Sir David Wilkie – Chief Pictures

SOON after his return to London, Wilkie took the necessary steps for being elected Associate of the Royal Academy, and on the 7th of November, 180g, he received a communication from the secretary of that institution to say that he had the right to the letters A.R.A. after his name.

During all that autumn and winter Wilkie worked hard. He had left his old lodgings and taken others at Knightsbridge. His next work was that known as The Village Festival, painted for Sir George Beaumont, and now in the National Gallery. Whilst it was in progress he was also engaged upon a smaller picture which he called The Wardrobe Ransacked, but this was one of his decided failures. The subject was far too trivial for a painting, and although not by any means coarse, for Wilkie never in his life painted anything that could be so considered, the general treatment was certainly not worthy of his talent. And so strongly was this felt by the hanging committee that they advised him not to send it to the exhibition. Wilkie consequently with-drew the picture, not, however, without reluctance ; but he bore no ill-will, either then or afterwards, towards his critics : indeed, his sensible acceptance of criticism was one of the causes of his wide appreciation amongst the established artists of that period of his career.

Towards the end of 1810 we find, him out of health owing to overwork, or more probably to worry. Dr. Baillie, the dramatic writer, and his daughters one of whom was the well known Joanna lent him their house at Hampstead, and so weak had he become during the summer that he told Dr. Baillie that he could neither think nor paint for a quarter of an hour without giddiness, and that the least excitement made him almost faint. His kind friend Sir George Beaumont insisted on his paying them another long visit this time at Dunmow and it was on this occasion that Wilkie painted The Gamekeeper, which was afterwards exhibited at the Academy. Lord Mulgrave, another kind friend, had asked him to stay with him at his house at Tunbridge Wells ; but Hampstead and Dunmow had made a new man of him, and in December he returned to London, making his abode at 4, Manor Terrace, King’s Road, Chelsea, where he found the air purer than nearer to the Strand, and where he was able to take long country walks : he was able, too, to begin work again, but with moderation.

In the February of the following year (1811) Wilkie received a letter from Henry Howard, the secretary of the Royal Academy, announcing his election to that body as an Academician. His diploma picture had for its subject Boys catching Rats. As a rule diploma pictures are not amongst those works of their respective painters that one would care to possess, and Wilkie’s is no exception to this extraordinary rule. The dogs, however, which form an important part of the picture, are admirably drawn, full of life, and almost equal to some of Landseer’s. Wilkie was always happy in his presentment of the ” friend of man,” and few of his subject-groups are without one or more dogs ; in many instances they add much to the interest of the subject, such as the suspicious hound in The Letter of Introduction.

One of his best pictures, Blind Man’s Buff, was commenced between 1811 and 1812. It was one of his most popular works and has been often engraved. We illustrate in our pages both the unfinished study and the finished picture, as well as an important and characteristic black and white sketch which the artist made for it.

Early in March, 1812, Wilkie hired a gallery in Pall Mall, and, having obtained the loan of some of his pictures from their owners, opened what is now termed a ” one-man show.” In those days this was an unusual departure for a newly elected R.A. to take, and it was a somewhat rash venture, since it roused the ill feeling of some of Wilkie’s brother Academicians. ” It is,” he writes himself of this exhibition, ” giving great offence to some of my brothers of the Royal Academy, whom I am doing all I can to pacify, although I cannot entirely remove their dissatisfaction.” Besides his paintings Wilkie exhibited some sketches of pictures, amongst them those of The Village Festival and Blind Man’s Buff this he had in hand for the Prince Regent. As a speculation, however, the exhibition was a failure, not because the public withheld their patronage, but because a distraint for rent was put in against the previous tenant of the exhibition premises. The Village Festival was seized, and Wilkie was obliged to pay for its recovery.

It was this unpleasant incident, and the seizing of one of his pictures by the servants of the law, that led the artist to execute that admirable work Distraining for. Rent two years later, and which was exhibited in the Academy of 1815.

A heavy blow fell upon Wilkie in the December of 1812, when his father, who had long been ailing, died at Cults, where his son had last seen him in the autumn of the previous year. His death was a great loss, not only to his immediate relations, but to the people of Cults, by whom he was much beloved. He had preached in the church, which he had rebuilt, for the last time in October of that year, and he met death cheerfully and with calm resignation. When those around him spoke hopefully of recovery he would say, looking from the window of the manse, ” I shall never see the leaves grow green on those trees again.” Writing to his sister when the news of their bereavement had reached him, Wilkie says:

” It is our duty to consider an affliction of this sort as intended by the great Disposer of all things for our good : and, while it teaches us the uncertainty of human affairs, this consideration should fortify our minds to meet with becoming firmness the changes it will naturally give rise to.

In the church at Cults Wilkie placed a medallion portrait to his father’s memory, to which reference has already been made. Below it are the following lines : ” He was venerated among his people for his sympathy with their temporal vicissitudes and his zeal in ministering to their spiritual wants.” Such inscriptions are often mendacious ; but we believe that in the case of Wilkie’s father there was actual truth in this praise of the old minister, whose frugal, unselfish and helpful life had been a blessing to many. A more devoted, affectionate son than Wilkie it would have been difficult to find ; when his mother became a widow he at once offered her a home under his own roof. It took a good deal of persuasion on his part to induce her to leave her old home and her father, the miller at Pitlessie, who with his old wife was still living, and many letters had to be written to his sister before their mother consented to the removal. However, when he had taken a new house at 24, Lower Phillimore Place, Kensington, the change was effected.

Laden with as much of the old furniture as could be taken from the manse at Cults, including such favourites as an ancient Gothic chair and an old copper saucepan —both of which had probably served often in Wilkie’s early pictures our artist’s mother and sister arrived in London in the month of August. Never had Wilkie rejoiced over any of his artistic triumphs as he did now with his mother and sister to care for and live with. They arrived whilst he was putting the finishing touches to a picture, the subject of which was a bagpiper, a commission from Sir Francis Freeling ; there was surely something appropriate in Wilkie painting such a subject at such a time.

There is a charming peep of Wilkie’s home life after his mother had come to live with him recorded by Collins, the Royal Academician and the father of Wilkie Collins the novelist, whose Christian name was given him in token of the friendship between the two painters. ” The theme on which he (Wilkie) most delighted to talk with his friends was painting. One day at his house we had been some time conversing on this fruitful subject the mysteries of the art before the uninitiated, when his excellent mother thought she ought to apologize to a certain captain present, which she did in these terms : ` You must e’en excuse these puir bodies ; they canna help it.’ ”

The Bagpiper was followed by that delightful work The Letter of Introduction, with which we think that Wilkie attained the high-water mark of his life. It is in every sense a masterpiece ; it is redolent of the finest humour, and the technique is as admirable as the humour ; it has already been said that Wilkie introduced his own portrait in the bearer of the letter. The subject of the work was more in consonance with the sympathies of its author than those more ambitious scenes of life which he sometimes attempted. It is more human, more real, than the whole of his historical compositions together, and is worthy of a place in the Valhalla of British painting ; and, had London an equivalent to the Salon Carré of the Louvre in Paris, this creation of Wilkie’s would deserve a place upon its walls. It ranks in excellence with Hogarth or the greatest of the Dutch and Flemish genre painters. The Letter of Introduction was bought by Mr. Dobree for two hundred and fifty guineas, Wilkie at that time being twenty-seven years old. In half-a-dozen years he had proved himself one of the great masters of English painting. And, although his popularity has of late much declined, he will always have a high place among the best and most original of artistic geniuses.

The following extracts from the “Whitefoord Papers, being the Correspondence and other Manuscripts of Colonel Charles Whitefoord and Caleb Whitefoord from 1739 to 1810,” relate to this picture.

Sir George Sandilands writes to Caleb Whitefoord as follows :

” Nut Hill, 15th May, 1805.


” Give me leave to introduce to your notice and protection Mr. David Wilkie, a young artist who proposes to spend some time in London in the prosecution of those studies, and the improvement of those talents, that have already brought him into some notice in this his native land, and which I cannot help believing will, with proper culture, raise him to eminence.

” Mr. Wilkie is the son of a most respectable clergyman in this country, well known in the literary world for his Mathematical knowledge. I need not solicit your good offices in behalf of this young and unprotected adventurer, because I well know the pleasure you have ever felt in befriending merit.

” With best respects and good wishes to Mrs. Whitefoord, Believe me ever, my dear Sir,

“Yours faithfully,


To this letter is appended the following note from Cunningham’s ” Life of Wilkie ” :

“Someone desirous to do a good turn to David when he first came to town gave him a note to Caleb (Whitefoord), who, struck with his very youthful look, inquired how old he was. ‘Really, now,’ said the artist, with the hesitation he be-stowed on most questions. ‘ Ha!’ exclaimed Caleb ; ‘ introduce a man to me who knows not how old he is !’ and regarded him with that dubious look which is the chief charm of the picture (Wilkie’s Letter of Introduction). This was in his mind when he formed the resolution to paint the subject; and Caleb and his well-arranged bookcase, his little folding desk, bundles of papers regularly labelled, sword suspended from a nail in the wall to mark his gentle descent, for he was a Whitefoord of that ilk, and a china jar to mark the man of vertu on the floor, sat, as I may say, for his portrait. We have only to add a lad with a country air, who has presented the letter, and the old man to whom it is addressed turning half round in his chair while breaking the seal, and eyeing the other with a look of doubt and suspicion, in which a dog is seen to join with all the intelligence of its master.”

By permission of Mr. Brocklebank, the owner, we illustrate, with it, the original drawing for the finished work and also the cartoon in ” Punch” which so cleverly adopted the picture as its motif The changes made by the artist in the finished picture are interesting in comparison with the first rough idea for the work, and the cartoon is a particularly happy use of a work that created at the time something like a sensation.

Wilkie was ever at his best when illustrating scenes and subjects connected with his beloved Scotland, and his finest sentiment and feeling were shown in the pastoral subjects he painted from Allan Ramsay’s ” Gentle Shepherd ” and Burns’s poems. Perhaps two of his most poetical compositions are those showing the love-lorn Patie, and the two Scottish lassies Peggy and Jenny, in the former work. His picture called Duncan Gray, or the Refusal, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, was inspired by Burns’s poem. It was first bought by Dr. Baillie, but later it passed into the Sheep-shanks collection. Duncan Gray, “the rejected,” is a portrait of Mulready, R.A., whilst the mother of Meg, who rejected Duncan’s suit, is a portrait of Wilkie’s mother. Dr. Baillie, who had paid three hundred and thirty guineas for this picture, exchanged it for the one called The Pedlars, in our judgment a far inferior work; but both it and Duncan Gray rank high among the artist’s efforts.

It was in 1814 that Wilkie, accompanied by Haydon as on his Devonshire trip, paid his first visit to the Continent. Embarking on 25th May at Brighton, they crossed to Normandy, whence they journeyed to Paris and found a lodging in the Rue St. Benoit. The French capital was then filled with English people, who had hastened across the Channel after Napoleon’s first abdication, and amongst them numbers of artists, who had come, not only to see Paris, but also the art treasures which the Emperor had seized from the galleries of Italy and Germany, and which were in process of being returned whence they were looted.

Haydon wrote an amusing but somewhat ill-natured account of his visit with Wilkie to France :

“Notwithstanding,” he says, “Paris was filled with all the nations of the earth, the greatest oddity in it was David Wilkie. His horrible French ; his strange tottering gait, feeble, pale look; his carrying about his prints to make bargains with printsellers ; his resolution never to leave restaurants till he got his change right to a centime ; his long disputes about sous and demi-sous with the dame du comptoir; whilst Madame tried to cheat him, and as she pressed her pretty, ringed fingers on his arm without making the Ieast impression, her ‘Mais, Monsieur,’ and his Scotch ` Mais, Madame,’ were worthy of Molière. But there is a simplicity,” adds Haydon, “in his manners, a soundness and originality in his thinking, which makes him an instructive companion. His remarks on the French school were admirable. He said it was the consequence, not the cause, of encouragement. There was hardly a day but we had a dispute, and yet we were always better pleased with each other’s society than with the society of others.”

Wilkie saw Versailles as well as the galleries in the capital ; at the Louvre he particularly studied the Dutch pictures, and the final opinion at which he arrived with regard to the French school of painting was that it lacked depth both in light and shadow. After a visit of about six weeks he returned to England, and, writing of his first experience of the Continent, he says : ” Whatever delight or satisfaction I have derived from my journey to Paris, it has not made me think the less of my own country.” As we know, Wilkie was only happy when with his mother and sister, and the happiest days of a happy life, all things considered, were when he was painting, with his mother sitting by his side. He soon set to work after his return upon his next picture Distraining for Rent a picture which may be called a drama on canvas, so full is it of humour, pathos, and even misery. When completed he sent it to the British Institution, where it was so highly appreciated that the directors bought it for six hundred guineas, a large sum at that time, “giving in this way,” Cunningham remarks, ” the attestation of their name to the surpassing excellence of the picture.” Leslie, in his ” Handbook for Young Painters,” writes that “it is one of the noblest and truest of Wilkie’s paintings. Its honest pathos is. not acquired by any ` sensational’ incident, nor jarred by any vulgar realization.” Next came from his brush the clever candle-light painting called The Rabbit on the Wall a work that recalls the exquisite artificial light effects of the great Dutch masters ; this painting was in the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1815.

In the early autumn of 1816 Wilkie again visited the Continent, his companion being Raimbach the engraver. Holland was their goal, and Wilkie was much pleased to find the country and towns of the Low Countries just as they appeared in the pictures of his favourite painters. ” Indeed,” he wrote to Sir George Beaumont, ” nothing seemed new to me in the whole country, for I had been familiar with it all on canvas ; and what one could not help wondering at was that these old masters should have been able to draw the materials of so beautiful a variety of art from so monotonous a country.”

Duriug his return through France an adventure befell Wilkie similar to that experienced by Hogarth more than half a century before. The young painter was tempted to sketch the old gate at Calais, known, since Hogarth was arrested there for exactly the same offence, as ” Hogarth’s Gate,” until a year or so ago, when it was pulled down. History repeated itself, and Wilkie was taken before Monsieur le Maire by the suspicious gendarmes, but after a mild reproof was allowed to go free. One regrets that Wilkie did not portray Calais Gate, like his predecessor : it would have made an interesting pendant to Hogarth’s famous painting in the National Gallery.

Whilst at Brussels Wilkie visited the battlefield of Waterloo, his interest being probably increased by the fact that he had been commissioned by the Duke of Wellington to paint a picture in connection with his great victory. Shortly before he had started on his journey the Duke had paid a visit to the painter a visit which must have been the greatest event in the lives of the Wilkie household. In a letter to Haydon Wilkie writes that the Duke said little but ” Very good” and ” Capital,” although he seemed pleased. Wilkie was disappointed by this silence, having been accustomed to fuller and readier praise from his visitors. But at length the Duchess of Argyll, who had come with the Duke and Duchess of Wellington, began to talk to the artist of a picture which the victor of Waterloo wished him to paint, whereupon, to quote the letter, the Duke ” turned to us, and, swinging back upon the chair, turned up his lively eye to me, and said that the subject should be a parcel of old soldiers, assembled together on their seats at the door of a public-house, chewing tobacco and talking over their old stories. He thought they might be in any uniform, and that it should be at some public-house in the King’s Road, Chelsea. I said this would make a most beautiful picture, and that it only wanted some story, or a principal incident, to connect the figures together. He said perhaps playing skittles would do, or any other game, when I proposed that one might be reading a newspaper aloud to the rest, and that in making a sketch of it many other incidents would occur. In this he perfectly agreed, and said I might send the sketch to him when he was abroad.”

The elaborate painting with its sixty figures, and known as Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo, was the outcome of the visit of the Duke of Wellington to Wilkie’s studio the year after the great battle. It occupied the painter for six years, being exhibited only in 1822, when it created so much enthusiasm that it had to be protected by a railing from the pressure of the crowd. The artists of the time shared with the general public in the appreciation of the work, and Leslie says of one of the many figures : ” There is not in art a finer touch of expression than that of the anxious face of the woman overlooking the old pensioner who reads to his companions the first news of the Battle of Waterloo. The contrast of this single face to all the others that surround the reader is indeed a master-stroke.”

There is a characteristic story of the Duke of Wellington and this picture :

When it had been sent to Apsley House, Wilkie was asked to call there. He found the Duke in his study, a gloomy little room with a single window, on the ground floor, facing Piccadilly. Here the Duke began to count out in bank notes the sum agreed upon for the painting one thousand guineas.

” Wouldn’t it save your Grace trouble to give me a draft on your bankers for the amount ? ” Wilkie suggested.

“Yes,” replied the Duke, “but I don’t want my bankers to know that I have been such a d—d fool as to give one thousand guineas for a picture.”