'Chaste as a Picture by Wilkie': The Relationship between Comic Performance and Genre Painting in Early Nineteenth-Century British Theatre

By Davis, Jim | Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, June 2008 | Go to article overview

'Chaste as a Picture by Wilkie': The Relationship between Comic Performance and Genre Painting in Early Nineteenth-Century British Theatre


Davis, Jim, Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film


The dramatist George Colman the Younger describes a private impersonation of a fellow-passenger on a coach by the actor Charles Mathews as 'humorous as a sketch by Hogarth, chaste as a picture by Wilkie.'1 Even in his coarsest characters, says Ann Mathews of her husband, 'it was like looking at one of Wilkie's pictures, delineating a scene from low life, while no idea is conveyed that the painter is himself a low man'.2 Blackwood's Magazine (1820), defending Mathews against the charge of mimicry, asked, 'Who thinks of calling Wilkie's pictures caricatures? And what are they but just representations of individual character and habit, under peculiar circumstances?' 3 This invocation of the artist, David Wilkie, as sharing a technique analogous with a comic actor, may seem surprising, although the Drama had also described the celebrated comic actor, John Emery, who specialized in rustic characters, as 'this Wilkie of actors' in 18224, while just three years earlier the Theatre, Dramatic and Literary Mirror had claimed 'his transcripts from Nature have the force of identity. He is the Wilkie of actors.'5 As Shearer West has informed us, the invocation of Hogarth as a touchstone by which to judge effective comic acting was commonplace.6 But why Wilkie? What was it about his genre paintings in the earlynineteenth century that made this analogy appropriate?

Wilkie had begun his artistic training in Scotland, then moved to London in 1805. His paintings of everyday country life, with their nostalgia for the past and avoidance of anything too coarse, made him one of the most celebrated British painters of his time. The Blind Fiddler, The Village Politicians and The Rent Day were among the many paintings which established his reputation as a worthy successor to the much admired Dutch genre painters, such as Teniers. Although his subject matter was domestic, he was taken just as seriously as those predecessors and contemporaries who essayed historical subjects and also arguably managed to broaden the scope and definition of genre painting. Yet, as Martin Meisel indicates, comedy was the chief available frame of reference for contemporary spectators of Wilkie's representations of country life and also the best way of mitigating the radical potential of such representations.7 William Vaughan claims 'it was not intended to be a challenging art, and set out more to reassure its public than ask it to reconsider its values.'8 Yet Vaughan also suggests that low-life genre painting was not necessarily just a source of comedy in this period and that the distance between observed and observer may have been blurred or at least blunted in the early nineteenth century.9

Considerations of genre apart, Wilkie's actual association with the stage can be discussed under several categories. We know from his diaries that he was an enthusiastic theatergoer and that he enjoyed watching comic performers such as John Liston, Charles Mathews and Joseph Grimaldi.10We also know that he numbered comic actors among his friends: on one occasion John Bannister, the comic actor called

and was shown in while (Wilkie) was sitting on a low seat dressed as a woman, with a looking-glass before him, performing the part of model for himself. Wilkie was not the man to be in the least discomposed at being found in such a plight. Bannister gazed at him for a moment or so, and said, 'I need not introduce myself '. 'Truly sir", said Wilkie, 'I know you very well; but you see I can't move lest I spoil the folds of my petticoat. I am for the present an old woman very much at your service'.11

In December 1808 Wilkie recorded calling on Bannister and John Liston, 'who proposed to me for a subject 'The Opening of a Will', which I consider an excellent idea, and am much obliged to them for suggesting it'.12 And it was John Liston who posed for one of the figures in Wilkie's The Ale House Door, subsequently retitled The Village Festival. In the 1830s Wilkie wrote to Charles Mathews, expressing his admiration for his 'beautiful representations' in one of his popular At Homes. …

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