Sir David Wilkie – Notable Early Works

THE BLIND FIDDLER, painted by Wilkie in 1807, when he was only twenty-two years old, is in many ways as extraordinary a work of youthful genius as Paul Potter’s famous Young Bull at the Hague, painted by that artist when he was three and twenty. Fortunately the picture by Wilkie is now in the National Gallery, having been given to the nation by Sir George Beaumont, together with his small but admirably selected collection of masterpieces the earliest gift of such a kind from an individual. The picture is an excellent specimen of Wilkie’s first manner, which was his best, and by which his talent will always be remembered. It is in splendid condition, and has not, like so many of his later works, suffered from the megilp and asphaltum which he used to give depth and richness to his colouring, a process which, whilst it imparted -brilliancy to the painting, caused the whole surface to crack and peel a few years after, and in some cases to melt away.

Whilst painting The Blind Fiddler Wilkie had a Teniers probably lent him by Beaumont before him near his easel, and the tone of colour of his Fiddler smacks strongly of the Flemish master. But, although no master of technique greater than Teniers ever painted, that artist never gave so much luminosity to any of his pictures as did Wilkie in this work ; the actual workman-ship may recall the Dutch and Flemish masters of his admiration, but the expression of the faces the humour and merriment of some, the pathos of others is Wilkie’s alone. And it is by this work that Wilkie amongst the artists of the brush has been compared with Goldsmith amongst the artists of the pen. Had not Sir George Beaumont already given Wilkie Hogarth’s mahl stick on seeing The Village Politicians, as a fitting wearer of that painter’s mantle, he would assuredly have done so after seeing The Blind Fiddler.

It was in giving effect, and portraying such a scene as this of everyday life, that Wilkie gained the popularity that, with all the changes of fashion and feeling of nearly a century, makes his name still a household word and places him amongst the well-remembered of his country-men. Neither Brouwer nor Jan Steen ever put more action or life into their groups, and in The Village Politicians and The Blind Fiddler we find that the de-tails, the “still life,” to use that phrase, are painted with the skill of an Ostade or a Teniers. The pots and pans, the household utensils, the humble accessories of the cottage and the public house, are rendered with extraordinary skill and fidelity. But it is in the play of feature and in the vivid expression of action in both of these works that the genius of the painter is revealed. In the face of the Blind Fiddler there is a world of pathos, as he sits playing his best, with an anxious, hard-faced woman beside him, his wife presumably and the mother of the children, one of whom she holds upon her lap. The contrast between the toil-worn family and the prosperous tenants of the farm where the scene is laid is admirably shown. Sir George gave Wilkie double the sum he had commissioned for the picture, and bestowed it on the nation in 1826, shortly before his death. In looking at The Blind Fiddler one understands why Ruskin compares the art of Wilkie with that of Sir Walter Scott, ” because it touches passions which all feel, and expresses truths which we can recognize.”

Although it was badly hung The Blind Fiddler attracted as many sightseers when it was exhibited at the Academy as The Village Politicians had done, and it was now rightly thought by Wilkie’s friends that the trifling sums he charged for his work work over which he laboured for months together were altogether inadequate ; and, although one admires him for his innate modesty, he at this time certainly rated his talents too low. His friends, amongst whom Sir George Beaumont was the foremost, importuned him to alter his charges. They argued, justly, that he was now fairly launched on the high-road to fame, and that he could therefore command far higher prices than he had hitherto been asking for rare and, in some ways, consummate art-work. They advised him to double his terms at the very least.

Commissions now came quickly ; and thus, by painting only two pictures, Wilkie had established a reputation as one of the most original of the British artists of his time, and from his twenty-second year to the close of his life his career was most prosperous and only marred by ill-health.

Wilkie next tried his hand at painting history. A certain Mr. Alexander Davison was forming a series of paintings to illustrate scenes in English history, and commissioned Wilkie to paint that picturesque but apocryphal episode of King Alfred being reproved by the wife of the neatherd for neglecting the baking of her oat-cakes. The young artist threw himself with his accustomed energy into this new work ; he read and studied all that he could find relating to the times of the legend, and painted a picture which, if not amongst the most successful of his efforts at this time, is quite on the average of the best representations of history in the early years of the century. Perhaps the most noteworthy feature in this work is the figure of the youth on the left, seen in profile, into which he introduced his own portrait. Alfred was not exhibited, but Wilkie received one hundred and fifty guineas for it until then his highest remuneration. The picture was sold in 1890 for four hundred and thirty guineas. During this first sojourn in London Wilkie paid several visits to the country, being frequently a guest at Coleorton or Dun-mow, the homes of his kind old friend Sir George Beaumont. He also visited Lord and Lady Mulgrave at Mulgrave Castle, and the Whitbreads at Southill. In London he was often to be found in the picture galleries of Lord Grosvenor and Lord Stafford, the magnificent collection of the latter being then at Bridgewater House, on the site of the present Bridgewater House, where the greatest part of the famous Bridgewater Gallery, which formed a portion of the great Orléans collection of the Palais Royal, is still kept. Besides these two collections he was free to come and go as he pleased amongst those of Mr. Angerstein, Mr. Hope and Sir Francis Bourgeois noted connoisseurs and collectors.

In the May of 1807 Wilkie paid a short visit to Cults, returning from Edinburgh by sea. It was on his arrival, despite the unpleasantness of a rough voyage, and his being feverish and ill after general indisposition during his visit to Scotland, that he said that it was the happiest time of his life, and he had every reason to feel happy. The ” good old folks ” were justly proud of their ” golden-haired Davie,” who, having left them two short years be-fore, all unknown to the world, had returned to them famous, bringing his sheaves with him not so much in worldly substance as in the praise of those whose praise was best worth having. All the neighbourhood came to see him and to congratulate him and his parents, for all the countryside rejoiced with the worthy old minister of Cults and his good wife ; and amongst them Lord Leven and the Melvilles, noble friends in the best sense of the word, for they had helped and encouraged Wilkie when he was poor.

Although confined to his room by an attack of fever, Wilkie’s brain was not idle whilst he was at home, and it was then that the next big work was planned one of his most popular, The Rent Day. In October he returned to London, travelling as on the first occasion by sea. Besides being commissioned by Lord Mulgrave for The Rent Day, Wilkie had another commission from the Duke of Gloucester, and on some one remarking that it would be a mistake for him to accept too many orders for pictures, since he was not physically strong enough to carry them all out, the President of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West, said that ” Wilkie should accept as many commissions as were offered. Never in my life,” the President continued, “have I met with a young artist like Wilkie ; he may be young in years, but he is old in the expression of his art. He is already a great artist, so do not hesitate to offer him commissions and all the encouragement in your power. I have the most perfect confidence in his steadiness as well as in his abilities. I consider him an honour to his country.”

Whilst working at The Rent Day Wilkie modelled little figures in clay, which he set up in a miniature model of a room, to help in his treatment of light and shade ; we have referred to his using this modelling when a student at Edinburgh, and to the same custom having been adopted by Gainsborough.

In no way was the new work inferior to The Blind Fiddler, but the subject is less picturesque, and on that account perhaps had less popularity than the former picture. The different characters are admirably portrayed, the colouring is happy, and all the details are painted with the greatest skill. To Lord Mulgrave’s credit it may be recorded that he paid Wilkie three times the amount stipulated in the commission, although the higher amount was only one hundred and fifty guineas. It has since been sold for two thousand guineas.

When Ruskin wrote that Wilkie was an historical painter because he had painted the veritable men and things he saw, he based that opinion upon such paintings as The Rent Day and The Blind Fiddler, and not upon his later and so called historical works, such as the Escape of Queen Mary from Lochleven Castle, or John Knox Preaching.

The picture painted by Wilkie for the Duke of Gloucester represented the interior of a farmhouse, in which four yokels are playing cards. A mother and child watch the game, whilst a peasant leans over one of the players with a critical expression on his face. The Duke gave Wilkie one hundred guineas above the fifty guineas originally fixed as the price. This picture which was known as The Card Players, was the first of many painted by Wilkie for the royal family ; indeed, until his death a quarter of a century later, he was constantly employed to work for George IV., King William and Queen Victoria. The Card Players was followed by the painting of A Sick Lady visited by her Physician, a work upon which our painter bestowed an infinity of pains, and at which he toiled long and laboriously. Yet it cannot be placed amongst his best efforts, and the subject challenges comparison with the Dutch painters, by whom it has been more successfully treated. It shows a doctor feeling the pulse of a very sick-looking young lady, by whose side her anxious mother is seated, while the father, with an equally anxious countenance, stands near with one hand laid on an open Bible ; a little spaniel seems also to take a part in the concern of the parents of its mistress. The Sick Lady was bought by Lord Lansdowne, and we believe that it is still at Bowood.

Wilkie’s next most successful work was The Cut Finger, which is one of his best known pictures, owing to the number of engravings and reproductions that were taken from it. Although the young painter now appeared to be most successful, he was actually at this time in very straitened circumstances, as is shown in a letter written to his brother in India shortly after his return from his visit to Scotland.

” You will very naturally conclude,” he says, “from the accounts you have most likely heard of any fame that I have acquired, that I must be rapidly accumulating a fortune. It is, however, I am sorry to say, very far from being the case. What I have received since I commenced my career has been but barely sufficient to support me, and I do not live extravagantly either. Indeed, my present situation is the most singular that can be well imagined. I believe I do not exaggerate when I say that I have at least forty pictures bespoke, and some by the highest people in the land ; yet, after all, I have seldom got anything for my pictures that I have painted.”

One fears that this kind of situation is not uncommon in the world of art and artists. Probably Wilkie again found that portrait-painting was more remunerative than the long labour he devoted to his genre subjects, and we now hear of his having many sitters, and amongst them Lady Lansdowne. Wilkie complains that the ladies were seldom satisfied with their likenesses : “and he would observe,” writes Allan Cunningham, with- a smile, that Lawrence excelled all by studying to please in the wide dominion of flattery.”

Wilkie began to keep a journal on the 1st of January, 1809 ; but, beyond noting the progress of his pictures, he jotted down very little that was interesting. Here and there, however, one comes across such an entry as this, when one evening he meets “the too-celebrated Lady Hamilton; she had with her a girl supposed to be the daughter of Lord Nelson, a creature of great sweetness. Lady Hamilton, knowing me by name, called me, and said that her daughter had the finest taste imaginable, and that she excelled in graceful attitudes. She then made her stand in the middle of the room with a piece of drapery, and throw herself into a number of those graceful postures for which her ladyship in her prime was so distinguished. She concluded by asking me if I did not think her like her father. I said I had never seen that eminent person. Lady Hamilton is lusty, and tall, and of fascinating manner, but her features are bold and masculine. Her daughter’s name is Horatia Hamilton.”

In the month of April of that year Wilkie met Sir Walter Scott at a dinner given by Murray the publisher. ” He seems,” writes the young painter, ” to possess a very rich mind, is very communicative of the all but universal knowledge he has acquired ; he talked principally about ancient Highlanders under the feudal system, and enriched his observations with interesting anecdotes ; he repeated some of Campbell’s poem, Lochiel’s Warning.”

During the same summer Wilkie paid some visits in Devonshire with his friend Haydon. They went by sea to Plymouth, where they visited Haydon’s family, as well as the Eastlakes and the Northcotes ; they made a joint pilgrimage to Sir Joshua Reynolds’s birthplace at Plympton, and they saw Lord Morley’s collection of pictures at Saltram. Wilkie rode to the top of Mount Edgcumbe, whence he saw a sunset, and explored Tavistock, the birthplace of Sir Francis Drake, whilst upon a visit to Sir Richard Elford, where too he was deeply interested in his host’s reminiscences of Sir Joshua; Burke, Goldsmith, Garrick and Dr. Johnson, all of whom the worthy old baronet had known. Altogether Wilkie appears to have spent a pleasant month in Devonshire, and before returning to his work in London he visited the cathedrals of Exeter and Wells and the ruins at Glastonbury. Of Bath he writes that, although not so remarkable in its situation as Edinburgh, ” the buildings are better in architecture and better built.” Before resuming work he paid the Beaumonts a visit at Coleorton, a visit of which Haydon writes as follows :

” We dined with the Claude and the Rembrandt before us, and breakfasted with the Rubens landscape ; and did nothing morn, and noon, and night, but think of painting, talk of painting, dream of painting, and wake to paint again. We lingered on the stairs in going up to bed, and studied the effect of the candlelight upon each other : considered how the shadows could be best got as clear as they looked. Sometimes Sir George made Wilkie stand with the light in the proper direction, and he and I studied the colour ; sometimes he held the candle himself and made Wilkie join me : at another time he would say : ‘Stop where you are ; come here, Wilkie. Asphaltum, thinly glazed over on a cool preparation, I think would do.’ Alas ! it was this very use and abuse of asphaltum that has been the cause of the ruin of so many of Wilkie’s works.”