons; for "I now see," he said, "how superior painting from nature is to anything that our imagination, assisted by our memory, can conceive." But how to get these personages to sit—there lay the difficulty, for few men, and least of all, Scotchmen, are ambitious of figuring in a picture where drollery or caricature is to predominate. At last a strange expedient suggested itself one Sunday at church, on marking one of his victims whom he had destined for the Fair, nodding in the midst of sermon. Wilkie at once secured the man’s likeness with a piece of red chalk on the blank leaf of his Bible. In this way, he went on from face to face, on successive Sabbaths, in the kirk; and not content with the sleepers, he next fell upon the wakeful, minister, elders, and precentor included, until every countenance of note in Pitlessie was faithfully copied. These doings could not long escape notice; heavy complaints were made of the profanity of the young artist in thus desecrating the house of God—and we scarcely hold his apology a just one, that while his hand and eye were thus employed his ear was as open as ever to listen. It was the Scottish apology of one who imagines, that the chief purpose of going to church is to hear a sermon. While he was thus procuring materials on the Sabbath, his week days were employed in transferring them to the canvas, until the whole figures, 140 in all, were introduced, and the "Fair of Pitlessie" completed. It was a wonderful production of art, independently of the youth of the artist, who as yet had only reached his nineteenth year; and as such he valued it when his judgment was riper, and his power of colouring more complete, so that he thus wrote of it to a friend in 1812: "The picture of the country fair I saw when I was last in Scotland; and although it is no doubt very badly painted, it has more subject and more entertainment in it than any other three pictures I have since produced." In the meantime the whole country side rang with the fame of this wonderful picture, the like of which had never been seen in Scotland, so that the profanity of the painter was soon forgot; and an old woman, who was supposed to know more of futurity than a whole kirk session, spae’d on the occasion, that, as there had been a Sir David Lindsay in poetry, there would be a Sir David Wilkie in painting, and that she should live to see it.

All this praise was gratifying, but something more substantial was needed; and accordingly, after the Fair was finished and disposed of, Wilkie betook himself to the painting of portraits, in which he had several customers. At the same time he produced "The Village Recruit," a painting in which a recruiting sergeant, at a country inn, is doing his best to persuade three clod-poles to become heroes and generals. Having soon exhausted the "kingdom of Fife" as a mart of portrait painting, and found it too limited for his ambition, as well as too penurious for his subsistence, he resolved to establish himself in London. Thither he accordingly repaired in May, 1805, and entered the Royal Academy as a probationer, where he was characterized by his compeers as a "tall, pale, thin Scotsman." Here, also, he formed an intimate acquaintanceship with Haydon, a congenial spirit in talent and aspirations—but with what a different termination! Wilkie’s attendance at the academy was punctuality itself, while his diligence when there was such as to astonish his more mercurial companions—whom he out-stripped, however, in the long-run. In the meantime, the small store of money which he had brought with him began to fail, while his letters of introduction had procured him no sitters. Fortunately he at this time became acquainted with Mr. Stodart, the pianoforte maker, who not only sat for his portrait but induced others to follow his example; and in this way the desponding artist was enabled to go on with fresh resources, although not without much economizing. "Among the many ways," he writes to his father, "by which we try here to save expense, is that of cleaning our own boots and shoes; for you must know that the people of the house will not clean them, and when you send them out to the shoe-blacks in the street, they become expensive." At the close of the year (1805), he passed from the condition of a probationer to that of a student of the acadamy, by which his means of improvement were considerably enlarged, and his merits brought more fully into notice. Among those who now learned to appreciate him as an artist of high promise was the Earl of Mansfield, for whom he painted the "Village Politicians." Other orders from persons of rank and influence followed, so that he was now on the fair highway to fame and fortune. And yet, with all this, there were very heavy drawbacks. His ambition for proficiency in his art was so great, that he felt as if all he had done in Scotland was a mere waste of time; while his modesty induced him to put such inadequate prices upon the pictures for which he was now commissioned, that he was not only in debt but also a sufferer from sickness, occasioned by anxiety and incessant application. In the meantime, his "Village Politicians," which was placed in the exhibition of the Royal Academy, not only delighted the public, but astonished the artists, who universally felt that a bright particular star had risen in their horizon; and so loud was the applause, that it rang to the remotest nooks of Fife, and gladdened the old patriarch of Cults, who was justly proud of his son’s fame. "You cannot imagine," he wrote to him in the joy of his heart, "how great a fervour of admiration these accounts have produced in your favour in this quarter of the country; in particular, the gentlemen for whom you painted pictures last year affirm that each of them is worth 100 guineas." "I am now redoubling my application," the young artist wrote in reply, "with the sure hopes of success. My ambition is got beyond all bounds, and I have the vanity to hope that Scotland will one day be proud to boast of your affectionate son."

The next painting which Wilkie executed was "The Blind Fiddler." This was undertaken for Sir George Beaumont, himself a painter and lover of the fine arts, as well as the most generous and efficient of all the artist’s patrons. The great historical picture of "Alfred in the Neat-herd’s Cottage" followed. Here Wilkie had no model, and was therefore obliged, like the poet or novelist, to task his imagination. But to draw the most heroic and intellectual of sovereigns in the disguise of a Saxon peasant, was the great difficulty which Wilkie had to encounter. The power of language might so depict him, even though thus shrouded, that any one would say, "Aye, every inch a king!" But the pencil has neither the same minuteness as the pen, nor yet the same universally intelligible power; and thus, let a sovereign in a painting be stripped of his robes and his crown, and how difficult it will be to read the tokens of royalty in his mere gesture and look! But Wilkie was proud of the task, for it was not only a great national subject, but its selection for his especial effort, showed the high confidence that was already reposed in his talents. This admirable production, which was finished at the close of 1806, and was the result of intense study and labour, justified, by its excellence and the reputation it acquired, the pains which had been bestowed upon it. It was at this time that Benjamin West declared of him, "Never in my whole experience have I met with a young artist like Wilkie: he may be young in years, but he is old in the experience of his art. I consider him an honour to his country." Thus rich in reputation, although still poor in purse, for it was almost wholly for fame that as yet he had worked, the artist paid a visit to his native country, in May, 1807, chiefly for the purpose of recruiting his health, which had suffered by the intensity of his labours. After languishing in the manse of Cults till October, when he had only partially recovered, he hurried back to his little parlour studio in London, which was now become his true home; and there, his first effort was to finish "The Card-players," a painting for the Duke of Gloucester, which he had left on the easel at his departure.

"The Card-players" was succeeded by the "Rent Day," one of Wilkie’s best productions. It was painted for the Earl of Mulgrave, who allowed him to choose his own subject; and that the selection was a happy one, has been well attested by the excellence of the picture itself, and the admiration it excited. Of the various figures, indeed, which severally tell their tale with unmistakeable distinctness, who can forget the harsh, overbearing, money-calculating, and money-counting factor, ready either to flatter or explode, as the rent may be forthcoming or not?—the old tenant seized with a lit of coughing, which actually seems to ring from the canvas?—the farmer eating, or rather cramming at the well-furnished table, and apparently mindful of the adage that fingers were made before knives and forks?—the butler, who struggles with the rebellious cork, which refuses to quit its hold?—the fortunate tenants who have paid up in full, and are regaling themselves at the table with beef and pasty; and the luckless tenants whose business is not yet dispatched, and who either are unable to pay, or are prepared to pay with a protest? Even the little fat pug dog of the mansion, and the lean hungry dog of the rent-racked farmer, indicate the wealth and luxury of the landlord, and the means by which all this profusion is supplied. As soon as the "Rent Day" appeared, it was generally declared to be equal, if not superior, to any thing that Wilkie had hitherto produced. And as yet, with all this full grown celebrity, he had only reached the age of twenty three! But the four years he had spent in London had been years of constant occupation and steady progress, and now, that he had attained such excellence in his art, and so high a reputation, he was the same modest, unassuming, and painstaking student which he had been at his first entrance into the metropolis and not a day, no, not an hour of abatement could be perceived in the diligence with which he still continued at his task of self-improvement, or the docility with which he received every suggestion that tended to promote it. All this is fully attested by the extracts that have been published from his London Journal of this period. From these we find that he still attended the academy, and took lessons as a pupil. At home, he usually painted five hours a day, and if visited in the midst of work, he conversed with his visitors while his hand and eyes were still busied with the canvas. Every kind of model also was used in his occupation, for he was of opinion, that however imagination might aggrandize the work of the painter, nature must be his authority and exemplar. When the day’s work of the studio was finished, his ramble for recreation or pleasure was still in subservience to his pursuits, and thus his visits were to picture galleries and artists, his rambles into the country were in quest of picturesque cottages and their simple inhabitants, and even his walks in the streets were turned to profitable account, with here a face and there an attitude, amidst the ceaselessly revolving panorama. His chief indulgence in an evening was to repair to the theatre, where he enjoyed a rich treat, not merely in the play itself, but in the attitudes of the best performers, where grace and nature were combined in the living delineations of the drama. And still, go where he might, his affectionate heart never seems to have lost sight of his native home; and it may be fairly questioned, whether the delight which his success occasioned in the manse of Cults was not as high a recompense, in his estimation, as anything that fame could bestow. There is something beautiful and touching in the fact, that while he was fighting his up-hill way in London, through the difficulties of scanty payments, his chief anxiety, besides that of becoming a great painter, was to be able to present his sister Helen with a pianoforte. His letters to his sister and parents at this time are the best of all his portraits.

The Preaching of John Knox before the Lords of Congregation
Sir David Wilkie. The Preaching of John Knox before the Lords of Congregation, 10 June 1559. Sketch. Oil on canvas. National Trust, Petworth House, Sussex, UK.

The year 1808 was a busy year with Wilkie, as he was then employed upon three paintings, each excellent in its kind, and well fitted to advance his reputation. The chief of these, known as "The Sick Lady," was in a higher style of art than he had hitherto attempted, as well as of a very different character; it was an entire abandonment of humble and Scottish life and quiet humour, in which he had hitherto been without a rival, in favour of the graceful, the sentimental, and pathetic. The pains which he bestowed upon this picture, the anxiety with which he touched and retouched it, and the time that was suffered to elapse before it was completed, were the proper accompaniments of this bold attempt in a new field. It is enough to say, that this production, while equal to all its predecessors in point of artistic excellence, was not regarded with the same admiration. And how could it be otherwise? It was in Scottish life that the secret of Wilkie’s strength lay, for there he painted as no other man could paint; but when he left this walk, of which he was so exclusively the master, and entered into that of the English artist, he could even at the best do nothing more than others had done before him. It was Burns abandoning his native streams and native dialect, for the banks of the Thames, and the diction of Pope or Addison. "The Jew’s Harp," which was his next production, was less ambitious, and more in his own natural manner. The same was also the case with "The Cat Finger," in which an old cottage matron is performing the part of chirurgeon to a bluff blubbering boy, who has cut his finger in the act of rigging a toy-boat. In the following year (1809) Wilkie, who had hitherto been contented to rank as a pupil of the Royal Academy, was made one of its associates. At the next exhibition of the Academy, however, he sustained such a slight, as somewhat damped the satisfaction he enjoyed in his election. He had painted a picture which he called "A Man Teasing a Girl by putting on her Cap," and sent it to the exhibition, but was requested by the members to withdraw it. The only cause they stated was that it was inferior to his other productions, and would therefore be likely to diminish his reputation. It was suspected, however, that the true reason was professional jealousy, and that the academicians were impatient that a Scotsman, who only dealt in the "pan-and-spoon style," as they scornfully termed it, should have maintained the ascendency so long. Wilkie withdrew his painting, and digested the affront in silence. This he could do all the better, that for a year he had been employed upon his picture of "The Alehouse Door," and was anxious to bring it to a termination.

This painting, which was injudiciously changed in its title to that of "The Village Festival," was a great effort of Wilkie’s ambition, in which he wished to compete with Teniers and Ostade. He felt that it was a daring attempt, but his indomitable perseverance was fully commensurate with the courage of such an enterprise. And few indeed of the uninitiated in art can comprehend but a tithe of that diligence which he bestowed upon the work till it was finished. After having decided upon the subject, he sallied out with Haydon in quest of an alehouse that might serve as the ground-work of the picture; and having found one to his mind at Paddington, he made occasional pilgrimages thither, until he had transferred it, with its accompaniments, altered and improved to suit its new destination, upon the foreground of his canvas. And then came the living models which were to be sought in the streets of London, and hired to sit to him, sometimes for a whole figure, sometimes for a face or part of a face, and sometimes for nothing more than a neck, a hand, or a foot. Then succeeded the altering and improving, the rubbing out and replacing, the obliterating, the touching and retouching, such as the most fastidious poets—even Gray himself—never endured in the most finished and lengthened of their compositions. With all this his journal of 1809-10 is filled, and an astounding record it certainly is of the patience and labour bestowed upon a work of art—upon that which is commonly regarded as nothing higher than a mere object of pleasurable but passing excitement. At first, he had purposed to paint nothing more than a group of rustics carousing at an alehouse door, and had gone onward as Burns himself had often done after the muse had been fairly stirred, until

"Perhaps it may turn out a sang,

Perhaps it may a sermon."

A sermon Wilkie’s painting certainly became, both in its elaborate character and moral power. The figures multiplied under his creative hand, each assumed a language of its own, and the sum of all was a most eloquent exposition of the pleasures of social enjoyment, coupled with dissuasives against excess. No one, however unskilled in art, can fail to remark how the lesson is fully brought out in the faces before him, where every shade of the effects of drinking is caught, from the cheering look inspired by the incipient draught of ale, to the idiot inanity of him who lies prostrate in the mire, without even the power to wallow in it.

The close application of the artist, and the annoyance he experienced at the jealousy of his brethren, were followed by a fever, through which he was obliged to retire for some time to Hampstead. But even under a tedious recovery, he was unable wholly to relinquish his wonted pursuits, notwithstanding the orders of the physician and the entreaties of his friends. In 1811, the Academy repaired the injury they had done, by electing him a royal academician. This was a high honour, especially when conferred upon one so young, for as yet he had only reached the age of twenty-six. As he had hitherto profited so little in a pecuniary point of view by his paintings, he now began to execute a plan which he had contemplated three years before, of collecting and exhibiting them on his own account. He therefore obtained the temporary use of them from their purchasers, hired a large room in Pall Mall, where they could be shown to advantage, and opened it with a collection of twenty-nine pieces, the production of his pencil, extending from the years 1804 to 1811. But although the price of admission was only a shilling, the speculation failed to be profitable. A public exhibition of this kind requires an amount as well as variety which no single artist could accomplish. The success of his picture of "Blindman’s Buff," which he afterwards produced, was well calculated to alleviate his disappointment. This was one of his happiest conceptions; for such a game not only drew out his peculiar artistic talents in their full force, but addressed itself to universal sympathy. For who, however great or grave, has not revelled at some time or other in the full enjoyment of Blindman’s Buff? Most of the actors in Wilkie’s game are full-grown children—happy peasants, who, in the midst of their glee, think neither of toil nor taxes, neither of yesterday nor to-morrow, but of the present hour alone, as if it were the only reality—while the attitudes, the blunders, and mischances of such a sport, only heighten the fun, and make it more true to nature. His picture of "The Bagpiper" followed, and afterwards "The Letter of Introduction"—a painting, the subject of which was suggested by the untoward fate of his own introductory epistles which he brought with him to London eight years previous. The sheepish young country lad, who tenders his letter as if he were presenting it to an elephant—and the stately magnifico, who, while breaking the seal, eyes the youth askance, as if he doubted the safety of his silver spoons—all tell their own tale, without the necessity of a title to label the production. In the meantime, Wilkie’s father having died, this event introduced a change in the artist’s domestic condition. Hitherto he had lived in lodgings; but he now persuaded his widowed mother and his sister to reside with him in London, and for this purpose hired a house in Lower Phillimore Place, Kensington. On the arrival of peace in 1814, he availed himself of the opportunity, like many thousands of our countrymen, by making a trip to France, and studying the treasures of the Louvre, before they were restored to their proper owners. In this short journey, which scarcely extended over six weeks, he travelled with a disposition to be pleased, and was not disappointed.

The next great artistic effort of Wilkie was "The Distraining for Rent." The subject was suggested by the incident of his "Village Festival" having been distrained for the debt of a former tenant, while the picture was exhibited in the hall at Pall Mall. The indignation which this event excited in the mind of Wilkie was thus turned to the best account; and in sketching the principal characters of the group, he availed himself of what had occurred in the event itself, when the legal functionaries went to work with "‘Tis so nominated in the bond," while himself and his friends indignantly protested, but in vain. The work, when finished, was sent to the Exhibition of the British Institution; and such was the pathetic tale which it told, that many thought it would bring both discredit and danger upon the task of levying a distraint ever afterward. After it had remained for some time in the exhibition, and attracted universal admiration, as well as not a few candidates for its purchase, it was finally sold for 600 guineas to the directors of the British Institution. A more cheerful theme followed in "The Rabbit on the Wall," where a peasant, returned from his day’s labour, is diverting his children by this curious phantasmagoria on the wall of his cottage. His state of health again requiring intermission, Wilkie, in 1816, made a tour of the Netherlands, to examine its galleries, and study the rich colouring of the Dutch school of painting. He saw nothing, however, in its style to induce him to forego his own. At his return he painted "The Breakfast," for the Stafford Gallery. In 1817, he made a journey to Scotland, where he visited both Highlands and Lowlands, and was everywhere received with the most flattering distinction, while he had also the pleasure of associating with his illustrious cotemporaries—Dr. Chalmers, Sir Walter Scott, and the Ettrick Shepherd. The latter, on being assured that the stranger now introduced to him was no other than "the great Mr. Wilkie," seized him by the hand, and rapturously exclaimed "I cannot tell how proud I am to see you in my house, and how glad I am to see you are so young a man." When Scott heard of this, he declared "it was the finest compliment ever paid to man." While a guest of Sir Walter, Wilkie painted "The Abbotsford Family Picture," in which the poet, with his family and friends, are grouped together in the garb of south-country peasants in the act of planning a merry-making.

On returning to London, Wilkie, whose whole heart was revived by the sweet influences of his native heather, addressed himself to a Scottish subject, and produced his "Duncan Gray," founded upon the well-known song of Burns. He had tried his hand upon this theme three years before, and produced "The Refusal," of which the present painting was a fresh edition, with many alterations and improvements. In the following year (1818) his little picture called "The Errand Boy" appeared in the Royal Academy exhibition. Then succeeded "The Penny Wedding," a national work, intended to commemorate an old Scottish fashion only lately obliterated, and still freshly remembered. In this painting, which was executed to order for the Prince Regent, the artist admirably brought out the fun, frolic, and intense enjoyment which such a festival invariably engrafts upon the staid character and saturnine physiognomy of his countrymen. His next production was the "Death of Sir Philip Sidney," intended for a work about to be published by his friend Mr. Dobree. At this time, also, he was engaged to produce a painting upon which all his strength was to be employed, and from which much was expected, for he was to commemorate in it the crowning victory of Waterloo, and execute it for the Duke of Wellington himself, the hero of the fight. In this case, it might have been expected that the artist would have repaired forthwith to the scene of action, for the purpose of sketching its peaceful scenery, and animating it with the heady charges of horse, foot, and cannon, and all the pomp and circumstance of a battle on which the fate of nations was depending. But Wilkie went no farther than Chelsea Hospital, and sought no other figures than the old, battered, and mutilated inhabitants with which that great asylum is stored. "Even in our ashes live our wonted fires," says the poet; and upon this hint, whether he thought of it or not, Wilkie acted, by showing how these veterans could still be excited by the first tidings of such a victory. It was the "Reading of the Waterloo Gazette," and not the battle itself which he contemplated; and therefore he grouped the pensioners of Chelsea men who had fought for Britain in every quarter of the world, and suffered every kind of mutilation and dismemberment, pausing in the midst of a jovial dinner, and ready to throw it to the dogs, that they might listen to the reading of the newspaper in which the tidings of Waterloo were first communicated to the nation. Never, perhaps, was heroic triumph so expressed before, either in poetry or in painting—it was the last huzza of the dying on the field of victory. When this picture was finished, it was sent to the exhibition of 1822; but such was the excitement of the visitors, and the eager crowding round it and against it, that for protection a railing had to be set up, to fence it off from the pressure. It is proper to add that Wilkie’s productions were now fairly remunerated, as well as justly appreciated, and he received 1200 guineas for the "Reading of the Waterloo Gazette" from its illustrious owner, the Duke of Wellington.

The Defence of Saragossa
Sir David Wilkie. The Defence of Saragossa. 1828. Oil on canvas. Royal Collection, UK

During the long interval that occurred between the commencement and execution of this national work, the orders that flowed in upon Wilkie were so numerous, that he was kept in incessant action, now upon one piece and now on another. In this way he produced "The China Menders," "The Nymphs Gathering Grapes," and "The Whiskey Still." But more important than these was a commission from the King of Bavaria, to paint for him a picture, the subject of which was to be left to the artist’s own judgment. That which was selected was "The Reading of the Will," and upon this, Wilkie acquitted himself so well, that when it was finished two royal candidates appeared for its possession, one being the King of Bavaria, by whom it was already bespoke, and the other George IV., who wished to have the original, or at least a duplicate. It was a sore dilemma between the rightful claimant on the one hand, and his own liege sovereign on the other, in which Wilkie stood like Garrick between tragedy and comedy, feeling how happy he could be with either, and yet knowing that one must be refused and disappointed. At length mercantile honesty carried the day against chivalrous loyalty, and "The Reading of the Will" was fairly domiciled in the splendid collection of Munich. "The Newsmongers" and "Guess my Name," which appeared in the exhibition of 1821, were produced during the same interval. To these may be added "The School," a painting that has been highly admired, though it was never finished.

The year 1822, in which the Waterloo picture was finished, was a busy period with Wilkie, when, besides painting "The Parish Beadle," and a portrait of the Duke of York, he received two important commissions that required his attendance in Scotland: the one was a picture of John Knox preaching before the Lords of the Congregation; the other of the arrival of George IV. in Edinburgh. His majesty had not yet set sail to pay the promised visit; but Wilkie hastened to the Scottish metropolis to await the coming advent, and catch whatever incident of the great drama might be best fitted for his purpose. The choice was made by the king himself, and the subject was his admission into the palace of Holyrood. This painting, like the rest of Wilkie’s productions, was admirably executed; but there were difficulties in the way which no genius could surmount. One was the taste of the king himself, who suggested alterations which the artist found himself obliged to follow; the other was the bizarre costume that predominated on the occasion, by which Edinburgh itself was converted into a huge bale of tartan. At this period, also, he was appointed limner to the king for Scotland, in consequence of the death of Sir Henry Raeburn. While fully occupied with the two great paintings above-mentioned, Wilkie, during the intervals, painted the portrait of Lord Kellie for the town-hall of Cupar, drew an old Greenwich pensioner under the character of Smollett’s Commodore Trunnion, and executed a scene from Ramsay’s "Gentle Shepherd," which he called "The Cottage Toilet." He also painted "Smugglers Offering Run Goods for Sale," for Sir Robert Peel, and "The Highland Family," for Sir George Beaumont, his affectionate friend and munificent patron.

The pressure of severe work, aggravated by the death of his mother and brother, made travelling once more necessary; and accordingly, in the middle of 1825, Wilkie set off to Paris, and afterwards proceeded to Italy. Milan, Genoa, and Florence were successively visited, and their galleries of paintings studied and admired. He then went to Rome, but the paintings in the Vatican failed to excite in him that supreme rapture which it was so much the fashion of our travelling artists to express. He seems to have been more highly gratified with the Sistine Chapel, from the ceiling of which Michael Angelo’s "Last Judgment" looked down upon him in all its richness, and with all its terrors. It was here that he especially loved to muse and study, while his journal of this period is filled with criticisms of this sublime production and its matchless author. Naples, Bologna, Padua, Parma, and Venice, were also visited by the earnest contemplative tourist, and the remarks of his journal evince the profound attention he bestowed upon the paintings of the ancient masters, that constitute the richest inheritance of these once illustrious cities. After a stay of eight months in Italy, Wilkie found his health no better than when he arrived, and resolved, for change of air, to make a visit to Germany. But, indeed, there were painful causes to retard his recovery, against which his heart could not easily rally. A company had become bankrupt in which the most part of his pecuniary savings for years had been invested; and in addition to this, a bond by which he had engaged to be security for his brother, who became insolvent, was forfeited. He had thus, while languidly moving from place to place in quest of health, the prospect of ruin meeting him wherever he turned. Finding no remedy from the climate of Germany, or the use of the baths of Toplitz and Carlsbad, he again returned to Italy, by advice of his physicians, to winter there in 1826-7.

If anything could lighten the weight of such an amount of suffering, Wilkie must have found it in the universal respect with which he was treated abroad, both by countrymen and strangers. His fame as an artist had been wafted over Europe by the admirable engravings of Raimbach and Burnet, in which his best productions had been faithfully copied; and in Rome, where he now took up his abode, the "Eternal City" was moved through all its ranks to welcome him, and do him honour. Alluding to a high festival made there by the British artists on his account, at which the Duke of Hamilton presided, he writes to his brother in London: "If my history shall ever be written, it will be found, though in a different way, quite as wonderful as that of Benvenuto Cellini." Taking heart, and rallying amidst such kindly encouragement, he ventured to resume his labours; and although his progress was, as he says, "by little and by little, half an hour at a time, and three half hours a-day," he executed two small pictures, and nearly finished a large one in the course of five months. As only two out of the three years had been spent during which he was to reside abroad for the recovery of his health, Wilkie, who had sufficiently studied the Italian school of painting, was now anxious to devote his attention to that of Spain, and to study especially the productions of Velasquez and Murillo. Furnished with letters of introduction, and having already friends at Madrid, from whom he was sure of a hearty welcome, he set off upon this new journey, and arrived at Madrid in October, 1827.

This visit to Spain was in the highest degree influential upon Wilkie’s future course as an artist, and in his letters at this time we recognize a new principle acting upon him in full vigour. "The five months I have passed here," he thus writes to his sister, "have, in point of society, been dull, but in point of pursuit and occupation far otherwise. For what I have seen I may almost be the envy of every British artist; and from what I have been doing, weak as I am, have again the happiness to say with the great Correggio, though on a far more humble occasion, ‘Anch’ io sono pittore.’" To his brother he writes: "This winter, though as severely interrupted as ever by my malady, yet pictures are growing up under my hands with even greater rapidity than they used to do in Kensington; and if less laboured, the effect to the eye and impression on the mind seem not at all to suffer by it." The study of the Italian, and especially the Spanish school, had inspired him with the resolution to be less fastidious and more rapid in execution than before, and accordingly he dashed on with a fearlessness that formed a new trait in his character. The subjects also which he selected were in harmony with the inspiration, for they were Spanish, and connected with the war of independence. The first of three pictures on this subject he finished in ten short weeks, and then sat down astonished at his own rapidity. But he was heartened onward in this bold commencement of a new era in his life by the commendations of the artists and critics in Madrid, while his levee was crowded by dukes, counts, and solemn hidalgos, who looked on and worshipped his artistic doings, as if the old days of Spanish painting and Spanish national glory were returning side by side. All this adulation was gratifying in the highest degree; but still, Wilkie had an occasional recoil of doubt and misgiving. How the innovation might be relished by his brother artists was also a trying question, and he thus feels his way upon the subject in a letter to one of the academicians: "I need not detail to you what I have seen in the Escurial, in Madrid, or Seville: it is general ideas alone I wish to advert to. Being the only member of our academy who has seen Spain, perhaps it is to be regretted that I see it with an acknowledged bias or prejudice, in which I fear scarcely any will participate. With some of my kindest friends, indeed, much of what I have seen and thought will cast between us an influence like the apple of discord; and if some of our youths with less matured minds—while I write this with one hand, fancy me covering my face with the other—should venture, now that an entrance to the mysterious land has been opened, across the Bidassoa, what a conflict in testimony there would be!"

The return of Wilkie to England solved every doubt. Previous to his arrival, rumours were afloat of the change that had occurred in his style of painting, and of the stir which his new productions had occasioned in Madrid; but on his return to London in June, 1828, his friends were delighted not only to find his health restored, but the character of his paintings improved. Still, however, his Spanish pictures executed under the first outburst of the new inspiration, beautiful and admired though they were, needed, as he well knew, an elaborate revisal before they could be committed along with his name to the public, and to posterity, and, therefore, he touched and retouched them with a careful hand in his studio at Kensington. Immediately on his arrival, the king wished to see the fruits of his Italian tour, and was so pleased with them that he purchased "The Pifferari," and "The Princess washing the Female Pilgrims’ Feet," two paintings which Wilkie had executed at Geneva. The three Spanish pictures were equally approved of by the royal critic, and purchased for his own collection, besides a fourth which was still in preparation; and Wilkie felt not a little flattered by the resemblance which was traced in these paintings to Rembrandt, Murillo, and Velasquez. The public at large was soon after invited to judge in turn, as the pictures were sent to the Academy exhibition of May, 1829.

Of these productions, now so widely known by the art of the engraver, the most popular was "The Maid of Saragossa." This preference was occasioned not only by the romantic nature of the subject, which was still the theme of national eulogium, but the colouring and style of artistic execution in which the event was embodied; and the crowds that gathered before the picture knew not which figure the most highly to admire. Augostina stepping over the body of her fallen lover, to take his place at the gun—or Palafox (a correct likeness for which the hero himself sat) putting his shoulder to the wheel, to bring the gun into a right position—or Father Consolacion, the chief engineer in the defence, pointing out with his crucifix the object to be aimed at—or the martyred priest, Boggiero, writing the despatch, which is to be intrusted to the carrier-pigeon. The second, called "The Spanish Posada," represented a Guerilla council of war, in which a Dominican monk, a Jesuit, and a soldier—emblematic of the character of the Spanish resistance—are deliberating on the best means of rousing and directing the national patriotism. The third painting was "The Guerilla’s Departure," where a young peasant, after being armed for battle, and shrived by his confessor, lights his cigar at that of the priest before he hies to the field. Besides these, there were four of Wilkie’s paintings in the exhibition which he had executed in Italy, and the portrait of the Earl of Kellie, of which mention has been already made. And now the artist’s dreaded ordeal had to be encountered and passed anew. It remained to be seen what the world at large, independently of the judgment of George IV., which was sometimes at fault upon the Fine Arts, would say of these paintings, and the new style of their author. The verdict was precisely what might have been expected from so marked a change. The many, who are pleased to be delighted without taking the trouble to analyze their feelings, only saw in the alteration a fresh source of admiration, and were accordingly both loud and unmeasured in their praise. But with the critical part of the public it was otherwise; and while some regretted that he had abandoned the minute and laborious finish of his earlier pieces, others thought that he was over-ambitious in thus seeking to occupy more than one field of excellence, and predicted nothing but failure. In such contrariety, the aspirant for fame must listen to all or none, and Wilkie chose the latter alternative.

Allusion has already been made to two important commissions which Wilkie had received previous to his departure to Italy: the first of these was a picture of the entrance of George IV. into the Palace of Holyrood; the second, of John Knox preaching before the Lords of the Congregation. Upon these he had wrought for a considerable time before his tour commenced, until the state of his health obliged him to abandon them when they were little more than mere outlines. He now braced himself for the task of completing them, and in 1830 the "Entrance into Holyrood" appeared in the exhibition. It was successful both with the sovereign and the public, not only as a happily executed representation of a great public event, but a faithful portraiture of the living actors and feudal accessories that composed the well-known features of this splendid national ovation. During the same year that it was completed, the great personage who formed the grand central object of this pageant, and in whose honour it had been created, passed away to the tomb, after he had outlived the pomps and pageantries of royalty, which no king had ever more highly enjoyed; and with George IV. passed away from us, and perhaps for ever, those regal triumphs and processions so little suited to this matter-of-fact and utilitarian era of British history. How different, and yet how gratifying the visits of royalty have now become to their long forsaken home in Edinburgh! The Knox painting, which was finished after that of Holyrood, appeared in the exhibition of 1832. Into this painting, so truly Scottish in its subject, and so connected also with his own native country, Wilkie threw himself with his utmost ardour, and the result was a picture upon which the eye of Scotland will always rest with pleasure. The collection of so many personages renowned in the history of our Reformation; the tale which each countenance tells, as part and parcel of the great event; and the vehement impassioned preacher himself, whose sermon was the death-knell of the cathedral in which it was delivered, and the superstition of which that building was the great metropolitan representative, are now as generally known as the event itself, in consequence of the thousands of engravings that have been multiplied of the original. Besides this picture, which was painted for Sir Robert Peel, Wilkie sent to the exhibition a portrait of William IV., to whom he was now painter in ordinary, as he had been to his predecessor.

William Chalmers-Bethune, his wife Isabella Morison and their Daughter Isabella
Sir David Wilkie. William Chalmers-Bethune, his wife Isabella Morison and their Daughter Isabella. 1804. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, UK.

From 1832 to 1834 was a busy period with the artist, as every royal and noble personage was eager to sit for his portrait to such a limner, although Wilkie himself had no particular liking to portrait painting. In the exhibition of 1834, his diligence appeared in six pictures, which had their full share of approbation. These were, 1, "The Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, as Constable of the Tower, with his Charger;" which he executed at Strathfieldsay, where both hero and horse were accessible to the painter. 2, "Not at Home." This is a usual incident, where a disappointed dun is departing from the door on being told that the master is abroad, while the master himself is watching unseen from the corner of a window, and waiting until the coast is clear. 3, "Portrait of the Queen, in the Dress worn at the Coronation." 4, "Spanish Mother and Child." 5, "Portrait of Sir John Leslie, Professor of Natural Philosophy." 6, "Portrait of a Lady." On the following year (1835) he sent other six pictures to the exhibition, of which the foremost in point of merit and importance was, 1, "Christopher Columbus submitting the Chart of his Voyage for the Discovery of the New World to the Spanish Authorities." Here the great navigator, after being received in the convent, at the gate of which he had craved a morsel of bread and a cup of water for his child, who was wearied with the journey, is explaining at table to the prior his conviction that a new world yet remained to be discovered, and showing a chart of the voyage by which such a discovery might be effected. 2, "The First Ear-ring." Here a young girl, fluttering between love of finery and dread of pain, contemplates the glittering ornaments with which she is about to be adorned and the operator by whom her ears are to be pierced for the purpose. 3, "Portrait of Field-Marshal the Duke of Wellington in the Dress he wore on Active Service." 4, "Sancho Panza in the days of his youth." 5, "Portrait of Sir James M’Grigor, Bart., Director-General of the Army Medical Department." 6, "Portrait of the Rev. Edward Irving."

After having done so much in the illustration of Scottish and Spanish character, the attention of Wilkie was now directed to Ireland, where the picturesque scenery and semi-barbarous condition of the people, already become so popular through the writings of Miss Edgeworth, had as yet failed to attract the notice of our artists. He accordingly repaired to Dublin in August, 1835, and in his rambles through the country drew ten sketches in pencil, which were designed for future paintings; but of these none was executed except "The Peep-o’-Day Boy." This, with "The Interview between Napoleon and the Pope in 1813," and four other paintings, was sent to the exhibition in 1836. On the 15th of June, the same year, Wilkie received the honour of knighthood—a title which, high though it be, could scarcely aggrandize him who was already so eminent in Art. Such as it was, however, the artist received it with gratitude, and wore it with becoming gentleness. He was at this period so intent upon his professional labours, that on the removal of the Royal Academy from Somerset House to Trafalgar Square, in 1836, Wilkie had seven paintings in the first exhibition at the new buildings. These were, 1, "Portrait of William IV." 2, "Mary Queen of Scots Escaping from Lochleven;" this event was detailed according to the description of Sir Walter Scott in the tale of the Abbot, rather than the strict record of history. 3, "The Empress Josephine and the Fortune-Teller." This was the well-known incident of the black prophetess, or obi-woman of St. Domingo, foretelling to Josephine that she should become a crowned empress, while she was still an undistinguished girl. 4, "Portrait of the Earl of Tankerville." 5, "The Cotter’s Saturday Night." 6, "Portrait of Sir William Knighton." 7, "Portrait of a Gentleman reading."

A still more important subject upon which Wilkie had been employed for some time past, was that of Sir David Baird discovering the body of Tippoo Saib under the gateway of Seringapatam, which he was commissioned to paint by Lady Baird. This task he had prosecuted at intervals since 1834, and his diligence in procuring the necessary materials for such a picture fully evinced the zeal with which he prosecuted it, and the importance he attached to it. For this purpose he sketched the trophies and arms connected with the event contained in Fern Tower, the habitation of Lady Baird; procured European arms from the cutlers’ and gunsmiths’ shops; and obtained the loan of a complete magazine of Oriental dresses, ornaments, and jewellery, from such of his friends as were connected with the East Indies. He was even so fortunate as to get a pelisse and pair of breeches that had been worn by Tippoo himself. The chief difficulty was with the living models, a few native Indian soldiers, who happened to be in London, and were engaged for the task; but no sooner were they grouped, and placed in proper attitudes, than they were seized with a fit of horror, at the thought of personating the death-scene of the mighty Sultan, so that they would "play out the play" no longer. In spite of all difficulties, however, the painting was successfully finished at the close of 1838. Of this choice production of Sir David Wilkie, we would only notice one of the several striking incidents which the talent of the artist has brought out on this occasion. It is, that while Sir David Baird is contemplating with emotion the body of the tyrant who had so cruelly treated him when a captive, the feet of the dead man are lying beside the iron-grated door of the dungeon in which his conqueror had been unjustly immured.

Before this picture was finished, important political events had furnished Sir David with a new national subject. This was the death of William IV., and the accession of our present gracious sovereign, Queen Victoria.. As Wilkie’s appointment of Painter in Ordinary was once more renewed, it was fitting that his talents should be exercised for the occasion, and accordingly he was commissioned to paint "The Queen Holding her First Council." He boldly commenced the subject, though with a full anticipation of the difficulty, where every member was unwilling to be placed in the back-ground, or be overshadowed by his neighbour. Notwithstanding the number of portraits it contained, it was finished in little more than six months, and introduced into the exhibition of 1838, along with five other paintings, four of which were portraits; and not the least remarkable of these was one of Daniel O’Connell. But the most congenial of all his occupations for a considerable period had been a picture of "John Knox Administering the Sacrament in Calder House," which Wilkie designed as a companion to that of the Reformer preaching before the Lords of the Congregation. Here he was again upon his own Scottish ground, and among congenial characters; so that from this, as well as the ardour with which he prosecuted the subject, and the maturity into which his artistic experience had ripened, it was hoped that it would prove the most successful of all his efforts. Nor was the hope unfounded, although he did not live to complete the picture; for in the two advanced sketches of it, which appeared in the auction of his paintings after his death, the promise was already more than half fulfilled.

We have thus brought Wilkie to the year 1840, at the exhibition of which he had eight paintings—and to the age of fifty-five, at which either a rapid decay of life commences, or such an invigoration as holds out the promise that the full threescore and ten of a healthy old age will be attained. The autumn of this year found him in the full bustle of preparation for a long and adventurous journey, in which the Continent, Turkey, Egypt, and the Holy Land, were to be successively traversed. At the intelligence, not only his brother artists but the public were astounded. Was it as a painter or a pilgrim that he meant to travel? Was the search of health or the Holy Sepulchre the ultimatum of his wishes? In the midst of all this wonder and inquiry Sir David Wilkie departed—and his country saw him no more!

As this was the last, it was also the most important of his journeys, and therefore cannot be briefly dismissed. He left England on the 15th of August, 1840, and was accompanied by Mr. William Woodburn, an attached friend, as well as a lover of the Fine Arts. Their place of landing was the Hague, after which they passed through Leyden, Haarlem, and Amsterdam, visiting every collection of paintings in their way, and studying the scenery and inhabitants in the true spirit of artists. They then arrived at Cologne, chiefly to inspect "The Crucifixion of St. Peter" by Rubens, which was placed over the altar of the church of St. Peter. Mayenee, Nuremburg, and Munich were next visited, where Dutch and German paintings were in abundance; and in the latter city, Wilkie’s heart was warmed by the sight of his own production, "The Reading of the Will," which had once been nearly a bone of contention between the royalties of Britain and Bavaria. At Vienna, among several rich productions of art, he also saw his "Toilette of a Bride," and was pleased to find that the colours had acquired a richer tone. A rapid transit through Hungary brought the travellers into the Turkish dominions, and finally landed them in Constantinople, that city so enchanting in the distance, but almost as delusive, when reached, as the Fata Morgana itself. While he was exploring through the streets of Constantinople, Wilkie saw, in the outer court of a mosque, a venerable looking scribe who had just written a letter for two Turkish women, one of them very beautiful, to whom he was in the act of reading the finished scroll. The whole group was so picturesque, that the painter comprised it at a glance, and afterwards transferred it to the canvas, and although unfinished, the picture was of such a superior character, that it was finally bought at the sale of his paintings for 425 guineas. Another sketch which he executed was that of "A Tartar Narrating in a Turkish Café the Victory of the Taking St. Jean d’Acre." Besides these, he made no less than fifty-seven sketches of individuals or groups in Constantinople, and its infidel suburb, Pera, during his residence in the Turkish capital—a period of little more than three months This, indeed, was the busiest period of his life, for he was now in a country where nature was the only picture gallery, while every object was worth copying. But the most important of his labours was a splendid portrait which he executed of the young Sultan, who sat with a docility unwonted in an Eastern sovereign, and was so well pleased with the result, that he rewarded the painter with a rich gold snuff box set with diamonds.

By the way of Smyrna, Rhodes, Beyrout, and Jaffa, Wilkie next proceeded to the Holy Land, occupying himself during the whole way in increasing that rich collection which was afterwards known under the title of his Oriental Sketches; and having in constant use, besides his sketch-book, a pocket Bible, which was the guide of his journey, as well as his director in the still more important pilgrimage of which, though unconsciously, he was already near the commencement. Every step in the land of revelation and miracle seemed to solemnize his thoughts, and on reaching Jerusalem, he found among its hallowed ruins materials enough both for delineation and devout solemn meditation. After a sojourn of six weeks at Jerusalem, Wilkie proceeded to Egypt, and arrived at Alexandria on the 26th of April, 1841. He had not been long here, when no less a personage than Mehemet Ali, the old and terrible, expressed a desire to sit to the distinguished British artist for his portrait. Wilkie, indeed, was told, that in this most energetic of modern potentates he would also find the most restless of sitters; but the case proved otherwise, for the pasha was as compliant as a child, and was rewarded with a portrait that satisfied his utmost wishes.

Having finished his long protracted and diversified journey, Wilkie now turned his face homeward, and embarked on board the Oriental steamer. Besides the hope of meeting with his friends, who anxiously expected his return, he had collected such treasures of oriental scenery and costume as would suffice him for years of labour, as well as for such artistic productions as might raise his renown by surpassing all that he had yet accomplished. When the steamer reached Malta, he was unwell; but as he had rallied so often in similar cases, he felt no apprehension, and wrote to his sister a letter full of hopes of his return, and desiring that his home should be put in order for his arrival. Only four days after, he was no more! While at Malta, he had eaten fruit and drank iced lemonade, which produced such a derangement of stomach, that his whole system rapidly gave way; and notwithstanding the medical care of the surgeon on board, he sank into insensibility, and died without a struggle, on the 8th of June, 1841. The vessel that had started from Malta, only an hour previous, put back, and applied for permission to land the body; but as this was refused, a coffin was made at sea, and the remains were committed to the deep. On the arrival of the vessel in England with its unexpected tidings, the report spread sorrow over the whole island, but especially over Scotland, where Wilkie was considered as one of the noblest of our national representatives—as the Burns of Scottish painting. In London, a meeting was soon convened to do honour to his memory; and the result was a collection for a public statue of the artist, which was afterwards executed by Mr. S. Joseph, and erected in the inner hall of the National Gallery. May the eyes of our young Scottish artists be inspired with his spirit as they contemplate it; and may the chief memorial of Sir David Wilkie be a School of National Painting, such as Scotland even to the remotest period will be proud to cherish!


Sir David Wilkie (pdf)
By Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower, F.S.A., A trrustee of the National Portrait Gallery


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