WRITING to Wilkie’s father on the eve of the son’s return to Cults, his master Graham said of him that none of his pupils “were more desirous to learn, or so attentive when I gave my opinion, as your son David.” And this desire to learn, this attention to ad-vice or criticism were in no small measure the causes of the painter’s after success. At this time (18o4) Wilkie is described as being a tall, somewhat gawky stripling, with a shock of yellow hair brushed over his brow ; his features were plain, and he had the high cheek-bones common to his countrymen, and a very long upper lip, not unlike Sir Walter Scott’s. His nose was somewhat tip-tilted, and, if it had not been for his bright blue intelligent eyes, he might have been considered a common-place and uncouth youth of eighteen. But his forehead when the hair was brushed away from it was intellectual, and the flashes of humour which constantly lighted up his face caused its essentially plain details to be forgotten.
Wilkie had finished his Edinburgh studies, but he had not come home to be idle, but to work and to prove to his people his capacity for earning a living by his brush ; and also to show his parents that he had chosen a profession which would not only bring him bread, but much honour and fame. He lost no time in setting to work, and, writing to a fellow-student in the summer of the same year, he says : ” I have now fairly begun The Country Fair. I have the advantage of our herd boy and some children who live about the place as standers (i.e., models), and I now see how superior painting from nature is to anything that our imagination assisted by our memory can conceive.” The picture that he calls The Country Fair in this letter is the one known as Pitlessie Fair: it is a work by which David Wilkie proved that he was sufficiently talented to set out in life as an artist. In a letter the writer has received from Mr. Boyd Kinnear, the grandson of Wilkie’s earliest patron, he says :
“After Wilkie had been for some time at the Academy at Edinburgh, but before he had exhibited, my grandfather, wishing to encourage him, gave him a commission to paint a picture for £25. The resulting picture was Pitlessie Fair. My grandfather, though not, I imagine, a judge of art, saw at once that the picture was of much more value than the sum that had been specified, and insisted on making it £40. Of course that was absurdly inadequate, but up till then Wilkie’s genius was quite unknown, and it was at least a partial recognition. Wilkie took Pitlessie Fair 1 to London with him with my grandfather’s permission.”
This picture of Pitlessie Fair was painted on a chest of drawers for an easel, the canvas resting on the middle drawer, which Wilkie had partly drawn out. He introduced into this work a large number of those people his relations, neighbours and friends of whom he had formerly made his thumb nail sketches, grouping them on one canvas with great ingenuity. When it was finished the picture caused quite a sensation, all the neighbour-hood flocking to Cults to see the young artist and his presentment of the Fair. Writing of the work in the December of that year, Wilkie says that, although not then completed, ” it is pretty well on, and people of all ranks come to see it.” When age is remembered he was then nineteen his environment, and the little instruction in art he had then received, the merit of this work is remarkable. The best description of Pitlessie Fair appears in an article by Lockhart in the ” Quarterly Review,” in which he reviews Cunningham’s ” Life of Wilkie.” He writes:
” Wilkie had during his leisure hours, while at the paternal manse, conceived and carried through innumerable stages of sketching and resketching, up to its ultimate completion, that rich performance the richest in some respects of all that he ever finished his Pitlessie Fair. It is a canvas 44 by 25 inches ; into this space the artist has compressed such a panorama as never before was, never again will be, produced of the rural life of a province. There are groups enough to have given the production of a dozen masterpieces : in fact, we may trace here in embryo a very large proportion of all the forms that his genius animated : it is to Wilkie much what the Border minstrelsy was to Scott. The figures, in number 140, are almost all portraits from Cults itself and the two or three next parishes’ the old familiar faces’ which he had been studying and sketching ever since he could hold a pencil. No invention, no creation of rule, but the breathing world of Fife seen as though through a glass darkly.”
Wilkie’s biographer, Cunningham, happily called the production, ” the portrait of a village.” It might well be called the portrait of a whole countryside. Pitlessie Fair made Wilkie’s fame in Fifeshire, and it was the stepping-stone by which he was to become one of the best-known painters of his time. When he took it with him to London by permission of Mr. Charles Kinnear, it served him better than any letters of recommendation with those who appreciated merit. The picture first made him known to Lord Melville and to Sir George Beaumont. ” Tell the people of Pitlessie,” Wilkie writes during his first visit to London to his parents, ” that they have more honour conferred on them now than they ever had before; tell them that they are seen and admired by the first people in the kingdom, and tell my grandfather that he is not the least admired amongst them.” It is regrettable that no reproduction has been taken of this most interesting work of one of the most precocious talents of which we have any record but, as has already been said, it has been kept out of sight, with a strange want of liberality, by its present owner. It would require a far abler pen than mine to give any idea of the life, spirit and humour of this presentment of a fair-day in a Scottish village ; all the fun of the fair is given with-out any exaggeration. In colour it is somewhat crude, the red being too dominant ; yet there is much both in colour and composition that recalls pictures of the Dutch school, notably those of Brouwer and Ostade.
Whilst working on Pitlessie Fair Wilkie found time to paint The Bounty Money, or the Village Recruit. This was one of the pictures which he took to London, where it was exhibited in a shop window at Charing Cross. Allan Cunningham relates that a well-known art-critic told him one day that he had heard of this clever little painting being in the shop window, the price of six pounds being asked for it. ” Buy it by all means,” was the critic’s advice to his informant, “and risk the six pounds on your own taste.” But on returning to the shop the would-be buyer found that the picture had been sold. It is now at Stratton Park, in Lord Northbrook’s collection, together with four other Wilkies, of which the sketch for The Battle of Waterloo is the best.
Besides the Fair and The Village Recruit, Wilkie was engaged on some lesser works, and found time to pay visits to St. Andrews, Dundee and Aberdeen ; at each of which places he seems to have had plenty of sitters, making portraits of every description, varying from life-size to miniatures.
He now felt himself sufficiently well off to make the great experiment of visiting London. He had the L40 Mr. Kinnear had paid for Pitlessie Fair, and with some five and twenty more he determined to make the plunge. On the 20th of May, 1805, he sailed from Leith for the metropolis. Writing of this journey in later years Wilkie says : ” When I first came to London, I had but a small sum of money saved from my labours in Fife, about £6o. I had no friends previously in London.” He was only nineteen years and six months old when he left his beloved blue Lomonds behind him, and ex-changed the tranquillity of the manse at Cults for the travail of London town. ” There is a raw, tall, pale, queer Scotchman come,” wrote Jackson, describing his first meeting with Wilkie ; but he added, ” there is something in him.” That there was a very great deal in this queer Scotchman” the clever Yorkshire portrait-painter was right in believing ; and all England was ere long to discover the same quality, to the wondering surprise of the young Scotchman himself, who, when he had made his first success at the Royal Academy, could only repeat : ” It ‘s jest wonderful.” ” Hang the fellow. I hope with his ` something’ he is not going to be an historical painter,” growled Haydon, the unlucky, ambitious and most unfortunate of the so-called ” high-art school,” when he heard of the new student from Scotland. And in his journal he confesses to having spent a sleepless night on hearing that the old Swiss Royal Academician, Fuseli, had declared in his broken English, on seeing some of the young Scotchman’s work, ” dere ‘s something in de fellow.” The painters all seemed to be endowed with the gift of prophecy concerning the new art-student from Fifeshire.
Wilkie took a lodging at 8, Portland Row, and was soon hard at work in the Academy Schools, then located at Somerset House, where its exhibitions were held. Apparently his personal appearance did not impress his companions, although Lockhart refers to the ” singular mixture of sagacity, determination, and rich quaint humour,” that marked him as one not of the common herd. In those days there was still a prejudice against the Scotch in London ; and Wilkie’s somewhat uncouth appearance, his awkward manner and his strong Fife-shire accent, emphasized by a drawl and a halting mode of speech, as well as the trick he had of saying ” ra-lly ” h tout propos, all helped to make him a subject for some ridicule and ill nature at the hands of his fellow-students. Perhaps the best description of Wilkie at this period of his life is the one painted by himself in his picture called The Letter of Introduction, in which he stands sheepishly by the side of an old gentleman to whom he has presented a letter. He found none of the letters he had brought with him from Scotland of any use, and it was not until a kind-hearted piano manufacturer of the name of Stodart and his wife, who was a distant cousin of the young artist, were kind and serviceable to him, that any-one came forward to befriend him : his early days in London must have been sadly lonely.
Wilkie lent his Pitlessie Fair and some other paintings at the Stodarts, and through these he became known to some art lovers, such as the Mansfields and Sir George Beaumont. The latter became Wilkie’s best patron and lifelong friend, giving him one of his first commissions after his arrival in London, as did also Lord Mansfield, for whom he painted The Village Politicians. Writing home, Wilkie says : I have been of late painting a picture for the Earl of Mansfield, to be exhibited at the Royal Academy.” This work, according to Cunningham, was painted at a venture, but it seems that Wilkie had told Lord Mansfield that it would cost £15. When exhibited it created quite a sensation, and was the most noted picture in that year’s exhibition, being described as ” an extraordinary work”; and Wilkie, always modest with regard to his own productions, felt that he had not asked half the worth of the picture. Writing twenty years later, Haydon describes the excitement regarding The Village Politicians amongst the artists of the time, of the crowds thronging the room in which it was hung, of Wilkie hurrying to see his triumph, eager, excited, and hardly able to believe that anything he had done could make such a stir, of his exclamations ” Jest wonderful ! and ” Is it, rally ? ” on being complimented on its extra-ordinary cleverness.
In his home letters the young painter gave vent to his feelings of triumph. ” My ambition,” he says, “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, David Wilkie.” To his brother he went so far as to say : ” I have already established a reputation that will live for ages.” He was certainly justified in his keen delight in his success ; for amongst other attentions that were lavished upon him Sir George Beaumont, who owned Hogarth’s mahl stick, bestowed it upon the painter of The Village Politicians, as being a worthy owner of such a relic. Lord Mansfield paid £3o for the picture, which was actually not a quarter of its value.
Wilkie’s opinion of some of his fellow students is characteristic. ” I have got acquainted with some of the students,” he says, ” who seem to know a good deal of the cant of criticism, and are very seldom disposed to allow anything merit that is not two hundred years old. I have seen a great many fine pictures of the old school, which have given me a taste very different from that which I had when I left Edinburgh, and I am now convinced that no picture can possess real merit unless it is a just representation of Nature.” Haydon, who began by disliking and fearing the young Scotchman, ended by becoming an attached but very critical friend, and in his diary gives the following portrait of Wilkie at this time : ” He was tall, pale, quiet, with a fine eye, short nose, vulgar humorous mouth, but great energy of expression.”
England’s best painters in the line of portraiture were all dead long before Wilkie came to London, the foremost artists in the early years of the century being Lawrence, Hoppner, Opie and Phillips in England, and Henry Raeburn in Scotland. Turner, Constable, Collins, Calcott, Cotman and Cox were the best of the landscape-painters ; but historical, religious and subject-painting were at a very low ebb, although Stothard had infinite grace in composition, and Etty could paint flesh as few English artists have ever succeeded in doing. But now that he had opportunities of seeing works by the great masters Wilkie’s style became freer as well as less minute and laboured. And with the acquaintance brought by his success these opportunities were many. In London the collections of Lord Stafford and Mr. Angerstein the latter, when bought by the nation, formed the nucleus of the National Gallery and others were thrown open to him, and in the country he had the run of Sir George Beaumont’s gallery. Some of his opinions at this time concerning contemporary art are curious. He greatly admired the work of the President of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West ; he thought Opie technically ” a dirty painter” ; he liked Hoppner’s portraits, and very rightly, for some of that artist’s works deserve a place by the side of Gainsborough and Reynolds. Flaxman he considered with justice ” the best modeller we have” ; he enjoyed Morland’s work : ” when you look at his pictures, you see in them the same figures that we see every day in the streets.” But the idols of his veneration were still the Dutch and Flemish masters of the seventeenth century, and until his first visit to Paris in 1814 no others came between them and his cult for their ” clear touching,” as he called their style, which certainly reached the height of human perfection in art. Turner was not then to his liking, whatever he may have thought later. ” His designs,” he writes then, ” are grand, the effect and colour natural, but his manner of handling is not to my taste.”
Notwithstanding his success with The Village Politicians and his other commissions, Wilkie seems to have been very short of money at this juncture of his London life. Although he wrote cheerfully to his parents, yet a hitherto unpublished letter, kindly sent to the writer by Mr. Brownlee Hunter, written in 1805 (February), shows him to have been in actual want of three pounds. Had it not been for portrait-painting, which then, as now, paid far better than subject-painting, Wilkie would probably have been unable to have remained in London. Sir George Beaumont, as has been said, was one of the first to come forward and commission Wilkie, ” the Scottish Wonder,” as Sir George called him, to paint one of his Scottish scenes, the price being fixed at fifty guineas, and the subject being left to the painter’s judgment. The result was that most excellent work, The Blind Fiddler.
Sir George was not only an enthusiastic lover of art and a most liberal patron of artists, but was also a painter himself of some merit. Like his friend Lord Egremont, Sir George was never so happy as when he was entertaining artists at his houses at Coleorton or Dunmow. His . unfailing kindness to Wilkie, which began in the early days of their acquaintance, lasted throughout Sir George’s life. Lockhart writes :
” It is not too much to say that Sir George treated Wilkie with a paternal kindness ; he opened not only his purse to him, but his mind, and was always ready to countenance and support, and, utterly incapable of officious dictation, dropped ever and anon hints of advice and warning, whereby Wilkie profited largely.”
Some of Sir George’s written advice to his young friend and protégé is worth repeating. In a letter written in the summer of 1806 he says :
” I hope you make use of the inestimable privilege of denying yourself. I know what importunities must beset you. Nothing, I think, can hurt you but being too soon satisfied, and fancying yourself at the end of your labours, which will never be ; but you bore the gust of applause so steadily and sensibly that I am satisfied you will never forget what is due to your art and yourself.”
In another letter Sir George writes :
” Pursue your studies without intermission. Associate with abler men than yourself : do not suffer poor-minded and interested persons to render you discontented. Remember yours is a liberal profession : never suffer it to degenerate into a trade : the more you elevate your mind, the more you will be likely to succeed. Be not persuaded to deviate from the line nature and inclination have marked out for you.”
Had Wilkie followed this most sound and sensible advice throughout his career, the better it would have been for his artistic fame.