Life Of Sir David Wilkie Early Years

UNTIL the beginning of the nineteenth century Scotland cannot be said to have produced any artist of original talent to compare with those of England.

Scotland could boast, indeed, of some good portrait painters in the eighteenth century, amongst whom Allan Ramsay was preeminent. But there had been no land scape painters till Alexander Nasmyth and his son Patrick came out of Edinburgh at the close of the eighteenth century ; there was no national genre painting a word that must be used for want of a better, when speaking of such works as those that have made the Dutch and French schools famous. David Allan alone had made some clever pictures after the scenes of Scottish life, and had given some illustrations to the verses of the elder Ramsay’s Gentle Shepherd,” but the fame of these had scarcely crossed the Border. It was not until 1805, when, as Jackson, the Yorkshire portrait painter, wrote to Haydon, ” a raw, tall, pale, queer Scotchman ” appeared in the schools of the Royal Academy, that the northern kingdom was to find herself in possession of a painter who, in his own particular line, was equal to that great genius William Hogarth.

In a humble manse of a small hamlet called Cults, twenty-eight miles to the east of Edinburgh, in the centre of the little ” kingdom of Fife,” as the county of Fife is proudly called by its inhabitants, and within a mile of Pitlessie, was born to the Rev. David Wilkie and his third wife, Isabella Lister, their third son, on the 18th of November, 1785. The house in which the future Sir David Wilkie was born no longer exists. In its place stands one of those most inartistic, barn-like edifices, which one immediately recognizes as the manse in a Scotch village ; close to it is the church, as inartistic as the manse, but the unrelieved and uncompromising bareness of its walls is somewhat concealed by a growth of old ivy. Both church and manse were rebuilt by the father of the painter, while David was still a child—” wee golden-haired Davie,” as his mother loved to call him.

In this inartistic home ” little Davie,” before he could read or spell, began to sketch and paint, as he himself , used to tell, all that came within his ken. Within, the church of Cults is cold and bare, as is usually the case in buildings of that date in Scotland (it was rebuilt in 1793), with an ugly flat roof, an uglier gallery, and heavy pews , crowding the floor. A clumsy wooden pulpit rises between two plain windows ; on either side of it two memorial marble tablets are let into the wall : that on the right bearing profile medallions of David Wilkie’s parents from a design by himself; that on the left was placed to his memory by his sister, and bears his profile : both these tablets are from the studio of Chantrey. There are also mural tablets to other members of Wilkie’s family in this church.

Whilst ” little Davie’s ” father preached from this pulpit the lad would make thumb-nail sketches as Hogarth was wont to do, and at the manse the little bairn, as one of his fellow-villagers said of him, would “lie agroufe on the grun’ wi’ his slate and his pencil.” Wherever he chanced to be, whether in church, at home, at school at Pitlessie, or in the fields, David was always drawing with a charcoal pencil on everything that came to his hand. In one of the rooms of the manse, from the windows of which the valley of the Eden was seen below, with the chain of the Falkland Hills, the Howe of Fife, and the slate roofs of the villages of Pitlessie and Kings-kettle further away, the horizon bounded by the Lomonds—” my ain blue Lomonds,” as Wilkie fondly called them—he covered the walls with his charcoal heads and figures, and attempted likenesses of those who came to the house. On one occasion his mother asked the little fellow whose portrait he was drawing. ” I’m making bonny Lady Gonie,” was the reply, meaning a neighbour, a Lady Balgonie. The Scotch are proverbially proud of their ancestry ; ” every Scotchman has a pedigree,” Sir Walter Scott has written. ” It is,” he adds, ” a national prerogative as inalienable as his pride or his poverty.” Even men of such intellectual mark as Allan Ramsay the elder, and his clever son, even Walter Scott himself and David Wilkie, were delighted to trace their descent from old and gentle stock. Wilkie’s forbears had been for some four centuries landed proprietors near Edinburgh a property some sixty acres in extent. Other Wilkies connected by blood were settled on hereditary lands near that of the painter’s own immediate ancestry. Wilkie’s grandfather was the author of a long-forgotten poem called the ” Epigoniad,” and held the living of Ratho-Byres in Midlothian, ” a small property,” writes Sir David, ” which had been in possession of our family for four hundred years.” But the grandfather became poor and was obliged to sell the old home, of which he only remained the tenant. David’s father was fond of mathematics as well as of theology. He became minister of Cults in 1774, and in a long inscription to his memory in the church of that place his son has recorded his scientific acquirements, concluding that ” he was venerated among his people for his sympathy with their temporal vicissitudes and his zeal in ministering to their spiritual wants.” Cults, even in that time of lean Church livings, was miserably poor, for at the outset the Rev. David Wilkie’s stipend was only £68 per annum, and it never rose above £100. With this poor pittance went a glebe of four acres. None of the minister’s wives appears to have added any fortune to his means. The father of the third Mrs. Wilkie David’s mother was owner of the Pitlessie Mill and an elder of the parish ; and it was upon the bald head of this respectable old gentleman, whilst he was peacefully slumbering in kirk, that Wilkie, according to a story handed down by Lock-hart, made a sketch in charcoal.

The village smithy was a favourite haunt of the minister’s little son, and there he studied the men at work at the anvil and the forge, the lights and shadows. Wherever he went David observed closely, filling his slate, and later his sketch-book, with countless studies, some of which came into the possession of his friend Allan Cunningham when the latter was writing his life. Amongst his school-mates David became quite a professional artist, exchanging his sketches for marbles and other boyish delights. Cunningham once asked one of Wilkie’s old school friends if his childish portraits were good likenesses. ” Like or unlike,” was the answer, ” aweel they were like.”

When he was twelve years old Wilkie was removed from Pitlessie school to that at Kettle, a place some three miles from Cults by the banks of the river Eden. The master was a Dr. Strachan, who ultimately became Bishop of Toronto. The Doctor used to declare that Wilkie was a most mischievous lad, always drawing when he should have been at his book. And with this irrepressible love of drawing Wilkie combined the faculty of making tools and models of water-pumps and mills : at the time of the building of his father’s new manse David delighted in helping the workmen, one of whom declared that older hands than his knew far less of their calling. After the death of Wilkie’s father, Professor Gillespie, who succeeded to the living of Cults in 1813, found many traces of the boy’s charcoal sketches and studies on the walls of the room that had been his nursery ; these, unfortunately, were nearly all swept away by whitewash.

As he was drawing one day at the manse, Wilkie’s grandfather, the miller, was moved to make the following prophecy regarding David’s occupation : ” Ah, my mon Davie, it will be a long time ere daubing wi’ a stick wull do anything for thee.” But Davie was not to be deterred by his grandfather’s remonstrances, and continued ” daubing wi’ a stick ” until his parents came to the conclusion that there was nothing to be done except to let him go his way and daub to some purpose. Before he left home, however, Wilkie was sent to the Academy at Cupar, where he remained until he was fifteen. There he was taught drawing by a wandering professor probably a French refugee and there too he learned, to some purpose, to play the fiddle.

In the month of November, 1799, Wilkie left home, his mother having persuaded his father to allow him to study in the Trustees’ Drawing Academy of Edinburgh. The father was against the idea ; but on hearing that at this Academy instruction in the art of designing was given to mechanics as well as to artists, and knowing his son’s strong bent for mechanics besides his love of drawing, he finally assented to the experiment being made.

Provided with a letter from Lord Leven, and carrying some samples of his drawings, Wilkie, accompanied by his father, called on the secretary of the Academy, George Thomson. This first visit, however, was one of disappointment, for the secretary shook his head at the boy’s sketches and refused to admit him as a student. Lord Leven was again appealed to, and, with a fresh recommendation from the Earl, Wilkie returned to the charge, and this time was successful in obtaining admittance. Patronage still has its advantages, and in those days it was a great power.

Although he learnt little at the Edinburgh Drawing Academy, Wilkie was at least fortunate in having John Graham for a master, a man who should be honoured by all who cherish the Scottish school of painting, as having devoted all his faculties and the best years of his life to improving painting in Scotland. Amongst his pupils, besides Wilkie, were such fine artists as Burnet, William Allan and John Watson Gordon. Graham was the first instructor at the Academy to introduce oil painting into its teaching, and to provide the pupils with casts from the antique. Previous to his mastership the Academy had been an almost useless institution, although G. Runciman and David Allan had been its heads. Appointed Master of the Academy in 1798, Graham held the post until 1817, having lived long enough to know that his zeal and labours had been rewarded by the reflected glory of some eminent pupils, of whom Wilkie and William Allan were destined to be Royal Academicians and among the foremost artists of their day. When Wilkie died he was succeeded in the honourable post of Limner to the Queen by William Allan, who was knighted in the same year (1842) and became President of the Scottish Academy. Allan lived until 185o, dying in harness in his studio with an unfinished picture on the easel before him. John Burnet, whose engravings after Wilkie are amongst the best work of their time, was a fellow-scholar of the painter at the Edinburgh Academy, as was also a little later John Watson Gordon, who succeeded Sir W. Allan as President of the Scottish Academy in 1850, when he too was knighted and appointed Limner to Her Majesty. Sir John was the most popular portrait painter of his day, and in that branch was a worthy successor to the great Sir Henry Raeburn one of the most virile masters of portraiture of our own or any other country.

During the time that Wilkie studied at the Edinburgh Academy, William Allan said that ” no one could be more regular and industrious ; whatever he commenced was finished, and that well. There being only a few casts, we were compelled to draw them often : but he remarked ` that this was an advantage, as it enabled us to get them by heart.’ He seemed to have, even at that early period, an innate feeling for character and expression, as the best of many of his drawings whilst at the Academy can testify ; in particular, a sketch of Graham reading, so full of expression and done with such a masterly hand as seemed to me little less than a miracle.”

Wilkie had hired an attic in a house in Nicolson Street in the old town, and, according to his fellow student Burnet, had very little knowledge of drawing, but ” much enthusiasm of a queer and silent kind,” when he joined the class. Burnet adds that, despite his lack of knowledge, Wilkie surpassed all his fellow-students by the character he threw into his work. Although working hard all day at the Academy, Wilkie was not idle in his humble lodging ” two stairs up,” which had scarcely any furniture beyond a bed and a chair, but made studies of himself when he could get no picturesque model from the streets or wynds in the old town. His only books were the Bible and a copy of the ” Gentle Shepherd” : his fiddle his only amusement. The youth carried his early habit of observation into constant practice, and was often to be met in the auction rooms when any sale of pictures was going on, gloating over prints or etchings by Rembrandt or Ostade : at that time he had probably never seen any good painting. Often too he might have been seen in the streets of Auld Reekie Sketching some picturesque group of Musselburgh fishermen or drovers from Midlothian ; in fact, all that was quaint or picturesque appealed to him, and when the state of his finances made it impossible for him to pay any stray model for a sitting, he would give a tune on his fiddle, such as ” Haud awa’ frae me, Donald,” or ” Argyll’s Bowling Green,” and the good, simple folk were doubtless as well contented with this reward for their trouble. The Drawing Academy instituted a prize of ten pounds to be awarded for an oil painting, the subject to be from ” Macbeth” ; Wilkie was one of the competitors, but did not secure the prize. However, he gained one later for a painting representing Calisto.

Whilst at the Edinburgh Academy, Wilkie was never idle for an hour, and it was there that he laid the foundations for his future successes. Wiser than in his choice of Calisto, he painted a small picture in oils about the same time, called Peasants, which Lockhart considered to be one of the most successful of his early works. ” No finer group,” he writes of it, ” none exhibiting a happier contrast of character, ever came from his easel.” This painting and some others were bought by his earliest patron, a neighbour at Cults, Mr. Charles Kinnear of Kinloch, and are still in the possession of the family. Like Gainsborough, Wilkie used to mould little figures in clay, from which he made careful sketches and studies in light and shade.

Thus passed in active, constant and strenuous work the period of Wilkie’s life between his fifteenth and eighteenth years, with not a day but had its labour the Sabbath, of course, being excepted by the son of the manse.