Sir David Wilkie – Latest Works

THIS year of 1829 was a busy one with Wilkie, and after a considerable amount of work in London he went to Scotland to finish his picture of The Entry of George IV. into Edinburgh.

Sir Thomas Lawrence died early in the January of 1830, and whilst the election of his successor to the Presidency of the Academy was pending the King appointed Wilkie his Painter in Ordinary. Wilkie was one of the candidates for the vacant post, but the royal honour seems to have caused so much ill-feeling against him amongst his fellow-Academicians, that when his name came up for election he received only two votes, an Irishman named Martin Shee being made President. Shee was only a mediocre painter, but he made an excellent P.R.A., more tact and savoir faire being required for that office than high artistic qualities.

Haydon voiced the feelings of a large majority of artists and laymen when he wrote that Shee’s appointment established a precedent, viz., ” that high talent is not necessary to the highest rank in art,” which is ” one of the most fatal blows ever inflicted on the dignity of the Academy since it has been established, and will lower it in English and Continental estimation.” Shee he describes as an Irishman of ” great plausibility ; a speechifying, colloquial, well-informed, pleasant fellow, conscious of no great power in art and very envious of those who have.” Such a man was sure to be popular, and Haydon declared that he was the most popular President the Academy ever had. But, on the other hand, there was Wilkie, in whom his friend saw ” the greatest genius in his walk that ever lived,” who was the only living artist who had a picture in the National Gallery, the only English painter at that time with anything like a European reputation, ” honoured by his Sovereign, respected by the nobility, modest, decent, upright, diligent and highly gifted, from whose existence an epoch in British art must be dated to whose work our present high rank is owing in the opinion of Europe David Wilkie had two votes.”

But, our admiration for Wilkie’s genius notwithstanding, we cannot think that he was suited to fill the post of the President of the Royal Academy. His manner lacked the necessary urbanity; and, although he had mixed much with the great world, he had never shaken off the jerky nervousness which his fellow-students had commented upon when he first joined the Academy. The two Academicians who voted for him were Collins and Leslie. He himself appears to have taken little interest in the election at least, it is not mentioned in any of his letters: but his was not the nature to fret over what could not be altered, and especially over a subject in which he alone, of all the forty Academicians, could not have an unbiassed opinion.

In the Exhibition of 1830 Wilkie was represented by three pictures, The Entry of George IV. into Edinburgh, a full-length life-size portrait of that monarch in a kilt, and The Guerilla’s Return to his Family. The Entry into Edinburgh was begun in 1822, and is by no means a success. Of the portrait of George IV., which he him-self described as a Rembrandt scheme of colour, but of which the less said the better, he painted a replica which now belongs to the Duke of Buccleuch : the original is at Apsley House. The Guerilla’s Return was, as we have seen, bought by King George, and is now at Buckingham Palace.

The death of George IV. in 1830 made no difference to Wilkie’s position as Court painter, for the new King also appointed him his Painter in Ordinary, as likewise did the late Queen after the death of her uncle, William IV.

Of William IV. and Queen Adelaide Wilkie painted life-size portraits, which were probably repeated, for, besides the originals at Windsor, the writer knows of a pair at Kilkenny Castle. Considering how difficult it must have been to invest his royal sitters with their proper dignity, Wilkie was most successful in these two portraits ; that of William IV. in his coronation robes is certainly one of the best of his later style. His next large picture was historical in subject, John Knox Preaching at St. Andrew’s before the Lords of the Congregation, to give the laboured work its full title. He had made elaborate sketches for this painting, and amongst other details had discovered the original pulpit from which Knox thundered, and which is now to be seen in the Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh ; but his portraits of people of the time which crowd the canvas are more or less imaginary. Carlyle says of the work that it is not only unhistorical in treatment, but ” of an ignorance altogether abject.” This wrathful declaration of the author of ” Cromwell,” with his passionate admiration for the rugged and uncompromising Puritanism of which Knox was the leading example, is easily understood. Such a subject called for anything but the smoothness and theatrical animation with which Wilkie interpreted it. Edward Irving is said to have been Wilkie’s model for Knox, the painter, it appears, having once heard him preach, and being greatly impressed by his striking personality. Sir Walter Scott only saw the sketch of the Knox picture, of which he expressed great admiration. ” I recollect,” writes the painter Collins, ” Wilkie taking a cumbrous sketch in oil for the picture of John Knox all the way to Edinburgh for Sir Walter Scott’s opinion. I was present when he showed it to him. Sir Walter was much struck with it as a work of vast and rare power.” However, neither Carlyle nor Scott was a particularly good judge of painting, and therefore the scoffs of the one and the praise of the other are of little moment so far as the work of the artist is concerned. Many years ago the writer of this memoir remembers Carlyle saying to him, regarding Wilkie’s historical paintings, ” Ah, puir fellow, they made him paint historical subjects which did not suit him.” In this Carlyle was right. Historical subjects never suited Wilkie’s line of thought or his talent, but there is nothing to show that there was ever any inducement, save his own will and misplaced belief in his powers of composition, to cause him to identify himself with this branch of painting.

Knox Preaching was originally painted for Lord Liver-pool, and exhibited in 1832, meeting both praise and blame. At Lord Liverpool’s death it was bought by Sir Robert Peel, who gave £1,300 for it.

Sir Walter Scott’s death in 1832 was a severe blow and sorrow to Wilkie, who for many years had looked up to him and revered him with a feeling like that felt by Ben Jonson for Shakespeare—” this side of idolatry” —and who when in trouble always turned to his great countryman. The whole civilized world was the poorer when Scott lay dead at Abbotsford, and to his own personal friends the loss was irreparable.

In the following year Wilkie was a guest of the Duke of Wellington at Strathfieldsaye, where he painted the portrait of the Duke with his famous charger ” Copenhagen,” which is now in the hall of the Merchant Taylors’ Company. The next autumn Wilkie journeyed once more to Scotland to paint a picture, commissioned by the widow of the famous General Sir David Baird, of the discovery of the body of Tippoo Sultan after the taking of Seringapatam, in which Sir David was the principal figure. This was literally one of the largest of Wilkie’s paintings, but not one of his best. It contains a score of life size figures, and shows the moment when the body of Tippoo is found where he fell, beneath a heap of slain. Above the corpse of the Indian potentate stands an heroic figure that of Baird surrounded by Highlanders. The scene is lighted by torches and lanterns. Here again Wilkie had Rembrandt in his mind, and doubtless thought to transfer some of the magic of the great Dutchman’s palette to his own canvas. But although the picture has merit, it falls far behind his earlier works both in composition and colouring. It is theatrical, and more suited for the decoration of a diorama than for the walls of a private dwelling. Yet Wilkie received for this work a larger sum than any of his previous pictures had brought him, with the exception of the portrait of George IV. at Holyrood. The price of that portrait was sixteen hundred guineas that of the Baird picture, fifteen hundred. It was shown in the Academy of 1839, and is now at Newbyth, the home of Sir David Baird, great-nephew of the subject of the painting.

Between the years 1829 and 184o Wilkie worked with all his old vigour, but none of his pictures of this period can compare individually with those of his earlier period. He now gave free vent to his passion for historical subjects, and to this time belong his Columbus, his Napoleon and Pius VII., his Escape of Queen Mary from Lochleven Castle, The Maid of Saragossa, The Em-press Josephine and the Sorceress of San Domingo, his Wellington on the Eve of Waterloo, and, for it has every right to be called an historical work, his well-known picture of the Queen’s first Council at Kensington Palace, which stands as the best work of his later manner. Through the engraving by Cousen this is one of Wilkie’s most widely known creations, and among the most interesting of the paintings illustrating that beloved monarch’s beneficent reign. Wilkie, who, as we have already seen, had been reinstated Painter in Ordinary to the Sovereign after the death of William IV., received several sittings from the youthful Queen for this picture. He thus writes of Her Majesty in his diary : “She is eminently beautiful, her features nicely formed, her skin smooth, her hair worn close to the face in a most simple way, glossy and clear-looking. Her manner, though trained to act the Sovereign, is yet simple and natural.” He also painted two other portraits of the Queen, both life size : one full length, which was given to Lady Normanby by Her Majesty ; the other, a half length, is now in the Art Gallery at Glasgow. In both pictures the Queen wears a diamond crown and her coronation robes. It was the writer’s good fortune to obtain the original sketch taken by Wilkie in water colours for this full length portrait of Her Majesty, reproduced in this work : it had belonged to the well known antiquary and col-lector David Laing, and is now in the National Portrait Gallery.

Wilkie, who had visited Ireland in 1835 for the first and only time, was much struck by the picturesqueness of the Irish peasantry and made many studies from them, which resulted in a picture he called The Peep o’ Day Boy, now in the National Gallery at Dublin, and another, A Smuggling Still at Work. In 1838 he painted a full-length portrait of Daniel O’Connell.

Whilst in Ireland Wilkie visited Miss Edgeworth at Edgeworthstown, and on his return to England expressed surprise that Ireland was so little known to English artists, full as that island is of character and individuality. It was in 1836 that the crowning honour of his life came to him, William IV. knighting him at St. James’s : in the following year he removed his Lares and Penates to Vicarage Place, Kensington, where he passed the last years of his life in London.

That winter he commenced work upon a canvas which he never completed; but to judge from the finely painted heads, which are elaborately finished, whilst the rest of the canvas is a blank, save for a pencil outline of the figures, this picture, which represented John Knox dispensing the Sacrament in Calder House, would have ranked beside that of the Queen’s first Council as the best of his second style. This unfinished painting was left as we now see it when the artist left England on what was to prove his last journey, and was bought after his death by the Scottish National Gallery, and it is one of its most interesting specimens of Wilkie’s art. The heads in this work are strikingly noble in feeling.

In the autumn of 1840 Sir David, accompanied by his friend William Woodburn, left England and, passing through Holland, stopped at Vienna, and thence went to Constantinople by the Danube. Whilst staying at the Ottoman capital Wilkie made some admirable sketches, and painted a portrait for the Queen of the young Sultan, afterwards doing one 0f Queen Victoria for that monarch.

War was then raging in Syria, and this forced Wilkie to remain longer than he had intended at Constantinople; but finally he was able to leave for Smyrna on 12th January, 1841, carrying with him a be-diamonded snuff box presented by the Sultan.

Wilkie’s object in taking this long journey was to visit the Holy Land, and, writing to his nephew from Alexandria four months later, he describes the reasons that led him to Palestine.

” Waghorn’s Hotel, Alexandria,

” 18th May, 1841.


“You will, no doubt, be surprised to hear from me from this place, but I have been making an extended tour to Jerusalem, and am now returning to England. In August last I left London with Mr. Woodburn we made the transit across Europe by the Rhine and the Danube to Constantinople. Here, however, we learnt there was but one slight affair to impede us, that war had broke out in Syria across the route we were going, and that the Holy Land must be transferred from the Pasha to the Sultan before we could stir a step on our journey. Waiting for this detained us in Constantinople for three months, but affairs becoming settled we again started, and you may believe the eagerness with which we first saw the snowy tops of Lebanon, and with what satisfaction, after entering from Joppa, we ascended the mountains of Judea and came in sight of Jerusalem.

” My object in this voyage was to see what has formed the scenes of so many pictures the scenes of so many subjects painted from Scripture, but which have never been seen by the painters who have delineated them, and you may conceive the impressions which must have arisen from walking the streets and lanes of the Holy City, in travelling by Bethlehem, visiting the Dead Sea, the Jordan and the plain of Jericho, tracing at every step and turn some event described by the inspired writers.

“In this peregrination one is necessarily struck by the fact that, though the great works produced by the art of painting have been in illustration of Scripture and profess to be representations of the people, the costumes, and scenes of Syria, yet it has been done almost entirely from imagination, and it now remains a question, when steamboat navigation affords so many facilities for people to visit these countries, whether a new style of Scripture subjects may not be required to correspond with our knowledge of these countries, with that view, there-fore, that our school of Protestant England may not be behind in such knowledge, if wanted, I have made this journey. If the travelling has been interrupted by many delays which war and the derangements of war have occasioned, I have this to console me, that while kept waiting in Constantinople I had the honour of painting two portraits of the Sultan, now gone to England, and while delayed here in Alexandria, waiting for the steamer, I have had the honour of being requested by His Highness Mehemet Ali to paint his portrait, which I now take to England to finish for His Highness.

” Mr. Woodburn and I hope to sail in two or three days by the ‘Oriental’ for England. I heard from Sophia on my journey, who stated that you had been noticed by Lord Auckland, Gov. Genl. I wish I could write to His Lordship. I wrote to Mr. Abel Smith a few days ago to describe what was most interesting in Jerusalem.

” Most faithfully and truly yours, “DAVID WILKIE”

Whether his visit to the Holy Land has been of any advantage to those artists who, since Wilkie’s pilgrimage to Palestine, have followed in his footsteps is much to be doubted : and it would seem that religious art is not to be revived even by the most painstaking and photo-graphic depiction of its shrines and holy places. Wilkie himself seems to have been most impressed by the unusually truthful rendering of the Jewish race by Rembrandt : but, had he reflected on the matter, it would probably have occurred to him that Rembrandt had no need to leave Amsterdam to find picturesque old Jews and Jewesses in Palestine, for then, as now, the Jews were probably almost as numerous in the city on the Amstel as in the Holy Land itself.

Wilkie took for his guide-book nothing save the Bible —that book may be said to be the guide through life of most of his countrymen. The travellers reached Jerusalem on the 27th of February—” the most interesting city in the world,” Wilkie calls it. Unlike many travellers, he does not seem to have been disappointed with the Holy Land, although he had such high beliefs in its influence on the mind and imagination ; indeed, he more than once expressed his gratitude at being able to see the sacred places connected with Scripture. Woodburn used to say afterwards that Wilkie was like a child at Jerusalem, ” believing everything told him.” After nearly two months in the Holy Land they started for Egypt, but after encountering a terrific gale at Jaffa were detained at Alexandria for three weeks. During this time of waiting, Wilkie used his brushes for the last time, painting the portrait of the famous Mehemet Ali mentioned in the letter to his nephew. But before the work was completed the Orient steamer in which they were to return to England arrived, and Wilkie did not live to finish it, as he intended, at home. His last letter to his sister was written on the 27th of May, and shows him as being in cheerful spirits ; but when the vessel reached Malta he became ill, it was supposed through eating fruit. He recovered, however, on leaving the island, and on the 31st of May appeared on deck in his usual health. But upon going to his cabin the following morning, Sir James Carnac found the painter lying upon the floor in a state of unconsciousness. Woodburn hurried below, only to find his friend dead. He records that as he took Wilkie’s right hand, the thought came to him involuntarily of all the work that hand, now lifeless clay, had accomplished.

Owing to the quarantine regulations the body could not be landed for burial at Gibraltar, near which place the vessel was steaming, and at half-past eight on the evening of the 1st of June, 1841, all that was mortal of the great painter was committed to the deep.

Among Turner’s paintings in the National Gallery is one which represents this funeral of Wilkie, and it is one of the most beautiful among many that are beautiful–a work of deep pathos, as was the title given it by the artist, ” Peace.” It is Wilkie’s finest monument.

A statue was voted to Wilkie at a meeting held in August, 1841, Sir Robert Peel being in the chair, and among many well-known friends of the painter who were present was the writer’s father, who, referring to Wilkie’s burial at sea, said : ” We may well say of him, as has been said of another illustrious man, ` The world is the tomb of distinguished merit.’ He raised his own monument in his own works. No artist has been more popular. From the highest in the land to the humblest mechanic, all have derived pleasure from the exercise of his genius.” The statue voted by this meeting was executed by Joseph, and stands in the National Gallery with the painter’s palette let into the pedestal.

That Wilkie has had an influence for good upon the art of his country few, we think, will deny. The engravings of his pictures by Barie, Raimbach and Cousen, among others, made him famous throughout the civilized world, and reflected honour on the British school of painting. In his native country Wilkie shares with his great contemporaries, Burns and Scott, the love of his countrymen : each was a master in his art, and rejoiced in illustrating by his genius all that was most typical and worth recording in their life and character.

We cannot conclude this sketch of Wilkie’s life better than by giving our readers the following tribute to his memory from the ” Recollections ” of his lifelong friend and brother Academician, C. R. Leslie :

” The recollections of all my intercourse with Wilkie and I knew him for about twenty years are altogether delightful. I had no reason ever to alter my opinion first formed of him, that he was a truly great artist, and a truly good man. The little peculiarities of his character, as they all arose from the best intentions, rather endeared him to his friends than other-wise. He was a modest man, and had no wish to attract attention by eccentricity, and indeed all his oddity, and he was in many things very odd, arose from an extreme desire to be exactly like other people. Naturally shy and reserved, he forced himself to talk. I can easily conceive, from what I knew of him, that he had a great repugnance to making speeches at dinners or public meetings, yet, knowing from the station he had acquired he must do such things, he made public speaking a study. He carried the same desire of being correct into lesser things, not from vanity, but from a respect to society, for he considered that genius did not give a man the right to be negligent in his manners, even in trifles. When quadrilles were introduced, Wilkie, who, like most other people of his rank, had danced reels and country dances, set himself in the most serious manner to study them. His mind was not a quick one, and I am told he drew ground-plans and elevations of the new dances to aid his memory to retain the lessons of his master. He was always ceremonious, but, as I have said, from modesty, and not from pride or affectation, for no man had less of either.”

Wilkie’s life was one of constant, earnest, honest work. His character was simple and unassuming, most kind, without a trace of what is not uncommon in the artistic temperament, envy, or any degree of jealous rivalry. The faults he had were more akin to virtues than to vices those of extreme thrift and carefulness, almost amounting to penuriousness yet he knew by hard experience, acquired in his youth of straitened circumstances, how hard it is to gain money, but how easy to spend it. As an artist he had great and original talent ; as a friend he was true and loyal ; and as a son and a brother he was most self sacrificing and devoted. In all respects David Wilkie was ” an honest man ” of whom all Scotchmen may be justly proud.