Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilkie, David
WILKIE, Sir DAVID (1785–1841), painter, was born at Cults, on the banks of Eden Water, in the county of Fife, on 18 Nov. 1785. He came of an old Midlothian stock, being the third son of David Wilkie, minister of Cults. His mother, a third wife, was Isabella, daughter of James Lister, farmer, of Pitlessie Mill, about a mile from Cults. Wilkie's artistic bias was manifest almost from his infancy. He ‘could draw,’ he says of himself, ‘before he could read, and paint before he could spell;’ and he began early to adorn the walls of his nursery with rude cartoons, and to scrawl upon the floor primitive portraits in chalk of the visitors to the manse or the adjoining kirk. Soon he went on to note the strange figures of the high road, the broken soldiers and sailors, the pedlars, the beggars, and to transfer their pictures to a little book he carried in his pocket. At seven or thereabouts he was sent to school at Pitlessie, where he continued his studies of character. Upon the after-report of his schoolfellows he was quiet and kindly, bad at games, but ready to look on amused, ‘his hands in his pouches,’ and much inclined to ‘lie a groufe on the ground with his slate and pencil, making queer drawings’ (Cunningham, Life, 1843, i. 13). Sometimes his studies would be portraits of his schoolmates, to be trucked against pens or marbles. At the commencement of 1797 he left Pitlessie for Kettle, two miles further up the Eden, and here he remained fifteen or eighteen months under John Strachan [q. v.], afterwards bishop of Toronto. Strachan describes his pupil as ‘the most singular scholar he ever attempted to teach,’ and says that ‘although quiet and demure, he had an eye and an ear for all the idle mischief that was in hand’ (ib. i. 14). At Kettle he learned something of weaving and shoemaking, and developed a mechanical turn for making models of mills and carriages. A sketch-book of this date gives evidence of his ruling passion, but affords little indication of his future bent. It includes a portrait of himself, in which he is shown as ‘round-faced, and somewhat chubby.’
His father would doubtless have preferred that his son should follow his own calling. But by the time the boy was fourteen his family had reluctantly convinced themselves that his heart was set on painting. Equipped with an introduction from the Earl of Leven to George Thomson [q. v.], the secretary of the Trustees' Academy of Design, he set out in November 1799 for Edinburgh. The specimens of his powers which he carried with him for credentials were not considered remarkable, and his patron had to intervene in order to secure his admission to the school, then presided over by John Graham (1754–1817) [q. v.] Young Wilkie established himself up two pair of stairs in Nicholson Street, and straightway began the (to him) novel experience of drawing from the antique. His first efforts were apparently only moderately successful, for there is a pleasant legend that a matter-of-fact Cults elder being shown one of the boy's performances failed to recognise its resemblance to a human foot. ‘A foot! it's mair like a fluke’ [i.e. a flounder], said this candid critic. But it is recorded that the young artist was already remarkable for an unusual determination to know everything about the objects which he drew, a matter of no small importance. Among his fellow-students were John Burnet [q. v.], afterwards one of the most successful of his engravers, and Sir William Allan [q. v.] In the St. James's Square Academy Wilkie was not without successes. One of his pictures was a scene from ‘Macbeth;’ another, which gained him a ten-guinea premium, depicted ‘Calisto in the Bath of Diana,’ subjects which seem unexpected preludes to the ‘Rent Day’ and the ‘Penny Wedding.’ But through all these essays his art was progressing in its foregone direction. His application was intense, his cultus of the cast and life unwearied, and at ‘trystes, fairs, and market places’ he was always industriously furnishing his ‘study of imagination.’
While at the Trustees' Academy he made some progress in portrait-painting, miniature and otherwise; and he executed two small illustrative pictures, one borrowed from Allan Ramsay's ‘Gentle Shepherd,’ the other from the ‘Douglas’ of John Home. But in 1804 he finally took leave of the Edinburgh school and returned to Cults, to begin almost immediately, with a chest of drawers for easel and a larger canvas than hitherto, his first important composition. He had hesitated between a country fair and a field preaching, but ultimately decided upon the former. He had his models round about him on the countryside, and into ‘Pitlessie Fair,’ as it was ultimately called, he introduced several members of his own family. His father in particular, who was represented talking to a publican, was only ingeniously consoled for that equivocal proceeding by the suggestion that he was warning the other to keep a decorous house. ‘Pitlessie Fair’ brought great local renown to the young artist at the manse, and a discerning spaewife predicted that as there had been a Sir David Lindsay in poetry, so in painting there would be a Sir David Wilkie. What was more to the point, Wilkie sold his work to a Fife gentleman, Mr. Kinnear of Kinloch, for 25l. He then tried his fortune as a portrait-painter at Aberdeen and two or three other places with small success, and on 20 May 1805 he embarked in a Leith packet boat for London. With him he carried for sale a small picture called the ‘Bounty Money; or, the Village Recruit,’ which he had painted at Cults.
By this time he was in his twentieth year. After a preliminary sojourn in Aldgate he established himself in the parlour of a coal-merchant at No. 8 Norton Street (now Bolsover Street), Portland Road. He had some letters of introduction, one of which, from Sir George Sandilands to Caleb Whitefoord [q. v.], is printed in the ‘Whitefoord Papers,’ 1898 (pp. 260–1), and prompted a later picture. It was too early in the year for him to begin his studies as a probationer at the academy, but with the assistance of a Charing Cross dealer he somewhat increased his small funds by selling the ‘Village Recruit’ for 6l. Shortly after he began his attendance at the academy, gaining his admission with a drawing from the Niobe. At Somerset House he speedily made friends. He was introduced to Fuseli, soon to be the new keeper; to Flaxman, Nollekens, and West; and he found sympathetic contemporaries of his own age in John Jackson, Mulready, William Collins, and Haydon, the last not entirely well disposed at the outset to the ‘raw, tall, pale, queer,’ and quiet Scotsman, with ‘something in him,’ of whose advent he was apprised. But Haydon soon found that Wilkie, who, as he told a friend, was convinced that ‘no picture could possess real merit unless it was a just representation of nature,’ would not interfere with his own ambitions as a history painter, and the pair speedily became fast friends. Meanwhile Wilkie passed from the condition of probationer to that of student, attended Bell's lectures on anatomy, and got to work upon a new picture, of which he had already made a preliminary study at Edinburgh. By the instrumentality of a friend, Mr. Stodart, the pianoforte-maker of Golden Square, this effort, ‘The Village Politicians,’ was brought to the notice of the Earl of Mansfield, who agreed, not very definitely, to purchase it, when completed, for the modest sum of fifteen guineas. By March 1806 it was all but finished, and Lord Mulgrave and Sir George Beaumont, to whom it was praised enthusiastically by Jackson, immediately gave Wilkie commissions. When ultimately it found its way to the walls of the academy, it was the picture of the year. Crowds surrounded it at all times, and various offers were made to the artist by would-be purchasers. Lord Mansfield, however, held to his bargain, though, after some unseemly haggling, he eventually paid Wilkie a sum of 31l. 10s.
With this success no one seemed to have been more genuinely astonished than the artist himself, and Haydon, in his ‘Autobiography’ (Taylor, Life, 1853, i. 43), gives an amusing account of his reception of the first favourable press notices. But his even nature was not unduly exalted by his good fortune, one result of which, according to the above authority, was the despatch of a consignment of female finery to his mother and sisters at Cults. Presently he set to work vigorously upon Sir George Beaumont's commission, ‘The Blind Fiddler’ (afterwards presented by its owner to the National Gallery), which was finished in 1806, and exhibited in 1807, obtaining a success which could not be qualified by the highly coloured classic subjects which, according to report, academic jealousy had thoughtfully hung on either side of it. Shortly after the opening of the exhibition Wilkie went to Cults, where he fell ill. But he was back again in October, working eagerly at new and old commissions. One of these, ‘Alfred in the Neat Herd's Cottage,’ 1807, for the historical collection of Mr. Alexander Davison, is now in the Northbrook Gallery; another was ‘The Card Players’ (1808), painted for the Duke of Gloucester; a third, ‘The Rent Day’ (1808), for Lord Mulgrave, for whom he had also executed a ‘Sunday Morning’ (1806). Other pictures executed about this time were ‘The Jew's Harp’ (1808) for Mr. Annesley, ‘The Cut Finger’ (1809) for Mr. Whitbread, and ‘A Sick Lady visited by her Physician’ (1809), which was bought by the Marquis of Lansdowne. Commissions, indeed, seemed to have poured in upon him. ‘I believe I do not exaggerate when I say that I have at least forty pictures bespoke,’ he told his brother John in India. By November 1809 he had been elected an associate of the Royal Academy. His home was now at Sol's Row, Hampstead Road, where he resided until he removed to 84 Great Portland Street, Cavendish Square. By this time his circle of acquaintances was extensive. We hear of his visits, either professional or friendly, to various country seats. In 1808 he is painting the Marchioness of Lansdowne at Southampton Castle; later on he is at Coleorton with Sir George Beaumont, or touring in Devonshire with Haydon.
In 1810 he prepared for exhibition, but did not exhibit, a picture called ‘The Man with a Girl's Cap; or, the Wardrobe Ransacked,’ the reason for its withdrawal being apparently the fear entertained by the council of the academy that it would fail to sustain his reputation in this line against the rivalry of Edward Bird [q. v.] But at the close of September in the previous year he had begun one of his most ambitious canvases, ‘The Alehouse Door,’ later known as ‘The Village Festival,’ and now in the National Gallery, for which it was acquired by parliament in 1824, with the rest of the Angerstein collection. Upon this he laboured for some months. Then he fell ill, probably from overwork. He was carefully tended by Dr. Baillie, migrating for his convalescence to the house of his physician's sister, Miss Joanna Baillie, at Windmill Hill, Hampstead. On 11 Feb. 1811 he was elected a royal academician, and in this year exhibited two pictures, ‘A Humorous Scene’ and ‘Portrait of a Gamekeeper.’ In May of the following year the ‘Alehouse Door’ was exhibited, with a number of other pictures, in a separate Wilkie exhibition, at No. 87 Pall Mall. In addition to ‘Pitlessie Fair’ and a number of pictures which had appeared on the academy walls, this included several studies and original sketches. Although it advanced his reputation, it was not a financial success, and before the month was out the artist had to pay 32l. in order to release the ‘Village Festival,’ which had been unfairly seized for rent owing by a previous tenant of the room. This incident, it was said, gave rise to the subsequent and more successful painting known as ‘Distraining for Rent.’ But perhaps one of the most interesting circumstances in connection with this enterprise was the announcement in the catalogue that Abraham Raimbach [q. v.] was engraving the ‘Village Politicians.’
At the end of 1812 (1 Dec.) Wilkie's father died, and in August 1813 his mother and his sister Helen joined him in London at 24 Lower Phillimore Place, Kensington, a house which he had taken in 1813, and where he continued to reside until 1824. In 1813 he exhibited ‘Blind Man's Buff,’ and was engaged on ‘The Bagpiper;’ ‘Duncan Gray; or the Refusal,’ and the reminiscence of his first visit to Caleb Whitefoord, ‘The Letter of Introduction,’ which now belongs to Mr. Ralph Brocklebank. The last two figured in the exhibition of 1814, after which he set out on a visit to Paris with Haydon, duly chronicled by the latter, with much graphic description of his companion's queer Scotch cautions and wonderments. ‘The greatest oddity’ in that Paris of oddities, according to Haydon, ‘was unquestionably David Wilkie. His horrible French, his strange, tottering, feeble, pale look; his carrying about his prints to make bargains with printsellers, his resolute determination never to leave the restaurants till he had got all his change right to a centime, his long disputes about sous and demi-sous with the dame du comptoir, whilst madame tried to cheat him, and as she pressed her pretty ringed fingers on his arm without making the least impression, her “Mais, Monsieur!” and his Scotch “Mais, Madame!” were worthy of Molière’ (Taylor, Life of Haydon, 1853, i. 254).
At the beginning of July they returned to England, and to ‘Distraining for Rent,’ of which the genesis has been given. It was finished in this year, and bought for six hundred guineas by the British Institution, who exhibited it in 1815. In the same year Wilkie visited Brighton with Haydon. But a more important tour was that which he took in the autumn of 1816 to the Netherlands with Raimbach, who engraved ‘Distraining for Rent.’ It was upon this occasion that Wilkie had the odd experience of repeating at Calais the misadventure of William Hogarth [q. v.] He, too, was arrested for sketching Calais gate, and carried before the mayor, by whom he was politely dismissed. He still solicited subscribers to the engravings of his pictures wherever he went, as at Paris; but it may be assumed that the Dutch and Flemish schools of painting interested him more nearly than the galleries of the Louvre. At all events, his letters to Haydon were declared to be ‘full of fresh and close observation,’ which could scarcely have been said of his French diary.
Scotland was the scene of his holiday wanderings in 1817. Here he became acquainted with Dr. Chalmers, and was invited to Abbotsford by Scott, then writing ‘Rob Roy.’ ‘I have my hand in the mortar-tub, but I have a chamber in the wall for you, besides a most hearty welcome. I have also one or two old jockies with one foot in the grave, and know of a herd's hut or two tottering to the fall, which you will find picturesque,’ said the Shirra. Another notability he met was James Hogg (1770–1835) [q. v.], who was pleased to find him so young a man. At Abbotsford Wilkie painted (for Sir Adam Ferguson) the Scott family in the garb of south-country peasants. This work was exhibited in 1818, at the close of which year he completed for the prince regent one of his most popular efforts, ‘The Scotch, or Penny Wedding,’ now in the royal collection. ‘The Reading of the Will’ (at the Pinacothek at Munich) and several smaller pictures followed. Meanwhile, the indefatigable artist was slowly carrying forward a larger work, which had been commissioned by the Duke of Wellington, ‘The Waterloo Gazette; or, the Chelsea Pensioners reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo,’ begun in 1817 and finished in 1821. It appears from Wilkie's ‘Journal’ that it cost him ‘full sixteen months' constant work,’ and the duke paid him twelve hundred guineas, characteristically counting out the money himself to the artist in banknotes. The picture was exhibited in 1822, making nearly as much stir as Waterloo itself. According to the painter's critics, it marks a second manner in his work, a transition from the influence of Teniers to the influence of Ostade. In July 1822 he went again to Scotland, then buzzing with expectation of the arrival of George IV. Wilkie began making studies for a picture of John Knox preaching, and he also collected the materials for a memento of the ‘King's Entrance to Holyrood.’ The preparation of these two pictures occupied him for some time to come; the former being finished only in 1832, the latter in 1830. But in 1823 he exhibited a portrait of the Duke of York, and another of his own special subjects, ‘The Parish Beadle,’ bequeathed to the National Gallery in 1854 by Lord Colborne, whose commission it was. It is a further transition picture as to style, but also one of the finest of his works. Other efforts which followed the ‘Parish Beadle’ in 1823 were ‘The Gentle Shepherd; or, the Cottage Toilet,’ ‘Smugglers offering Run Goods for Sale,’ and ‘The Highland Family.’ The last named was also the last picture he exhibited before he left England in 1825.
He was at Edinburgh collecting materials for John Knox at the end of 1824, and was royally entertained by the Edinburgh artists. But he was summoned hastily to London by his mother's illness, and failed to reach it before she died. His mother's death was followed by that of an elder brother, James, who not long before had returned from Canada broken in health and means. Close upon this second bereavement came, early in 1825, tidings of the death in India of his eldest brother, John, a soldier; and, to crown all, his favourite sister, Helen, lost her fiancé on the day before her intended marriage. These things, besides sorrow, meant money cares for Wilkie; and his health, never that of a robust man, failed under the strain. Paris and the Louvre, and even Talma, proved powerless to restore his energies, and he turned his face to Italy, visiting Florence, Rome, and Naples in succession, sending many pleasant letters to English friends concerning his travelling impressions, social and artistic. But misfortune followed him abroad. His printsellers, Hurst & Robinson, became bankrupt, and health refused to return. He visited Herculaneum and Pompeii, wrote a note to Chantrey from the crater of Vesuvius, wandered on to Bologna, Parma, Padua, Venice, then to Munich (where, with some difficulty, he was permitted to inspect in the Bavarian palace his own ‘Reading the Will’), Dresden, &c., gravitating at the close of 1826 to Rome once more, in time to eat a Christmas haggis with Severn the artist, and to be feasted later (16 Jan. 1827) by the Scottish art residents of the imperial city. In the summer of 1827 his health was sufficiently established to allow him to paint; and at Geneva he set to work upon the ‘Princess Doria washing Pilgrims' Feet.’ From Switzerland he proceeded to Spain, the Spain that henceforth so powerfully influenced his style. At Madrid in seven months he painted no fewer than four pictures, two of which were ‘The Maid of Saragossa’ and the ‘Guerilla Council of War.’ When in May 1828 he left Madrid, Titian, Velasquez, and Murillo had become his chief models. It is possible, as alleged by many, that his health made the minute finish of the Dutch method no longer congenial to him; but the ‘unpoached game preserve of Europe,’ as he styled the art-riches of Spain, must also count for much in directing the new development of his genius.
He was again in London in June 1828, after a three years' absence, talking enthusiastically of Spanish and Italian art, and undervaluing his earlier successes. In the exhibition of 1829 were eight pictures in the new taste, the ‘Princess Doria,’ the ‘Maid of Saragossa,’ the ‘Guerilla Council,’ the ‘Pifferari,’ and four others—one a portrait (the Earl of Kellie). Criticism was freely bestowed upon this fresh departure. But the artist had made up his mind on the subject, and George IV bought four of the best pictures. The ‘Entrance to Holyrood’ was resumed and finished; and he flung himself with ardour into the ‘Preaching of Knox before the Lords of the Congregation, 10 June 1559,’ which was exhibited in 1832, and is now in the National Gallery, having been purchased in 1871 with the Peel collection. In 1830 he was made painter in ordinary at the death of Sir Thomas Lawrence, retaining this office under William IV and Victoria. He escaped being elected president of the Royal Academy in the same year, that post being offered to Sir Martin Archer Shee [q. v.], who in some respects was better fitted for the decorative part of the duties. Wilkie's more important pictures for the next few years may be briefly enumerated. They are ‘Columbus’ and ‘The First Earring,’ 1835 (National Gallery); ‘Peep-o'Day Boy's Cabin,’ 1836 (National Gallery); ‘The Duke of Wellington writing a Despatch,’ ‘Napoleon and the Pope in Conference at Fontainebleau,’ both 1836; and ‘Sir David Baird discovering the Body of Tippoo Saib,’ 1839. In June 1836 he was knighted. A year later he moved from Phillimore Place to Vicarage Place, Kensington, where he built a ‘beau ideal of a studio.’ In 1839 he went to Scotland again to collect the material for a new Knox; but got no further than a sketch, now in the Scottish Academy. In 1840 he had eight pictures in the exhibition, but at the close of the year he once more left England; this time for the east, going through Holland and Germany to Constantinople (where he painted a portrait of the young sultan, Abdul Medjid), and thence to Jerusalem, which he reached on 27 Feb. 1841. His letters show that he fully recognised in the Holy Land a further field for artistic inspiration. In April he left Jerusalem on his homeward journey, reaching Alexandria on the 26th. At Alexandria he painted the famous Pacha Mehemet Ali. Then on 26 May he started home once more. But he died suddenly on the morning of 1 June 1841, shortly after leaving Gibraltar, and, on account of the quarantine regulations, was buried at sea in 36° 20߱ north latitude and 6° 42߱ west longitude—an incident which has been magnificently commemorated by the brush of Joseph Mallord William Turner [q. v.]
Wilkie was unmarried. In character he was modest, frugal, and ceremonious, but extremely lovable and highly esteemed by many friends. He began life almost instinctively as a genre painter of the Dutch school; he developed in later life into a history and portrait painter, whose work was largely influenced by his study of art in Italy and Spain. Roughly speaking, his work may be divided into that executed before and after 1825; but there are distinct stages in his development through both of these periods. At the National Gallery a comparison of the ‘Blind Fiddler’ with the ‘Parish Beadle,’ and then of these with the ‘Preaching of Knox’ and ‘Peep-o'Day Boy's Cabin,’ will illustrate the evolution of his manner better than pages of description. His different styles have each their advocates; but it is probable that the best examples of his earlier period will longest retain their popularity. His works have been sympathetically engraved by Burnet, Raimbach, Sharpe, and others.
There is a portrait of Wilkie, by himself, at twenty-nine, in the National Portrait Gallery of London. Another, which represents him in 1840, aged 55, was exhibited at the Guelph Exhibition of 1891 by Colonel David Wilkie. There are two portraits in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery—one by Sir William Beechey, bequeathed by Dr. Hunter of Woodbank, near Largs; and another, presented by the Duke of Buccleuch, of Wilkie and his mother, painted by himself in 1803.
[The standard authority for Wilkie's Life is Allan Cunningham's Biography, 3 vols. 1843. There is also a brief memoir by his engraver, Raimbach, in that writer's Memoirs and Recollections (privately printed), 1843. See also Memoirs of the Life of Collins, 1848; Tom Taylor's Life of Haydon, 1853; Redgrave's Dict. of Artists; Heaton's Continuation of Cunningham's Lives, vol. iii.; and for an admirable comparison of Wilkie and Hogarth, Hazlitt's Lectures on the Comic Writers, 1841, pp. 274–311.]