A Century of British Painters

By Samuel Redgrave; Richard Redgrave | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXII
DAVID Wilkie

WE have been led into a somewhat long digression in the preceding chapter, in order to bring into direct comparison the art of our three great genre painters. We left Wilkie simply a student of the Royal Academy, but as yet he was without patronage and dependent on himself for his future. Like many other young artists, he resorted to portraiture for his subsistence, and to gain the means to enable him to work for fame; but, with the peculiar forethought of his countrymen, he borrowed for a time his first work, which, as we have already said, he had sold before leaving his native place; and had 'Pitlassie Fair' sent up to London to show, as a specimen of his powers, to those who sought the aid of his pencil. He was fortunate in making the acquaintance of Stodart the pianoforte-maker, who recommended him sitters; and fortunate also in the choice of the next subject for his pencil. Lord Mansfield, who had seen his ' Fair', encouraged him to proceed with a picture of ' The Village Politicians', giving him, however, no distinct commission when Wilkie named the modest sum of fifteen guineas as the price of the work. When exhibited in the Royal Academy it attracted much notice, and Wilkie was advised to ask for it a larger, but still very inadequate sum; to which the earl demurred, and claimed the picture at the first-named price; but as no acceptance on his part had been given, Wilkie maintained his ground, and the earl finally sent him a cheque for the full sum, thirty-five guineas. In the May of this year, the painter, not yet of the mature age of twenty-one, but full of exultation at his success, writes to his father, 'My ambition is got beyond all bounds, and I have the vanity to hope that Scotland will one day be proud of David Wilkie'.

Wilkie was not a man to be made idle by success. He set to work at once upon a picture of the same class, yet of even more interest. 'The Blind Fiddler' was finished by the middle of August 1806, while the painter was yet in his twenty-first year, and it deserves careful examination as an evidence of the amount of real knowledge, in many qualities of art, he had thus early achieved.

The painter's next work was not a fortunate one. Mr. Alexander Davidson, of St. James's Square, commissioned pictures from various artists to form a gallery of English history, and applied to

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