His paintings reportedly reduced Washington Irving, Theodore Gericault, and James Hogg to tears, not to mention innumerable members of the public. It’s hard to imagine anybody crying at a painting these days. But Wilkie is an enormously distant painter from the contemporary viewer. Conservative, literary, populist, royalist, seldom obviously Scottish, his works tell us things about Britain that you can only learn from truly popular art. His close friend and great rival was JMW Turner, whose reputation has soared as Wilkie disappeared into obscurity – no monographs, his biggest show in recent years was not at the Royal Academy or Tate or Scottish National Gallery but in Dulwich in 2002. Turner existed in his own sublime world of imagination; Wilkie existed mostly in a curious, quaint world of the past.
David Wilkie (1785-1841) was born in the village of Cults, Fife. His father was a Church of Scotland minister, so the family was poor but in good social standing. A monument to his father in his church calls the Rev Wilkie “distinguished among his brethren by his labours in reducing to a theory of calculation the contingencies of human life”. Nonetheless, David decided from an early age to pursue a career in the incalculable field of art. In 1799 he was one of first intake of students in a new two-year program of drawing instruction at the Trustees’ Academy of Design in St James’s Sq, Edinburgh where he was taught by the history painter John Graham.
In 1805 he headed south, to London, carrying a few paintings to demonstrate his talent: Pitlessie Fair (1804) is perhaps the greatest. Initially he specialised in genre scenes, paintings of village life, showing Scottish peasants drinking, dancing, celebrating and arguing. He always draws the more respectable poor, however: people who work hard and know how to behave; this is typical of Constable and his contemporaries, excepting the English painter George Morland’s pictures of Gypsies. But the more respectable purchasers wanted images of good hard-working peasantry. Works such as The Village Politicians (1806) led him into the circle of collector Sir George Beaumont, and he rapidly became a celebrity in the London art world, enormously praised for his talent.
Despite the critical acclaim he received, he remained a populist, with a slightly uneasy relationship with the art establishment. One year he held an exhibition of his work in a Pall Mall gallery at the same time as the Royal Academy show – and he sent them a sketch of one of the works he was showing in finished form at his own exhibition. He was politically conservative: The Village Politicians mocks working class people expressing opinions on political issues: it was a time when popular revolt was greatly feared, but he caricatures the lower classes as unworthy of expressing opinions. He was also conservative in art, opposing the excessive decorativeness of the Rococo, seeking a return to Baroque and Renaissance styles. He disliked Turner and the Nazarenes. Turner parodied him in the Unpaid Bill (1808), which matches Wilkie’s cluttered compositions; yet the men remained friends.
As Walter Scott would do soon after, Wilkie sold images of Scottish working class life to the English middle classes. His works combine keen psychological interest with a certain morality. Distraining for Rent (1815) is seen by some as a political work attacking abuses by landlords but it is actually rather an allegory of prodigality and idleness being punished. The scene is full of signs of the family’s laziness, and they seem to have spent rather a lot of money on fine housewares. At the same time, it shows the genuine pain of the family; this was the sort of thing that brought audiences to tears.
Yet there is something curious about his paintings of Scottishness: as Nicholas Tromans notes there is very little distinctively Scottish about them, except some titles and perhaps attached texts. At the time, the British government was still persecuting signs of Catholic Highland Jacobite identity, such as tartan, and most of Wilkie’s interiors carry no symbol that could be taken as indicating Scotland. Most of his early paintings could equally well be set in England or Wales. This did change a bit later, when in 1817 inspired by Walter Scott, he toured Scottish Highlands, and produced a few works of a more distinctively Scottish theme than those which made his reputation; the results included The Penny Wedding which shows a traditional Scottish wedding practice where all guests would contribute to the cost.
Hence, the most emblematic work is not one that shows Scottishness but one that shows Britishness: Chelsea Pensioners Receiving the London Gazette Extraordinary of Thursday, June 22 1815, Announcing the Battle of Waterloo, first shown in 1822. In 1815 the British and Prussian armies had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in Belgium. It was a close-fought battle with high casualties on both sides, but it ended the wars which had scoured Europe since the French Revolution in 1789 (only Britain was spared, despite endless panics about shady French spies who turned out to be monkeys).
The painting was commissioned by the Duke of Wellington, British hero of Waterloo and a Tory politician. Set at Wren’s Chelsea Hospital, built as a home for war veterans, the original idea was to show mainly the pensioners, but it was modified probably at the Duke’s instructions to show a panoply of British soldiers and only a few elderly veterans. Thus it becomes a tribute to the British military might that defeated Napoleon.
As Jonathan Jones says, this is a painting not of war but of peace. Rather than English nationalism, it offers a vision of the empire as a happy combination of different nationalities and races: there is a black solder from St Domingo in the middle, an Indian immediately behind him, an Irishman in white, a Scottish bagpiper at the back. Likewise the different branches of the armed forces are shown. Yet all is not racial harmony: behind the bagpiper, a Jewish pawnbroker is luring a soldier into his shop.
It is also far from a truthful depiction of the horrors of war. The only sign of the 15,000 British casualties is a distraught woman with a crying baby scanning the list of the dead. In reality, many of the veterans were not the happy figures shown, but unemployed, disabled, begging, and turning to drink, or to revolutionary agitation such as the events of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre. Wilkie’s painting is public art, as much as any carved stone war memorial. It seeks to draw together the British nation in what is an hour of triumph but also a time of uneasiness, celebrating the triumph and hiding the tension.
It also marks an attempt to create something new in British history painting. Even Turner’s attempts at history painting are among his more minor works: while he excelled at presenting impression and sensation, he was less able to communicate historical facts and approved nationalistic ideas. While on mainland Europe the French Revolution and Peninsular War had produced extraordinary works from David to Goya, Britain had neither the political idealism nor the unimaginable horrors to inspire artistically significant history painting. But Wilkie’s attempt to renew the genre, bringing it into the present day and the heart of London, is one of the most successful attempts. And it probably owes part of that to the Duke, who dragged Wilkie away from the sentimental representation of the elderly to a modern portrayal of the British armed forces in all their variety, a work that is full of life and incident.
In the years after Chelsea Pensioners, Wilkie’s career slumped, not at first financially but certainly in artistic quality. He succeeded Henry Raeburn as George IV’s Limner for Scotland in 1823 and in 1830 became Painter in Ordinary, official portraitist to the king. He was a second-rate portraitist but became a society figure, particularly popular with upper-class women. Nonetheless he remained socially awkward. As one later account said, “He was a modest man, and had no idea 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.” (Charles Robert Leslie, 1860)
In the mid to late 1820s he attempted a change of direction. He rejected humour and domesticity in favour of a heroic style. He worked with great thicknesses of paint and experimented with wax and veneers mixed in his oils. However these newer works were unpopular at the 1824 RA show. Never healthy, he collapsed in 1825 after a series of family bereavements, and spent 3 years recuperating by travelling Europe.
Yet later in his life he still produced some powerful, important works. He returned to his father’s occupation and Scottish religious traditions in The Preaching of Knox before the Lords of the Congregation, 10th June 1559 (1832) This depiction of the founder of the Scottish Protestant Reformation was highly praised by critics of the time, and communicates a sense of power and passion of a formidable man. Wilkie with his new seriousness sought consciously to create a Protestant form of painting. To this end he attempted to travel to the Holy Land in 1840, but war meant he was stuck in Constantinople for a few months, eventually making it south after the British captured Acre. On his trip he planned a revival of religious history painting, but produced only sketches, most now lost.
He died on the return journey in 1841, buried at sea off Gibraltar. Turner marked the event in a beautiful painting Peace – Burial at Sea (1842), an almost abstract study in deep blacks broken by a shaft of gold. It would be sad if Turner’s painting was Wilkie’s greatest artistic legacy.
David Wilkie, Chelsea Pensioners Receiving the London Gazette Extraordinary of Thursday, June 22 1815, Announcing the Battle of Waterloo, 1822.
Oil on wood, 158 x 97 cm.
Apsley House, The Wellington Museum, London, UK.
Image source: Wikiart