Sir David Wilkie

BORN 1785 DIED 1841


SIR DAVID WILKIE, son of David Wilkie and his third wife, Isabella Lister, was born on November 18, 1785, at Cults, a small village on the banks of Eden Water in the county of Fife, Scotland, where his father was settled as minister of the Presbyterian church. The parish of Cults was poor and the minister’s salary, at no time exceeding £100 a year, barely sufficed for the support of his family of five children—four sons and a daughter. It was therefore amidst the humblest surroundings that David’s early years were passed. Almost from babyhood he showed a fondness for drawing. In later life he used to say that he “could draw before he could read, and paint before he could spell,” and numerous stories are told of the way in which “wee sunny-haired Davie” covered the bare walls of his nursery in the manse with rude sketches made with a burnt stick or a bit of chalk.

When six years old he was sent to the village school at Pitlessie, about a mile from home. From all accounts he spent his time there in drawing portraits of the other boys, which, as his reputation with his comrades increased, he would barter for marbles, pencils, or pieces of chalk.

At twelve he was removed from Pitlessie school to one at Kettle, two miles farther up the river Eden. The master there, a Dr. Strachan, used to declare that David, though always quiet and demure, was “the most singular scholar he ever attempted to teach, with an eye and an ear for all the idle mischief that was at hand.” Slates, benches, and walls were covered with his sketches. When his head was supposed to be down over his task, he was drawing upon the margin of his book likenesses of his fellow-pupils.

Even in the “kirk” his irrepressible pencil did not rest, and while his father preached from the pulpit the boy’s eyes, wandering over the cold, bare little building with its heavy pews and clumsy gallery, would be struck by some worthy member of the congregation, and in a moment he was intently sketching his unconscious model on the fly-leaf of Bible or psalm-book. Once, yielding to temptation, he even took the minister himself for his subject, drawing his portrait with a piece of soft charcoal on the bald head of the venerable miller of Pitlessie, David’s maternal grandfather, as the latter was sunk in slumber.

After eighteen months’ schooling at Kettle the boy was sent for a short time to the Academy at Cupar, where he remained until he was fourteen. There he was taught drawing and dancing by a “wandering professor,” and there, too, he learned to play the fiddle.

In November, 1799, the minister of Cults having given a reluctant consent to his son’s devoting himself in earnest to the study of art, David, accompanied by his father, went to Edinburgh with a letter of introduction from the Earl of Leven to Mr. George Thomson, secretary of the Trustees’ Academy of Design. He presented himself as a candidate for admission to that institution, but the sketches that he submitted were not deemed good enough to enable him to enter, and it was only through the intervention of Lord Leven that the doors of the Academy were opened to him.

Ensconced in an attic room in the old part of Edinburgh, Wilkie now became a constant attendant at the school, where he pursued his studies under

John Graham, master of the classes in drawing and painting. Burnet, one of his fellow-pupils, tells us that he had “very little knowledge of drawing, but much enthusiasm of a queer and silent kind,” and “though behind others in skill, he surpassed all his companions in comprehending the character of what-ever he was set to draw.” “He was always first on the stairs leading up to the Academy,” writes Burnet, “anxious not to lose a moment of the hours of drawing. . . . After Academy hours those who were apprentices returned to their several professions; but Wilkie invariably went back to his lodging, there to follow out what was begun in the Academy by copying from his own hands and face in a mirror.”

Often he was to be seen in the marketplace, or streets of Edinburgh, sketching some picturesque group; and when too poor to pay his models with money he would play a tune on his fiddle, which was invariably held by them to be ample compensation.

Such industry as Wilkie’s had its reward. His progress was rapid, and be-fore long he won a ten-guinea prize in a competition among the students, by a picture of `Diana and Calisto.’ This was followed by a study of `Village Politicians’ and a sketch from `The Gentle Shepherd,’ in both of which his predilection for genre subjects was manifested.

Early in 18o4 we find him once more at Cults, trying his hand at portraiture, and before a year was over he had turned one of the rooms of the manse into a studio, and with a chest of drawers for an easel, had set to work upon his first important composition. For a subject he chose a country fair; for his models, the people of Cults and members of his own family.

When completed, `Pitlessie Fair,’ as this picture was ultimately called, caused a sensation. People from all the villages round about flocked to Cults to see the famous work and the youthful painter, then barely nineteen. Mr. Kinnear of Kinloch became its purchaser for ’25, which in the estimation of the artist and of all Cults seemed a most munificent sum.

Encouraged by this success, Wilkie visited St. Andrews, Dundee, and Aberdeen, in the hope of finding employment in portraiture, a branch of art in which he never excelled, but which at that time was more remunerative than any other. Orders, however, were not numerous, and finally, in May, 1805, with some £6o in his pockets, he sailed in a packet from Leith for London, carrying with him, besides various sketches, a small picture called `Bounty Money, or The Village Recruit’ which he hoped to dispose of in the metropolis.

Arrived in London, Wilkie took lodgings at No. 8 Norton St., Portland Road, and as soon as the Royal Academy schools opened, he entered as a probationer. “`There is a raw, tall, pale, queer looking Scotchman come,” wrote Jackson, one of the students there, “an odd fellow, but there is something in him.” Wilkie soon became acquainted with his companions, among whom Jackson, Mulready, Haydon, and William Collins were his special friends. Meantime he was advanced from a probationer to a regular student, and outside of study hours began a picture of `The Village Politicians,’ which, through the kindness of a friend, was brought to the notice of the Earl of Mansfield, who somewhat vaguely agreed to purchase it for fifteen guineas, When it was nearly finished Lord Mulgrave and Sir George Beaumont, hearing it highly praised by one of Wilkie’s friends, called at his studio to see the painting, with which they were so much pleased that each commissioned him to paint a picture, and, as a further mark of appreciation of his talent, Sir George bestowed upon him Hogarth’s mahlstick, which he owned and had been keeping until some painter should be born who, to his thinking, should be worthy to possess it.

In spite of all the praise accorded `The Village Politicians,’ it was with difficulty that Wilkie could be persuaded to send it to the Academy exhibition, where, however, when hung on the walls it attracted so much attention that it soon was acknowledged to be the picture of the year. No one was more surprised at its success than Wilkie himself. Haydon tells an amusing story of how he and Jackson, reading in the paper the day after the opening of the exhibition a commendatory notice of the artist, rushed to Wilkie’s room. “Wilkie, my boy, your name’s in the paper!” cried Haydon. “Is it really ? “‘ said Wilkie, in his slow drawl. “I read the puff,” Haydon goes on, “we huzzaed, and taking hands, all three danced round the table until we were tired.” The next day the three friends went to the Academy together. There was no getting near the popular picture. Wilkie, very pale, kept saying: “Dear, dear, it’s jest wonderful!”

Would-be purchasers for the painting were numerous, but Wilkie felt that Lord Mansfield had the first claim, though even his modesty demurred at letting his picture go for so small a sum as fifteen guineas. Eventually Lord Mansfield, after some unseemly protest, paid him double that amount.

For Sir George Beaumont, well known as a lover of art and liberal patron of artists and who became one of Wilkie’s best friends, the young painter now executed his since famous work, `The Blind Fiddler.’ Orders now poured in upon him. “I believe I do not exaggerate when I say that I have at least forty pictures bespoke,” he wrote to his brother John in India.

In May, 1807, the artist visited his home in Cults. Great was the rejoicing in the manse and in the neighborhood, where all took pride in his success, and from far and wide friends came to congratulate David and his parents. During this visit Wilkie fell ill, and it was October before he returned to London. He then set to work to fill his numerous commissions. Among the best known of his pictures of this period are `The Card Players,’ painted for the Duke of Gloucester, and `The Rent Day’ for Lord Mulgrave. While at work upon this last subject, to facilitate his study of the effect of light and shade, Wilkie, whose faculty for mechanical work was second only to his talent for painting, modeled little figures in clay, which he arranged in the desired positions in a miniature room made of a box,with a window cut in one end to admit the light.

Two years after this, in 1809, when twenty-four, Wilkie was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. His circle of acquaintances was steadily increasing. His letters and diary tell of visits, both professional and social, to numerous country-seats: now he is painting a portrait of the Marchioness of Lansdowne at Southampton Castle, now he is at Coleorton visiting Sir George Beaumont, or, again, making a tour in Devonshire with Haydon, whose friendship plays an important rôle in Wilkie’s life. Drawn to one another it may be by the very differences in their natures, the two men were deeply attached. Wilkie’s cautious, practical disposition was frequently a curb upon Haydon’s recklessness, and although the latter in his autobiography often ridicules his friend’s tall, ungainly figure, broad Scotch accent, and slow de-liberation, he nevertheless highly valued Wilkie’s sound judgment, simplicity, and honesty.

Many stories are told of the young Scotchman’s peculiarities, of his awkward manner, and drawling, hesitating way of speaking. His good humor was imperturbable, his nature absolutely free from jealousy, and his industry unceasing. “Lads, let ‘s jest be doing,” was a customary way with him of closing a fruitless argument. Haydon tells of his inveterate habit of saying, “Rea-al-ly.” When one of his friends, Callcott, told him that every one complained of this, Wilkie pondered for a moment and then said, “Do they rea-al-ly ?” “You must leave it off. I will, rea-al-ly.” “For heaven’s sake,” said Callcott, “don’t keep repeating it, it annoys me.” Wilkie smiled, and then in the most unconscious mannner said slowly, “Rea-al-ly!”

Writing of him in after years, Leslie said: “The little peculiarities of his character, as they all arose from the best intentions, rather endeared him to his friends than otherwise. 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. . . . He was always ceremonious, but, as I have said, from modesty, and not from pride or affectation, for no man had less of either.”

In 1810 Wilkie had an unfortunate experience in being asked to withdraw from the Academy exhibition, prior to its opening, the picture he had sent in, called `The Wardrobe Ransacked,’ the alleged reason for the request being that the work was not equal to his previous productions and would suffer by comparison with a picture by Blake, another painter of genre. Although feeling that the ignominy of removing his picture would probably be greater than any injury to his reputation which might accrue from exhibiting it, Wilkie withdrew the panel. Conflicting accounts of this transaction render it difficult to judge rightly of the facts, but there seems reason to suspect that jealousy of Wilkie’s success among a certain faction of the Academy was at the bottom of the trouble.

During the following autumn Wilkie was at work upon a large canvas called `The Village Festival.’ Towards the close of the year his health, never very robust, gave way and he was obliged for a time to suspend work. In the following February, 1811, he was elected to full membership in the Royal Academy. His picture of `Blindman’s Buff’ was begun at about this time; `The Village Festival’ was completed, and in the spring of 1812 both pictures were exhibited, with a number of others of his works, in a gallery in Pall Mall hired by Wilkie for the purpose. Although it extended his reputation, this undertaking not only gave offense to some of his brother Academicians, but was a decided financial failure. The public, it is true, patronized the exhibition well, but an attachment for rent was entered against the previous tenant of the room, `The Village Festival’ was seized, and Wilkie was obliged to pay £32 for its release. This incident led to the execution of his picture `Distraining for Rent.’

In December of this same year, 1812, Wilkie’s father died, and in the following summer his mother and sister joined him in London, where all made their home together in Lower Phillimore Place, Kensington. “A more devoted, affectionate son than Wilkie it would have been difficult to find,” writes Lord Ronald Gower. “Never had he rejoiced over any of his artistic triumphs as he did now with his mother and sister to care for and live with.”

`The Bagpiper,”The Letter of Introduction,’ and `The Refusal’ are the principal pictures of this period, which was also marked by a six weeks’ visit to Paris in company with Haydon. There Wilkie carefully studied the pictures in the Louvre, where the works of the Dutch school aroused his greatest admiration. Two years later he again went to Europe, this time accompanied by Raimbach, the engraver of many of his works, and visited the principal cities of the Netherlands.

To Scotland he devoted his holiday wanderings in 1817, and there became acquainted with the philosopher Dugald Stewart, James Hogg the poet, and with Sir Walter, then Mr., Scott, with whom he spent some delightful days at Abbotsford. “I have never been in any place,” he wrote from there to his sister, “where there is so much real good humor 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.”

Immediately upon his return to London he resumed work upon a picture called `The Penny Wedding,’ for which he had made many sketches while in Scotland. This was followed by `Reading the Will,’ purchased by the King of Bavaria and now in the New Pinakothek, Munich. Several smaller subjects were also painted, and meantime the indefatigable artist was engaged upon an important work for the Duke of Wellington, representing `Chelsea Pensioners reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo’—a picture which when exhibited made nearly as much stir, we are told, as Waterloo itself.

Another expedition to Scotland was undertaken in 1822 for the purpose of collecting material for a picture of John Knox preaching, and for a subject commemorative of the visit of George iv. to Edinburgh, for which `The Reception of George iv. at Holyrood’ was finally selected. In the following year, on the death of Sir Henry Raeburn, Wilkie had the honor of being appointed his successor as Limner to the King in Scotland.

Again in the north in 1824, making studies for his ` John Knox’ and being royally entertained in Edinburgh, Wilkie was called home by his mother’s illness, but reached London too late to see her again in life. This sorrow was a crushing one to him and was followed by a succession of tragedies. His brother James, who had returned from Canada broken in health, died, leaving a widow and family of children; news was received from India of the death of his elder brother John, who also left a widow and several children; and in addition to these blows, the gentleman to whom his sister was engaged dropped dead on the day before her intended marriage.

This series of misfortunes meant increased financial cares for Wilkie, whose health broke under the strain. A nervous cerebral trouble unfitted him for work, and his doctors ordered a complete change of air and scene. Accordingly, accompanied by his cousin David Lister, and by the American painter Gilbert Stuart Newton (nephew of the portrait-painter, Gilbert Stuart), Wilkie left England for an extended stay in Europe. Paris failed to divert the invalid, rendered restless and despondent by grief, and they turned towards Italy, visiting Milan, Geneva, Pisa, Florence, Rome, Naples and Pompeii. Gradually Wilkie’s interest in his surroundings was awakened, and the letters he wrote to friends at home are full of his impressions of all that he was seeing.

In Rome the news reached him of the failure of his print-sellers, involving him in heavy loss. Writing to his brother Thomas at the time of this new trouble, he said: “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.” But health refused to return. Wandering north to Bologna, Parma, Padua, Venice, and on to Munich, he was advised to spend another winter in a mild climate, and after visiting Prague and Vienna, where he was entertained by Prince Metternich and the French ambassador, he returned to Rome and was made welcome there by a banquet given in his honor by Scottish artists and amateurs. Soon after this the sad news reached him of the death of Sir George Beaumont, who for more than twenty years had been his stanch and helpful friend.

In the summer of 1827 Wilkie’s health was sufficiently reëstablished to allow him to paint, and in Switzerland he once more took up his brush. Thence he journeyed into Spain, and passed seven months at Madrid, where he met and enjoyed the friendship of Washington Irving. The artist was completely captivated by the works of the Spanish masters, above all by those of Murillo and Velasquez, and when, in May, 1828, he left Spain, those painters had be-come his models.

In June, after an absence of three years, Wilkie was again in London, full of enthusiasm for the works of the Italian and Spanish masters, depreciating all his own early successes, and eager to try his hand at what was to him the new method, which had the advantage of being less arduous than his former manner of painting. In the exhibition of the following year were eight of his pictures, all in the changed style,—’The Maid of Saragossa,”The Guerilla Council of War,” The Pifferari,’ and others. The general public looked with small favor on these works of their favorite painter, nor was he spared by the critics; but he was firm in his new departure, and four of the pictures were bought by the king, George iv., who professed admiration for Wilkie’s change of style.

`The Reception of George Iv. at Holyrood’ was now nearing completion and necessitated another trip to Scotland, and work on `The Preaching of John Knox’ was resumed. In 183o, on the death of Sir Thomas Lawrence, Wilkie was appointed Painter in Ordinary to George Iv., an office which he retained under both William iv. and Victoria. He also became a candidate for the now vacant office of president of the Royal Academy, but was defeated by Sir Martin Archer Shee.

With his habitual industry Wilkie had returned to his painting, and during the next ten years produced a great number of works, including `The Peep o’Day Boy’s Cabin,” The Whisky Still’ (painted after a visit to Ireland), `Sir David Baird discovering the Body of Tippoo Sahib,”Queen Victoria’s First Council,’ and several portraits. But although he worked with his old vigor, none of his pictures of this period can compare favorably with his earlier productions.

In addition to his painting Wilkie had from time to time tried his hand at etching. Examples of his work in this branch of art are very rare, but show that he possessed remarkable skill. Among the finest are `The Pope and Benvenuto Cellini’ and `The Lost Receipt,’ both of which Philip Gilbert Hamerton, one of the highest authorities on etchings, considers “equal to the best work of the old masters.”

In June, 1836, Wilkie was knighted by King William Iv.; in the following year he removed to Vicarage Place, Kensington, where he built a “beau-ideal of a studio,” and where the last years of his life in London were passed.

Four years after this, in company with his friend Mr. William Woodburn, Sir David Wilkie left England for the East. Passing through Holland, Germany, and Austria, he reached Constantinople, where he painted a portrait of the sultan, Abdul Medjid, and from there went to Jerusalem—”the most interesting city in the world,” he wrote home. His letters and journal written during this expedition are full of appreciation of the country through which he was passing, and show that he recognized in Palestine a prolific field for inspiration for a painter.

In April, 1841, the travelers turned towards home. They reached Alexandria near the end of the month, but were detained there some four weeks, waiting for their steamer. Wilkie began a portrait of the famous Viceroy of Egypt, Mehemet Ali, but before its completion the Oriental, in which they were to return to England, had arrived, and on May 26 they set sail. When they reached Malta Wilkie became ill, it was thought from eating too freely of fruit, but he recovered and was on deck on the evening of May 31. The next morning he was found lying unconscious on the floor of his stateroom, and before noon, just after the Oriental had passed Gibraltar, he quietly breathed his last. The steamer at once put back, and a request was sent ashore for per-mission to land the body. Owing to quarantine regulations, however, this re-quest was refused, so the ship’s carpenter made a rude coffin, and at half past eight in the evening of the day on which he had died, June 1, 184.1, the engines of the Oriental were stopped, the funeral service was read, and the body of Sir David Wilkie was lowered into the sea.’

The sorrow felt in England and Scotland when the news of Wilkie’s death reached there was universal. “His life,” writes Lord Ronald Gower, “was one of constant, earnest, honest work. . . . 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.

( Originally Published 1906 )

Masters In Art – Sir David Wilkie:Sir David WilkieThe Art Of WilkieJ. E. Hodgson And F. A. Eaton , ‘the Royal Academy And Its Members’T. Silvestre ‘l’ Art, Les Artistes, Et L’ Industrie En Angleterre’The Works Of Wilkie