NO account of Wilkie’s life work would be in any way complete without some reference to his etchings, which are very rare. In 1825 Wilkie had some copies printed of seven etchings he had made, for presentation to the King and to his principal patrons. The writer was sufficiently fortunate to secure a folio of these etchings which had been presented “To the Right Honourable Robert Peel, with the humble respects of his obliged servant, D. Wilkie. Kensington, Feby. 3rd, 1825,” in the artist’s writing. Only three of these seven etchings are dated, viz.: The Cottage Door, 1819-20 (reproduced in this work) ; Reading the Will, 1819; Mother, and Child, 182o.
In 1873 David Laing, the well-known antiquarian and col-lector, had a hundred copies printed of a folio containing all Wilkie’s etchings, supplemented by others by Geddes the painter, whose portrait of Wilkie is the best that was ever done of him. In the Preface to this work Laing writes that, at the sale by Messrs. Christie and Manson of Sir David Wilkie’s effects in 1842, the catalogue contained this entry : ” Eight etched plates, and a few impressions.” This lot was bought by a London dealer, and resold in 1863, when the plates were purchased by Laing. The one numbered 6 was, however, missing ; but, on the other hand, the one numbered 8 was Wilkie’s unpublished etching of Benvenuto Cellini and the Pope.
Of these etchings by Wilkie and Geddes one hundred copies were printed. In all there are fourteen etchings in Laing’s work, inclusive of the six printed by Wilkie in 1825. Both Sir Walter Armstrong and the late Philip G. Hamerton the greatest authority on etching and etchers wrote highly of Wilkie’s skill in this branch of art; and Sir Walter, in an article in ” The English Illustrated Magazine ” 1 entitled ” Forgotten Etchers,” calls these etchings by Wilkie and Geddes a phenomenon in art history : ” To throw Wilkie’s Pope or his lost Receipt into the shade, we must,” he says, “turn to Rembrandt. The Lost Receipt strikes one as far more like Rembrandt in treatment than any English etching.” Hamerton thought both the etchings of the Pope with Cellini and The Lost Receipt “equal to the best work of the old masters ” (” Etching and Etchers “), and further says that their characteristics are good composition and happy selection of line. Small as was Wilkie’s output in etching, this authority classes him among the great masters of that most difficult craft.
We have selected the three most characteristic of these etchings notably that of the Pope and Cellini, which Hamerton thought ” one of the finest etchings ever produced in England.” Wilkie also painted a picture of this, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840, and called in the catalogue : ” Benvenuto Cellini presenting, for the approval of Pope Paul III., a silver censer of his own workmanship.” It was bought by Mr. Rice, at the sale of whose collection it fetched seven hundred and five guineas.
The two others are The Lost Receipt, so Rembrandt like in treatment and execution, and The Cottage Door, in which Wilkie’s fondness for the style of Ostade is strongly marked.