Sir David Wilkie – Switzerland, Italy And Spain

WILKIE first tried a visit to Cheltenham in the spring of that year (1825), but the place seemed to benefit him but little. His sorrows were too recent for anything but a radical change to bring him out of the depression into which he had sunk : he is said to have compared the state of his feelings at this time with a long succession of crows flying at first singly or in pairs, but then coming in companies and darkening the sky till all was obscure. It was now found expedient that he should make a Continental tour, and, accompanied by the American painter Newton, and a cousin, David Lister, a young medico who had studied at the University of Edinburgh, he set out. They passed some time in Paris, where Lawrence was then engaged in painting the portraits of Kings, Princes and Premiers for his royal master. Sir Thomas, who seems to have had a genuine liking for Wilkie, endeavoured to persuade him to re-main in Paris ; but the Scotch artist was then too restless and miserable to remain long in one place, and in September he and his companions went to Italy, traversing Switzerland on the way.

Wilkie was delighted with Geneva and its glorious surroundings of lake and mountain. They entered Italy by the Simplon at the beginning of October, and Wilkie wrote enthusiastically of that wreck of a fresco, Leonardo’s Last Supper at Milan ; thence they made their way southwards by Genoa and Pisa to Florence, where they were joined by the Royal Academicians, Phillips and Hilton: in November they reached Rome.

Neither sorrow nor sickness could damp Wilkie’s delight when he found himself standing within the walls of the Eternal City, although he was at first somewhat disgusted with the accommodation then available for travellers in most Italian cities.

” If, he writes, ” you are satisfied with the same inns and the same accommodation, you can live as cheaply at home as here. Rooms with coarse brick floors, shattered windows, such as you would not tolerate even in a workhouse, gain nothing by arabesque and fresco ceilings : and if this were on the con-fines of Norway or Poland, allowance might be made for it ; but in boasted Italy, the ancient mistress of arts, it shows only the degeneracy of her present people.”

Few of Wilkie’s criticisms on art are of much novelty or value. Indeed he had no sympathy with the early Italian school, which was, he writes to Haydon, ” scarcely better than the Chinese or Hindoo.” But he admired the ” mighty men,” as he calls Raphael and Michelangelo, and of these he writes to Collins that the purest guidance worthy of the true artist

” is to be found in the works of these masters, who revived and improved the art, and those who ultimately brought it to perfection. These seem alone, whatever their talent was, to have addressed themselves to the common sense of mankind. They have indeed this high quality, that the subject is upper most, and they have more excellences addressed to the unlearned observers, than any work I know of. When in the freshness of their first existence, they must have been most attractive to the common people, which, I doubt, is more than could have been said for Titian or Rubens.”

Later he again writes to Collins :

“After seeing all the fine pictures in France, Italy and Germany, one must come to the conclusion that colour, if not the first, is at least an essential quality in painting. No master has as yet maintained his ground beyond his own time without it. But in oil painting it is richness and depth alone that can do justice to the material.”

That Wilkie was deeply influenced by the paintings he studied in Rome is evident from what he has written above. ” Italy,” said Haydon, alluding to Wilkie’s change of style and manner of painting, ” Italy was Wilkie’s ruin.” He certainly never again painted any-thing equal to his work between 18r0 and 1825 after his return from the Peninsula, but turned to historical subjects, in which he endeavoured to combine the colouring of Rembrandt and Velasquez, and in which he conspicuously failed.

Whilst he was in Rome Wilkie heard the news of the failure of his printsellers, Hurst and Robinson, a failure which entailed heavy loss to himself. Writing to his brother on the news of this fresh disaster, he says : ” In all these difficulties I feel no want of resource in my own mind. With anything like returning health I can contest the whole of them inch by inch.” One is reminded in reading these words of the fortitude and splendid energy with which Wilkie’s great fellow countryman, Walter Scott, met his far larger and more serious losses through no fault of his own.

From Rome Wilkie went to Naples, visiting all that was worth seeing in that neighbourhood, climbing up Vesuvius, and writing a note to Chantrey the sculptor dated from its summit. Returning to Rome in March of the year 1826, he heard of Constable’s bankruptcy ” and almost ruin of Scott.” ” Of all the sufferers,” writes Wilkie, ” Sir Walter Scott excites the greatest sympathy ; and he refers to a letter he had received from Sir Walter, in which the latter expressed his surprise that he could hear of his loss with so much philosophy, ” that having his dog, his gun, and his book left, few of his comforts would be diminished, and he was only now annoyed by the sympathy of his friends.”

After passing a month at Venice, whence he wrote that he considered Titian’s Peter Martyr as that master’s greatest work, ” for grandeur, poetical feeling, and deep-toned colour,” and ” without doubt a master-work of art,” Wilkie travelled to Munich by way of Innsbruck. At the Bavarian capital he was delighted to see his own picture, Reading the Will. The King of Bavaria who had bought it was dead ; but, as we have already said, it was secured by the nation after his demise. Wilkie thought that it held its own with the works of the great Dutch masters which hung beside it. Count Richberg, the Royal Chamberlain, added to the pleasant impression of his visit by telling him how pleased his master, the late king, would have been to have seen him.

The galleries of Dresden disappointed our artist, and from there, in order to benefit his health by the medicinal waters, he visited both Toplitz and Carlsbad, meeting Sir James Clark at the former place, who advised him to spend another winter in the South.

Oddly enough, notwithstanding his own reputation, he found that, wherever he went in Germany, his friendship with Sir Walter Scott served as an ” Open Sesame,” and, writing to his sister, he says that the Waverley Novels were as familiar to German as to English readers.

The following December saw him once more in Rome, he having passed through Vienna on the road, where he dined with Prince Metternich, whom he thought like ” a mixture of the late Lord Castlereagh and the Duke of Wellington,” and who told him that his pictures were well known to him by their engravings.

The great event of his second visit to Rome was the dinner given in his honour by Scottish artists and amateurs, with the Duke of Hamilton in the chair. ” It was,” writes Wilkie, ” the most splendid entertainment I was ever present at.” Thorwaldsen and the Italian sculptors, Carnuccino of Rome and Benvenuto of Florence, were amongst those assembled to fête him. But following close on this mark of appreciation of his compatriots came the news of the death of Sir George Beaumont.

This was an especially heavy loss to Wilkie, whose unvaryingly helpful friend Sir George had been ever since his arrival in London, and whose paternal affection for the young painter we have alluded to.

In the month of April, however, Wilkie began to give more cheerful news of himself, saying that he had again taken up his painting. “This is an immense thing for me ; and however feeble and slow, I am again enabled to say, ‘ Anch’ io sono pittore.’” His health, both bodily and mental, was mending, and he now carried out his long-thought-of desire to see Spain. His doctors had ordered him to remain out of England for three years ; two of these he had passed in Italy and Germany, and he now determined to spend the remainder of his holiday in the Peninsula. The June of that year saw him buying Vandykes at Genoa for Sir Robert Peel ; but these pictures, once the glory of Drayton, are now scattered far and wide. In the autumn he was at Montpelier, where he made the acquaintance of the last husband (she had three) of the Countess of Albany, the wife of the Young Pretender. ” This Monsieur Fabre,” Wilkie writes in a letter to his sister, “has made a collection of pictures ; and, having no children, has left them, like my good friend Sir George Beaumont, to his country to his native town of Montpelier.”

A propos of this allusion of Wilkie’s, all those who appreciate art in England should remember with gratitude that, through the gift to the nation of his small but exquisite collection of pictures, the National Gallery is deeply indebted to Sir George Beaumont.

Spain and its great artists at the time Wilkie visited the Iberian Peninsula, were known to but few Englishmen, of whom Beckford was the most interesting and the most appreciative. Velasquez and Murillo were names only to most of our countrymen, and it was not until the Duke of Wellington brought back some examples of those two great geniuses from his wars that any of their works had been seen in any London collection. These Wilkie had seen at Apsley House ; their beauty and mastery had made him long to see more of their productions in their own country.

Wilkie arrived at St. Jean de Luz on October 1st, 1827, and crossing the Bidassoa he reached Madrid three days later. At his hotel he met Washington Irving, an old acquaintance, and Lord Mahon the historian ; but he devoted his time chiefly to the galleries of Madrid, the Escurial, and to Toledo. Writing to Sir Thomas Lawrence, Wilkie draws some interesting comparisons between the styles of Murillo and Velasquez, which show how closely he must have studied them. ” These two great painters,” he says, ” are remarkable for having lived at the same time, in the same school, painted from the same people, and of the same age, and yet to have formed two styles so different and opposite, that the most unlearned can scarcely mistake them Murillo being all softness, while Velasquez is all sparkle and vivacity.” Wilkie goes on to say that on seeing some of Velasquez’s paintings he is reminded of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Romney and Raeburn. That his close study of the old masters in Italy and Spain affected his work and not to its benefit, according to our point of view he himself confesses. I have now,” he says, ” from the study of the old Masters, adopted a bolder and, I think, a more effective style ; and one result is rapidity.” Haydon, as we have already quoted, declared that Italy was Wilkie’s ruin ; and in the main he was right, for after this long sojourn in an atmosphere of old masters his succeeding pictures lacked not only the spontaneity, freshness and humanity of invention which had characterized his early work, but his colouring became more sombre, if richer, which was not always an advantage to the subjects he depicted. Besides this absolute change of style, he increased his use of mediums and varnish to give Rembrandtesque depth and tone to his work, with the result that few of his later pictures have stood the test of time.

Whilst he was in Spain Wilkie seems to have recovered all his old zest and industry in his work, for in March, 1828, he writes to a friend telling him that he has been painting three scenes from Spanish life, all connected with the ” so called War of Independence,” by which he meant the great duel in the Peninsula between the French and English in 1812. These particular paintings were afterwards bought by George IV.

On the eve of his departure at the end of this month Wilkie writes to his sister from Madrid that his labours had been considerably appreciated, or rather, as he himself puts it, ” my labours, such as they are, have not, I assure you, been viewed here with indifference,” and he gives a long list of the Spanish grandees who had visited his studio in their capital. Before finally quitting Spain he visited Seville in order to study its Murillos in the Capucin Monastery and in the hospital of the Caridade, and then, steeped in the atmosphere of the pictures of the past, with his ideas of painting revolutionized by his three years’ study, and with, it must be admitted, his former inimitable touch of life and humour sadly impaired, if not altogether gone, Wilkie returned to his home in Kensington.

The faithful Haydon at once noted the change. He met Wilkie at Lord Grosvenor’s shortly after his return, and describes him as being ” thinner and more nervous than ever. His keen and bushy brow looked irritable, eager, nervous, and full of genius.” Haydon sounds the note of change that must have struck Wilkie keenly after his three years’ absence from his friends. ” How interesting it was to meet him at Lord Grosvenor’s, where we had assembled these twenty years under every variety of fortune,” he says. ” Poor Sir George is gone, who used to form one of the group Wilkie, Sequier, Jackson and I are left.”

It is a month later that Haydon writes in his invaluable diary of the change these three years of travel had wrought in his friend’s views of his work. Writing of Wilkie showing him some of his Spanish pictures, he says : ” Now it is all Spanish and Italian art. He thinks nothing of his earlier oil beautiful efforts his Rent Day, his Fiddler, his Politicians ‘they are not carried far enough,” as if anything in point of expression and story was ever carried farther.

George IV. was always a generous patron of Wilkie, and on seeing some of his principal Spanish pictures, The Council of War, The Guerilla’s Departure, The Defence of Saragossa and The Guerilla’s Return, bought them immediately and ordered others. But the royal appreciation of this new phase of the painter’s work was not shared by the critics or the general public. The Academy Exhibition of 1829 showed them a Wilkie who was unknown to them. He exhibited eight pictures, three of these being Spanish subjects, four Italian, and the eighth his portrait of Lord Kellie, now in the Town Hall at Cupar. Even his arch admirer, Haydon, found that Lord Kellie’s portrait ” looked dark in the flesh,” and records that the Spanish and Italian pictures did not make the impression Wilkie had anticipated, adding ” Indeed, they are so altered in style the public cannot make them out.”

This sentence explains the decrease of that wide popularity which Wilkie had hitherto enjoyed with every class, a decrease which began with this exhibition of 1829 and continued until his death. Hitherto his pictures had appealed to the ignorant in art as well as to the learned-to the one by their naturalness of subject, their humour, pathos and delicate perception of the salient beauties and interests of everyday life, to the other by their richness in colouring, their fidelity of detail, and their mastery of the brush. But now this was altered. Those to whom his pictures had been the attraction of each year’s Academy, to whom their engravings had become treasured possessions, could not understand his fancifully-dressed historical personages with their strange similitude of expression and the sombre brown that pervaded their colouring. Sorrow and ill health may have had something to do with this change in Wilkie’s inspiration, but the public missed the rustic gaiety of The Penny Wedding, the hidden jest in The Letter of Introduction, the touch of human nature in the Chelsea Pensioners, and looked with increasing coldness upon its former favourite’s plunges into history with a wardrobe for his models of his own designing.

Meanwhile Wilkie had been asked by Sir Walter Scott to help in illustrating the new edition of the Waverley Novels. ” Wilkie behaved,” the novelist writes later, ” in the kindest way considering his very bad health, in agreeing to work for me at all, and I will treat him with due delicacy, and not wound his feelings by rejecting what he has given in such kindness.” This refers to the editor, Heath, having objected to the portrait of Sir Walter painted by Wilkie when George IV. visited Edinburgh, and consequently not wishing it to appear in the new edition of the novels. Wilkie had written to Sir Walter on receiving the invitation to do some work for him as follows :

“The Terrace, Kensington, Jan., 1829.


” I pass over all these disastrous events that have arrived to us both since our last, as you justly call it, melancholy parting, to assure you how delighted I shall be if I can in the most inconsiderable degree assist in the illustration of the great work, which we all hope may lighten or remove that load of trouble with which your noble spirit is at this time beset; considering it as only repaying a debt of obligation which you yourself have laid upon me, when, with an unseen hand in the ‘Antiquary,’ you took me up and claimed me, the humble painter of domestic sorrow, as your countryman.”

Among other designs executed by Wilkie for this edition of Scott’s novels, that of Peveril in Newgate is perhaps the best.

Reference has been made more than once in this memoir to Wilkie’s pernicious use of a varnish made up of megilp and asphaltum, and upon this obstinacy Haydon prophesied very truly in this same year (1829). ” Wilkie,” he writes, ” was full of wax, and Lord knows what what a reckless thing is the human mind ! His first pictures will stand for ever, and so will mine, and now he has almost tempted me to quack as well as himself, with his wax and megilp.” Megilp and asphaltum were indeed dangerous enough, but to mix wax with the varnish could have only one result the absolute ruin of the oil surface beneath ; consequently, few of Wilkie’s pictures painted after 1825 are anything but wrecks, covered with seams and cracks, and in many cases looking as if they had been partially roasted at a fire. One can clearly see that Wilkie’s constant cry for “depth of tone ” after his return from his three years’ travel was caused by his admiration for these qualities in the pictures by the greater masters in Italy and Spain. But the rich and mellow tones of Velasquez, Murillo and Titian are due as much to the passage of the centuries as to any medium employed by the artists ; and Wilkie, in thus attempting to produce the same effect, was actually violating the canons of his art by using adventitious aids to convey a density of colouring which his brush and palette alone should rightly have supplied. It was a touch of charlatanism of quackery, as Haydon insinuates so unworthy of his undoubted genius, that it can only be explained by the surmise that his engrossing admiration for his great Italian and Spanish predecessors had outrun his earlier aspirations and beliefs, which had formed the topic of so many delightful conversations between Sir George Beaumont, Haydon and himself. The Wilkie who had talked of the density or opaqueness of the shadow cast by a candle held by his friend or himself on the staircase at Coleorton would never have relied upon the theatrical help of megilp, asphaltum and wax, to produce that density or opaqueness upon his canvas. Unknown to Wilkie, carried away by the “rapidity ” of this fatal method of giving ” depth and tone ” by a varnish, the death of Sir George was a double loss : that unerring connoisseur would have pointed out the fallacy of his friend’s new craze, and it is probable that Wilkie would have listened to him with a greater patience than he did to Haydon, his brother brush. Happily for us and for his fame, it is only the lesser of Wilkie’s works that he condemned to early decay by his blind infatuation for the instant effect that time alone can give.