Sir David Wilkie, the Scottish painter, died on the 1st of June, 1841.
Sir David Wilkie was a celebrity in his day and if he’d been born a century later, he might’ve been mobbed by screaming teenagers like the Beatles were. When one of his paintings was exhibited in 1822, it generated so much interest that crowd control measures had to be employed. Maybe a closer comparison, in terms of Wilkie’s star status and occupation, would be David Bailey, the famous photographer from the 1960s. Wilkie is perhaps best known for his historical and religious pictures, but he was also a successful painter of portraits and other subjects. Wilkie was greatly admired by Sir Walter Scott, whom he painted several times; returning the favour in his own way. Wilkie’s most famous works include paintings with long titles, such as ‘Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo’ and his colourful portrait of George IV.
In 1817, Wilkie painted the first of his several portraits of Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford, which now hangs in the Scottish National Gallery. Wilkie developed a talent for depicting scenes from everyday life, although he later chose more historical subjects, like ‘The Preaching of John Knox before the Lords of Congregation, 10 June 1559’. He might have changed his style, but he didn’t change the habit of giving his pictures long titles. Art experts would say that the homely simplicity of Wilkie’s compositions stood in marked contrast to the artificial and contrived nature of the then contemporary genre of painting. In fact, Wilkie’s arrival signalled a turning-point in British Art. Together with Sir Henry Raeburn, Wilkie was hailed as the founder of a new ‘Scottish School’ of painting. Wilkie also collaborated, with Abraham Raimbach, on popular print versions of his paintings, which brought both men considerable financial success.
David Wilkie was born in the manse at Cults, near Pitlessie, in Fife, on the 18th of November, 1785. Davie showed considerable artistic talent from an early age and, in 1799, his father agreed, albeit reluctantly, to his studying to become a painter. With the help of the influential local laird, the Earl of Leven, Wilkie gained admission to the Trustees’ Academy in Edinburgh, where he studied under John Graham. He gained an early reputation for his ability to draw characters and became well known for visiting markets and fairs, sketching people and scenes that caught his attention.
In 1804, Wilkie began work on his first major painting, ‘Pitlessie Fair’, which portrayed a mere 140 characters, including neighbours and relatives. The following year, he sold this painting for £25 and, together with the income he had made from portrait commissions, he had earned enough to move to London to attend the Royal Academy. Two of his early works, the ‘Village Politicians’ and ‘The Blind Fiddler’ (1806; oil on panel), which now hangs in the Tate Gallery, attracted considerable interest and he became known as ‘the Scottish Teniers’ (after the Flemish painter). A later work, ‘The Village Festival’, which now hangs in the National Gallery, was first sold by Wilkie for 800 guineas. By 1811, Wilkie was a full member of the Royal Academy and considered to be amongst the greatest artists of his day.
In 1822, Wilkie began work on ‘The Entry of George IV into the Palace of Holyroodhouse’, which was to record the first visit of a reigning British monarch to Scotland since 1650. He took several sittings and a sabbatical to Europe before he completed the portrait. I guess he had to steel himself to trim the King’s rigging a wee bit. In the end, the Royal subject is flatteringly portrayed in subdued lighting, in order to tone down the livid scarlet tartan of his kilt. This painting, which is well worth seeing, hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, in Edinburgh. Another reason for Wilkie’s quitting to the continent appears to have been the tragic deaths of his mother and two brothers, in 1824. Wilkie was always frail of health and he was badly shaken by these bereavements, and by the financial collapse of his printsellers, Heath & Robinson. He recovered sufficiently, after three years travelling and convalescing and painting in Italy and Spain, to be able to return and complete King’s portrait, in 1828.
Wilkie’s sojourn in Europe was the catalyst for a change of style, which wasn’t so well received by his popular following or several critics. But the King, who owed him a favour you might say, remained an admirer and, in 1830, appointed Wilkie to the honourary post of ‘Painter in Ordinary to the King’, to add to an earlier title, ‘His Majesty's Limner for Scotland’. Wilkie retained that post under both William IV (from whom he got his Knighthood) and Queen Victoria. A Spanish influence can be detected in Wilkie’s most important later works, such as the painting with the longest name ever, ‘The Preaching of John Knox before the Lords of the Congregation, 10 June 1559’, which he exhibited in 1832. That is now owned by the National Trust, and resides in Petworth House, Sussex.
Wilkie was a great friend of Sir Walter Scott and provided sketches for his Waverley Novels. In a letter of thanks, Scott wrote [that] “you, who are beset by the sin of modesty, will be least of all men aware what a tower of strength your name must be in a work of this nature, which, if successful, will go a great way to counterbalance some very severe losses which I sustained.” This was a reference to the collapse of Hurst & Robinson, a misfortune in which the two men shared. Wilkie responded by assuring Scott that he would be delighted to “assist in the illustration of the great work, which we all hope may lighten or remove that load of troubles by which your noble spirit is at this time beset.” Wilkie was certainly moved by Scott’s writing and, in reference to a passage in chapter ten of ‘The Antiquary’, where Steenie Mucklebackit’s mourning family present “a scene which our Wilkie alone could have painted”, he responded to Scott’s praise thus; “…you took me up, and claimed me, the humble painter of domestic sorrow, as your countryman.”
In 1840, Sir David Wilkie embarked on a major tour of the Middle East. On his way back to Britain, he was taken ill on board ship off Malta and died on the morning of the 1st of June, 1841. He was buried at sea in the Bay of Gibraltar. There is a memorial to Wilkie in the Kirkyard at Cults.