Sue Young Histories

David Wilkie 1785 - 1841

February 20, 2009

Sir David Wilkie 1785

  • 1841 was a Scottish painter.

David Wilkie was a friend of Frederick Hervey Foster Quin and Thomas Uwins.

David Wilkie, born in Cults Manse near Pitlessie (Fife) and educated at the Trustees’ Academy in Edinburgh,

Wilkie is perhaps best known for his historical and religious works, but was also a successful painter of portraits and other subjects.

His first work was Pitlessie Fair. He settled in London, being elected to the Royal Academy in 1811. He painted Walter Scott and his family as a group at Abbotsford (1817). His Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo (1822) generated so much interest on its exhibition that crowd control measures had to be employed.

In 1828, he painted The Entry of George IV into the Palace of Holyroodhouse, celebrating the first visit of a British monarch to Scotland for almost 200 years in 1822. This painting is in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

Wilkie was appointed Painter in Ordinary to King William IV in 1830.

A pioneering genre painter and an original portraitist, Wilkie’s scenes of Scottish peasant life won him much attention when he moved from Edinburgh to London in 1805.

He was the friend of Benjamin Richard Haydon with whom he visited France 1814. Patronised by the Prince Regent he was made painter to King William IV who knighted him in 1836.

His death on his way home from India in 1841 was commemorated by Turner’s painting, Burial at Sea.

The son of a minister, David Wilkie was born in Cults, Fife, on 18 November 1785. He attended the Trustees’ Academy of Design in Edinburgh from 1799 to 1804 and, upon completing his studies, moved to London in 1805 and gained admission at the Royal Academy where his contemporaries included Andrew Geddes.

Here he encountered almost immediate success when the first of his realistic portrayals of rural life, The Village Politicians, was unveiled at the Academy’s 1806 exhibition. A string of equally acclaimed paintings in the same vein followed, including The Blind Fiddler (1807), The Card Players, The Rent Day (both 1808), The Village Festival (1812), Blind Man’s Buff (1813), Distraining for Rent (1815), The Scotch, or Penny Wedding (1818).

The homely simplicity of Wilkie’s compositions stood in marked contrast to the artificial and contrived nature of much contemporary genre painting and signalled a turning point in British Art.

Together with Henry Raeburn, he was hailed as the founder of a new ‘Scottish School’ of painting. Wilkie collaborated on popular print-versions of his paintings with Abraham Raimbach which brought both men considerable financial success.

Public acclaim was accompanied by professional recognition. Wilkie was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1809, when he was only 24 years old, and a full member in 1812. Following the death of Henry Raeburn in 1823, he was appointed His Majesty’s Limner for Scotland.

Wilkie’s always frail health was badly shaken in 1825 by a series of family bereavements and by the financial collapse of his printsellers Heath & Robinson. A long stay in Italy permitted him to convalesce, followed by a visit to Spain which would prove an artistic revelation.

Velasquez and Murillo now displaced the Dutch masters as his chief mentors and in the Royal Academy’s 1829 exhibition he unveiled eight new works painted under their influence, including The Maid of Saragossa, The Pifferari, and The Guerrilla Council of War.

The Spanish style continued to inform his most important later works such as Preaching of Knox before the Lords of the Congregation (1832), The First Earring (1835), Napoleon and the Pope in Conference at Fontainebleau (1836), and Sir David Baird Discovering the Body of Tippoo Saib (1839).

He succeeded Thomas Lawrence as Painter in Ordinary to the King in 1830 and was knighted in 1836.

In 1840 he travelled to Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Alexandria (where he painted the Pacha Mehemet Ali). He died suddenly on the return journey and was buried at sea near Gibraltar, an event commemorated in one of Turner’s most celebrated paintings.

Wilkie portrayed Walter Scott in three paintings and one drawing. The former include two group compositions The Abbotsford Family (1817) and The Entrance of King George IV at Holyrood (1829), and an individual portrait (1824). The latter is a sketch of Walter Scott Coursing…

In addition to the portraits, Wilkie painted a number of works illustrative of or inspired by Walter Scott’s novels. In 1829, he agreed to provide sketches to be engraved for the Magnum Opus edition of the Waverley Novels.

In a letter of thanks, Walter 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, two or three years since, by the failure of Constable’s house, and Hurst and Robinson’s, in London’ (Letters, XI, 73).

He was anxious, however, lest Wilkie jeopardize his health through working to a deadline. Wilkie, in fact, may be supposed to have been peculiarly sympathetic to Walter Scott’s plight as he too had suffered by the collapse of Hurst & Robinson.

He assured Walter 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’.

He was merely 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’ (Letter of 10 January 1829, The Private Letter Books of Walter Scott, p. 250).

Here Wilkie is referring to a passage in chapter 10 of The Antiquary (1816), where Steenie Mucklebackit’s mourning family present ‘a scene which our Wilkie alone could have painted, with that exquisite feeling of nature that characterises his enchanting productions’.

Wilkie added that he was already planning an illustration of Henry Morton’s arrest in Old Mortality, which would permit him to depict Morton’s man servant Cuddie Headrigg and his mother ‘of all your creations my favourite’. This illustration appeared in the Magnum Opus as Scene at Milnwood along with a title page vignette for Old Mortality and illustrations of Henry Wardon before the Sub Prior for The Monastery and Julian Peveril and Sir Geoffrey Hudson in Newgate for Peveril of the Peak.

These were republished in the Abbotsford Edition of the Waverley Novels (1842), together with two further illustrations for Old Mortality (Tent Preaching at Kilmartin and Cuddie Headrigg’s Cottage: possibly unused sketches for the Magnum Opus) and one for The Abbot (Roland Graeme and Catherine Seton before Queen Mary).

The Abbotsford Edition also contained engravings of Wilkie’s The Abbotsford Family and Walter Scott Coursing and of four previously exhibited paintings by Wilkie depicting people, places, or scenes featured in Walter Scott’s novels: Gustavus Adolphus for A Legend of Montrose, Dürrenstein on the Danube for Ivanhoe, The Escape from Lochleven Castle for The Abbot, and The Convent of the Holy Brethren and Distant View of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem for The Talisman.

Although these last were not originally designed to illustrate a specific edition of Walter Scott, they are likely to have been inspired by a reading or recollection of Walter Scott. It has similarly been suggested that Wilkie’s The Reading of a Will (1820) and Napoleon and the Pope in Conference at Fontainebleau (1836) were inspired by passages in Guy Mannering and Walter Scott’s The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte respectively.