Sir David Wilkie – Scottish Honours

WILKIE next finished a painting commissioned by Lord Stafford entitled The Breakfast, of which he writes in the month of April, 1817 : ” I think it will make an impression, but I almost grudge the long time it has taken me.” This admirable painting is now at Trentham, and is one of the finest works of the British school that my grandfather, then Marquis of Stafford and afterwards first Duke of Sutherland, obtained, although he was a great buyer of modern as well as of old pictures. Nothing could be happier in treatment than the small body of actors in this scene of domestic everyday life, into which Wilkie again introduced the portrait of his mother. Lord Stafford paid Wilkie four hundred guineas for The Breakfast. It is but little known, as it was only engraved on a small scale, and has not, to my knowledge, ever been exhibited. Happily, unlike so many of Wilkie’s later works, it has not suffered from asphaltum or other varnish, and appears as fresh as when first painted. It is an admirable specimen of the artist’s power in extracting charm from a commonplace subject simply a man and a woman and a younger man sitting at a breakfast table, with a maid pouring out tea.

Whilst occupied with this picture and the Chelsea Pensioners, Wilkie was also at work on a large canvas for the Prince Regent, The Scottish Wedding, or, as it is often called, The Penny Wedding.

Wilkie was again in Scotland in the summer of 1817. This time he had no home to go to, but from his constant letters to his mother and his sister it seems that he paid several visits, one of the most interesting being to the celebrated philosopher Dugald Stewart, who was then living at Kinneill House, which belonged to the Duke of Hamilton, and had the glamour of possessing a ghost, that of Lady Lilburne. From Glasgow, which, strange to say, reminded the artist of Antwerp and Ghent, Wilkie visited Hamilton Palace to see its paintings. Then he went to Inverary, but, oddly enough, makes no mention of the Gainsboroughs there. Early in August he had an invitation to Abbotsford.

“I cannot, nowadays,” Sir Walter Scott wrote to him, “pre-tend to point out any good Highland originals, to be rendered immortal on your canvas, for the old Forty-Five men, of whom I knew many in the days of yore, are now gathered to their fathers ; but I am sure you will be gratified by the scenery which time cannot make any impression upon.”

Wilkie paid this visit in October. Sir Adam Ferguson (then Captain Ferguson) was also a guest, and it was for him that Wilkie painted his famous Abbotsford group.

” I have been making a little group while here,” he writes to his sister on October 30th, “of Mr. Scott, Mrs. Scott, and all the family, with Captain Ferguson, and some other characters. … I have got a good way on with the picture; the Misses Scott are dressed as country girls, with pails, as if they had come from milking; Mr. Scott as telling a story; and in one corner I have put in a great dog of the Highland breed, a present to Mr. Scott from the Laird of Glengarry. In the background the top of the Cowdenknowes, the Tweed and Melrose (as seen from a hill close by), are to be introduced.”

There is a much more detailed as well as humorous account of this little group of the great Sir Walter Scott with his family and friends gathered about him, written by himself.

” The idea,” Sir Walter writes, “which our inimitable Wilkie adopted was to represent our family group in the garb of south-country peasants supposed to be concocting a merry-making. The place is the terrace near Kayside, commanding an extensive view towards the Eildon Hills. The sitting figure, in the dress of a miller, represents Sir W. Scott, author of a few score of volumes, and proprietor of Abbotsford in the county of Roxburgh. In the front, and representing a country wag somewhat addicted to preaching, stands Sir Adam Ferguson, Knight, Keeper of the Regalia of Scotland. In the background is a very handsome old man, upwards of eighty-four years old at the time, painted in his own character as a shepherd. He also belonged to the numerous clan of Scott. Of the three female figures the eldest is the late regretted mother of the family represented; the young person most forward in the group is Miss Sophia Charlotte Scott, now Mrs. John Gibson Lockhart ; and the other is her sister Miss Anne Scott. Both are represented as ewe-milkers, with their ‘ leglins’ or milk-pails. On the left hand of the shepherd, the young man holding the fowling-piece is the eldest son of Sir Walter, now captain in the King’s Hussars. The boy is the youngest of the family, Charles Scott, now of Brazenose College, Oxford. The two dogs were distinguished favourites of the family. The large one was a staghound of the old Highland breed, named Maida, and one of the handsomest dogs that could be found. It was a present to me from the Chief of Glengarry, and was highly prized both on account of her beauty, her fidelity, and the great rarity of her breed. The other is a little Highland terrier called Oarisk (Goblin), of a particular kind bred in Kintail. It was a present from the Honourable Mrs. Stuart Mackenzie, and is a valuable specimen of a race which is now also scarce.”

One regrets that Wilkie portrayed Scott and his family travestied as peasants, and not in their everyday dress. The picture was exhibited in 1818, but was not engraved until 1837, when R. Grover made an admirable plate from it, and W. Greatbach another for the ” Wilkie Gallery.” Purchased by the nation in 1895, it is now amongst the most valued works in the National Gallery of Scotland, where it hangs in tolerable condition, brilliant in colour, and without the cracks that blemish so many of Wilkie’s later paintings. The colouring of the faces, however, appears to have faded, and unfortunately this is especially noticeable in the face of the great novelist.

Wilkie had a most pleasant visit at Abbotsford, and his letters to his sister gave interesting pictures of Sir Walter and his family.

” I have never been in any place,” he writes, ” where there is so much real good humour and merriment. There is nothing but amusement from morning till night; and if Mr. Scott is really writing ‘Rob Roy,’ it must be while we are sleeping. He is either out planting trees, superintending the masons or erecting fences, the whole of the day. He goes frequently out hunting, and this morning there was a whole cavalcade of us out with Mr. and Miss Scott, hunting hard.”

At that time it was not known whether Scott was the author of the Waverley Novels or not, and Wilkie tells his sister that the family are “equally in the dark as to the authorship.

One day Wilkie was taken by the poet Laidlaw, who was also manager of the Abbotsford estate, to visit Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, at Yarrow. When they arrived at Hogg’s cottage, he asked Laidlaw whether Wilkie was ” no the great Mr. Wilkie,” and, receiving an affirmative answer, he seized the painter’s hand, saying, ” I cannot tell you how proud I am to see you in my house, and how glad I am to see you are so young a man.” When this was repeated to Scott he said that it was the finest compliment that had ever been paid to man.

Immediately upon his return to Kensington Wilkie renewed his labours upon The Penny Wedding, for which he had studied and sketched whilst in Scotland, and which was now to be completed. The singular custom, which until the early years of the nineteenth century obtained at country weddings in Scotland, called ” Penny Weddings,” had been sung by the poet King James, and, nearer to our own time, by Allan Ramsay. It originated in the guests at these weddings having to pay a penny or to bring some small gift of food or drink towards defraying the wants of the donor of the festival. Wilkie’s well known painting, now in the royal collection, and familiar far and wide by its many admirable engravings, represents the interior of a barn converted into a ballroom. The festival is at its merriest ; the famous fiddler, Neil Gow, is playing his best, assisted by another musician ; the wedding guests are dancing gaily to their strains ; the bride is being led out by the bridegroom, other visitors looking on ; whilst in the background a table is spread with supper. Wilkie put his whole strength into this picture, and the subject was one peculiarly suited to his pencil. The Penny Wedding was in the Academy of 1819, and for it the artist received four hundred guineas. It was followed by Reading the Will, which, although powerful in painting, is in our judgment inferior to its immediate predecessor : it is somewhat theatrical in treatment, and was certainly not so congenial a subject to the talent of the painter as the merry-making of the Scottish marriage. George IV. was anxious to add Reading the Will to his other works by Wilkie, but it had already been bespoken for the King of Bavaria. King George wished to have the original, suggesting that a duplicate should go to the Bavarian monarch ; but, despite much negotiation, the picture went to Munich as originally arranged, Wilkie receiving a hundred guineas more than he had asked for it. The painting at once found a place amongst the king’s favourite pictures, being hung in his bedroom. After his death, however, it was sold, and is now in the Picture Gallery at Munich, having realized £,1,200 in place of the four hundred guineas Wilkie received.

Among less important works which Wilkie painted at this period were The Death of Sir Philip Sidney, The Whisky Still, and The China Menders ; yet in spite of so much work he found time to go to Paris in 1821, and to Scotland in the following autumn, when George IV. paid his first and last visit to the northern kingdom. Wilkie, who had the artists Geddes and Collins for travelling companions, went on this occasion to Edinburgh by land. He had two objects in taking this journey, one being to paint the King’s entry into Edinburgh, and the other to make studies and to collect material for an historical painting which for some time had held his fancy a picture of John Knox preaching. He had already thought out the work, and took a preliminary sketch to show Sir Walter Scott, and to ask his advice thereon. ” Auld Reekie ” was in a state of frenzied excitement over the arrival of King George, and Sir Walter was the most loyal of the loyal in spite of his Jacobite tendencies. We hear of him at a great dinner at which Wilkie and his friends were present, singing a song he had written himself in honour of the King’s visit, called ” Carle, now the King ‘s come,” at the end of which all the guests rose, and joining hands danced round the dinner table. ” It was enough,” writes Collins ” to have brought back to earth the apparition of John Knox himself.”

Wilkie was made much of whilst in Edinburgh. He was present when the King knighted Sir Henry Raeburn, Scotland’s greatest portrait-painter, and was presented to the monarch, who was dressed in full Highland costume, and whom, later on, Wilkie had to paint life-size in this glory of kilt and sporran. The young artist was complimented and flattered by the Lord High Commissioner, and wore what must have looked strange, even in that time of extravagant dress, ” a sky-blue coat.”

Wilkie selected as the subject of the picture he was commissioned to paint by George IV. of his entry into Edinburgh the moment when the King received the keys of Holyrood from the Duke of Hamilton, and although it took eight years to complete, being exhibited at the Academy only a few weeks before the death of the monarch it represented, it is one of the artist’s greatest failures. But his sympathies did not lie in this direction, and he seems to have disliked the work from the first ; the most interesting portrait in the picture, amongst a crowd of courtiers and royal flunkeys, is that of Sir Walter Scott. Whilst Wilkie was labouring over this royal picture, Sir Walter again invited him to stay at Abbotsford (in 1824), and on this occasion he painted a separate portrait of his host which belonged to Sir William Knighton : although this was considered to be a good likeness, it cannot rank among the great portraits of the poet. It was engraved by E. Smith in 1831.

On Sir Henry Raeburn’s death in 1823 Wilkie received his first honour, being appointed his successor as Limner to the King in Scotland, a barren distinction, but one peculiarly acceptable to a Scottish artist. He exhibited his Parish Beadle in that year’s Academy : it is an unpleasing subject, and was intended to be so, and may have given Dickens his well-known dislike for Bumbledom, its petty tyrannies and barbarity. The picture, which is so well known from engravings that it is almost unnecessary to describe it, represents a brutal-looking beadle leading a family of Savoyards to the lock up, a poor performing monkey being one of the victims of the arbitrary Jack-in-office. In the Academy catalogue The Parish Beadle had a quotation from Burns’s ” Justice of the Peace ” for its motto : ” And as an officer giveth sufficient notice of what he is, when he saith to the party, I arrest you in the King’s name,’ and in such case the party at their peril ought to obey him.”

Before this picture was finished the greatest sorrow that could befall Wilkie came upon him. His mother, whom he loved better than all else on earth, died somewhat suddenly, and, although he hurried back from Scotland immediately upon hearing of her dangerous illness, he unfortunately arrived a day too late. This great loss seemed to be the signal for other sorrows, which came upon him ” in battalions.” His brother James had broken down in health in Canada, and dying-shortly afterwards left a widow and children : and his elder brother John died in India, leaving a son named David, who lived to become a distinguished soldier in the Indian army.

It is not to be wondered at that, with all this accumulation of sorrow and bereavement, Wilkie’s health again broke down, and that he was ordered a thorough rest, being advised by his doctor not only to give up his work, but to take complete change of air and surroundings.