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Regency Personalities Series

In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.

Sir David Wilkie
18 November 1785 – 1 June 1841

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David Wilkie

(Note that while I have seen Wilkie’s painting in museums and have seen reproductions, I have a friend who had an original in her home—and that was wonderful! —DWW)

Sir David Wilkie was the son of the parish minister of Cults in Fife. He developed a love for art at an early age. In 1799, after he had attended school at Pitlessie, KingsKettle and Cupar, his father reluctantly agreed to his becoming a painter. Through the influence of the Earl of Leven Wilkie was admitted to the Trustees’ Academy in Edinburgh, and began the study of art under John Graham. From William Allan (afterwards Sir William Allan and president of the Royal Scottish Academy) and John Burnet, the engraver of Wilkie’s works, we have an interesting account of his early studies, of his indomitable perseverance and power of close application, of his habit of haunting fairs and marketplaces, and transferring to his sketchbook all that struck him as characteristic and telling in figure or incident, and of his admiration for the works of Alexander Carse and David Allan, two Scottish painters of scenes from humble life. Among his pictures of this period might be mentioned a subject from Macbeth, Ceres in Search of Proserpine, and Diana and Calisto, which in 1803 gained a premium of ten guineas at the Trustees’ Academy, while his pencil portraits of himself and his mother, dated that year, prove that Wilkie had already attained considerable certainty of touch and power of rendering character. A scene from Allan Ramsay, and a sketch from Hector Macneill’s ballad Scotland’s Skaith, afterwards developed into the well-known Village Politicians, were the first subjects in which his true artistic individuality began to assert itself.

In 1804, Wilkie left the Trustees’ Academy and returned to Cults. He established himself in the manse there, and began his first important subject-picture, Pitlessie Fair (illustration), which includes about 140 figures, and in which he introduced portraits of his neighbours and of several members of his family circle. In addition to this elaborate figure-piece, Wilkie was much employed at the time upon portraits, both at home and in Kinghorn, St Andrews and Aberdeen. In the spring of 1805 he left Scotland for London, carrying with him his Bounty-Money, or the Village Recruit, which he soon disposed of for £6, and began to study in the schools of the Royal Academy. One of his first patrons in London was Robert Stodart, a pianoforte maker, a distant connection of the Wilkie family, who commissioned his portrait and other works and introduced the young artist to the dowager-countess of Mansfield. This lady’s son was the purchaser of the Village Politicians, which attracted great attention when it was exhibited in the Royal Academy of 1806, where it was followed in the succeeding year by The Blind Fiddler, a commission from the painter’s lifelong friend Sir George Beaumont.

Wilkie now turned to historical art, and painted his Alfred in the Neatherd’s Cottage, for the gallery illustrative of English history which was being formed by Alexander Davison. After its completion he returned to genre-painting, producing the Card-Players and the admirable picture of the Rent Day which was composed during recovery from a fever contracted in 1807 while on a visit to his native village. His next great work was the Ale-House Door, afterwards entitled The Village Festival (now in the National Gallery), which was purchased by John Julius Angerstein for 800 guineas. It was followed in 1813 by the well-known Blind Man’s Buff, a commission from the Prince Regent, to which a companion picture, the Penny Wedding, was added in 1818.

Meanwhile, Wilkie’s eminent success in art had been rewarded by professional honours. In November 1809 he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, when he had hardly attained the age prescribed by its laws, and in February 1811 he became a full Academician. In 1812 he opened an exhibition of his collected works in Pall Mall, but the experiment was unsuccessful, entailing pecuniary loss upon the artist.

In 1814 he executed the Letter of Introduction, one of the most delicately finished and perfect of his cabinet pictures. In the same year he made his first visit to the continent, and in Paris entered upon a profitable and delighted study of the works of art collected in the Louvre. Interesting particulars of the time are preserved in his own matter-of-fact diary, and in the more sprightly and flowing pages of the journal of Benjamin Haydon, his fellow traveller and brother Cedomir. On his return he began Distraining for Rent, one of the most popular and dramatic of his works. In 1816 he made a tour through Holland and Belgium in company with Raimbach, the engraver of many of his paintings. The Sir Walter Scott and his Family, a cabinet-sized picture with small full-length figures in the dress of Scottish peasants, was the result of a visit to Abbotsford in 1818. Reading the Will, a commission from the king of Bavaria, now in the New Pinakothek at Munich, was completed in 1820; and two years later the great picture of The Chelsea Pensioners reading the Waterloo Dispatch, commissioned by the Duke of Wellington in 1816, at a cost of 1200 guineas, was exhibited at the Royal Academy.

In 1822 Wilkie visited Edinburgh, in order to select from the Visit of King George IV to Scotland a fitting subject for a picture. The Reception of the King at the Entrance of Holyrood Palace was the incident ultimately chosen; and in the following year, when the artist, upon the death of Raeburn, had been appointed Royal Limner for Scotland, he received sittings from the monarch, and began to work diligently upon the subject. But several years elapsed before its completion; for, like all such ceremonial works, it proved a harassing commission, uncongenial to the painter while in progress and unsatisfactory when finished. His health suffered from the strain to which he was subjected, and his condition was aggravated by heavy domestic trials and responsibilities.

In 1825 he sought relief in foreign travel: after visiting Paris, he went to Italy, where, in Rome, he received the news of fresh disasters through the failure of his publishers. A residence at Toplitz and Carlsbad was tried in 1826, with little good result, and then Wilkie returned to Italy, to Venice and Florence. The summer of 1827 was spent in Geneva, where he had sufficiently recovered to paint his Princess Doria Washing the Pilgrims’ Feet, a work which, like several small pictures executed in Rome, was strongly influenced by the Italian art by which the painter had been surrounded. In October he passed into Spain, whence he returned to England in June 1828.

It is impossible to overestimate the influence upon Wilkie’s art of these three years of foreign travel. It amounts to nothing short of a complete change of style. Up to the period of his leaving England he had been mainly influenced by the Dutch genre-painters, whose technique he had carefully studied, whose works he frequently kept beside him in his studio for reference as he painted, and whose method he applied to the rendering of those scenes of English and Scottish life of which he was so close and faithful an observer. Teniers, in particular, appears to have been his chief master; and in his earlier productions we find the sharp, precise, spirited touch, the rather subdued colouring, and the clear, silvery grey tone which distinguish this master; while in his subjects of a slightly later period – those, such as the Chelsea Pensioners, the Highland Whisky Still and the Rabbit on the Wall, executed in what Burnet styles his second manner, which, however, may be regarded as only the development and maturity of his first – he begins to unite to the qualities of Teniers that greater richness and fulness of effect which are characteristic of Ostade. But now he experienced the spell of the Italian masters, and of Diego Velázquez and the great Spaniards.

In the works which Wilkie produced in his final period he exchanged the detailed handling, the delicate finish and the reticent hues of his earlier works for a style distinguished by breadth of touch, largeness of effect, richness of tone and full force of melting and powerful colour. His subjects, too, were no longer the homely things of the genre-painter: with his broader method he attempted the portrayal of scenes from history, suggested for the most part by the associations of his foreign travel. His change of style and change of subject were severely criticized at the time; to some extent he lost his hold upon the public, who regretted the familiar subjects and the interest and pathos of his earlier productions, and were less ready to follow him into the historic scenes towards which this final phase of his art sought to lead them. The popular verdict had in it a basis of truth: Wilkie was indeed greatest as a genre-painter. But on technical grounds his change of style was criticized with undue severity. While his later works are admittedly more frequently faulty in form and draftsmanship than those of his earlier period, some of them at least (The Bride at her Toilet, 1838, for instance) show a true gain and development in power of handling, and in mastery over complex and forcible colour harmonies. Most of Wilkie’s foreign subjects – the Pifferari, Princess Doria, the Maid of Saragossa, the Spanish Podado, a Guerilla Council of War, the Guerilla Taking Leave of his Family and the Guerilla’s Return to his Family – passed into the English royal collection; but the dramatic Two Spanish Monks of Toledo, also entitled the Confessor Confessing, became the property of the marquis of Lansdowne. On his return to England Wilkie completed the Reception of the King at the Entrance of Holyrood Palace – a curious example of a union of his earlier and later styles, a “mixture” which was very justly pronounced by Haydon to be “like oil and water”. His Preaching of John Knox before the Lords of the Congregation had also been begun before he left for abroad; but it was painted throughout in the later style, and consequently presents a more satisfactory unity and harmony of treatment and handling. It was one of the most successful pictures of the artist’s later period.

In the beginning of 1830 Wilkie was appointed to succeed Sir Thomas Lawrence as painter in ordinary to the king, and in 1836 he received the honour of knighthood. The main figure-pictures which occupied him until the end were Columbus in the Convent at La Rabida (1835); Napoleon and Pius VII at Fontainebleau (1836); Empress Josephine and the Fortune-Teller (1837); Queen Victoria Presiding at her First Council (exhibited 1838); and General Sir David Baird Discovering the Body of Sultan Tippoo Sahib (completed 1839). His time was also much occupied with portraiture, many of his works of this class being royal commissions. His portraits are pictorial and excellent in general distribution, but the faces are frequently wanting in drawing and character. He seldom succeeded in showing his sitters at their best, and his female portraits, in particular, rarely gave satisfaction. A favourable example of his cabinet-sized portraits is that of Sir Robert Listen; his likeness of W. Esdaile is an admirable three-quarter length; and one of his finest full-lengths is the gallery portrait of Lord Kellie, in the town hall of Cupar.

In the autumn of 1840 Wilkie resolved on a voyage to the East. Passing through Holland and Germany, he reached Constantinople, where, while detained by the war in Syria, he painted a portrait of the young sultan. He then sailed for Smyrna and travelled to Jerusalem, where he remained for some five busy weeks. The last work of all upon which he was engaged was a portrait of Mehemet Ali, done at Alexandria. On his return voyage he suffered from an attack of illness at Malta, and remained ill for the remainder of the journey to Gibraltar, eventually dying at sea off Gibraltar, en route to Britain, on the morning of 1 June 1841. His body was consigned to the deep in the Bay of Gibraltar. Wilkie’s death was commemorated by the English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner in the oil painting titled Peace -Burial at Sea.

An elaborate Life of Sir David Wilkie, by Allan Cunningham, containing the painter’s journals and his observant and well-considered “Critical Remarks on Works of Art”, was published in 1843. Redgrave’s Century of Painters of the English School and John Burnet’s Practical Essays on the Fine Arts may also be referred to for a critical estimate of his works. A list of the exceptionally numerous and excellent engravings from his pictures will be found in the Art Union Journal for January 1840. Apart from his skill as a painter Wilkie was an admirable etcher. The best of his plates, such as the Gentleman at his Desk (Laing, VII), the Pope examining a Censer (Laing, VIII), and the Seat of Hands (Laing, IV), are worthy to rank with the work of the greatest figure-etchers. During his lifetime he issued a portfolio of seven plates, and in 1875 David Laing catalogued and published the complete series of his etchings and dry-points, supplying the place of a few copper-plates that had been lost by reproductions, in his Etchings of David Wilkie and Andrew Geddes.

Wilkie stood as godfather to the son of his fellow Academician William Collins. The boy was named after both men, and achieved fame as the novelist Wilkie Collins.

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Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.

Thomas Mounsey Cunningham
25 June 1776 – 28 Oct 1834

Scottish poet, second son of John Cunningham and Elizabeth Harley, daughter of a Dumfries merchant, was born at Culfaud, Kirkcudbrightshire, on 25 June 1776. He was an elder brother of Allan Cunningham, the biographer of Burns. He received his early education at a dame’s school and the village school of Colliston, after which he attended Dumfries Academy, where he acquired a knowledge of book-keeping and the elements of mathematics, French, and Latin.

At sixteen he became clerk to John Maxwell of Terraughty, but remained with him only a short time. He was next apprenticed to a millwright, and on the conclusion of his apprenticeship in 1797 found employment at Rotherham. His master having become bankrupt, he went to London, and had formed a design of emigrating to the West Indies, when he learned that his master had set up in business at Lynn in Norfolk, upon which he joined him there.

About 1800 he removed to Wiltshire, and soon afterwards to the neighborhood of Cambridge. At an early age he had begun to compose songs and poetry in his native tongue, and in 1797 ‘The Har’st Kirn’ (Harvest Home) was published in ‘Brash and Reid’s Poetry, original and selected.’

While at Cambridge he wrote ‘The Hills o’ Gallowa,’ one of the most popular of his songs, and of so high merit that it was attributed by some to Burns, and appeared in a collected edition of his works published by Orphoot at Edinburgh in 1820; a satirical poem entitled ‘The Cambridgeshire Garland;’ and another of a similar cast, ‘The Unco Grave.’

In 1805 Cunningham was in Dover, and proceeding thence to London, he found employment in the establishment of Rennie the engineer. Subsequently he was for some time foreman superintendent of Fowler’s chain cable manufactory, but in 1812 he again joined Rennie’s establishment as a clerk, and latterly rose to be the chief clerk.

In 1806 he began to contribute poetry to the ‘Scots Magazine,’ and in 1809 was invited by Hogg, who styled him ‘Nithsdale’s lost and darling Cunningham,’ to contribute to his ‘Forest Minstrel.’ On the establishment of the ‘Edinburgh Magazine’ in 1817, he contributed to it not only poems and songs, but, under the title of a ‘Literary Legacy,’ several prose sketches on modern society, as well as stories of the olden time, and interesting information on antiquarian subjects.

Latterly he became discouraged in his literary ambition, and destroyed all his manuscript tales and poems, including one of considerable length entitled ‘Braken Fell.’ His verses are characterized by humor and tenderness, and are chiefly descriptive of the peasant life of his native district.

He died on 28 Oct. 1834 in Princes Street, Blackfriars Road, London.

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Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.

Allan Cunningham
7 December 1784 – 30 October 1842

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Allan Cunningham

Allan Cunningham was a Scottish poet and author.

He was born at Keir, near Dalswinton, Dumfriesshire, and first worked as a stonemason’s apprentice. His father was a neighbour of Robert Burns at Ellisland, and Allan with his brother James visited James Hogg, the “Ettrick shepherd”, who became a friend to both. Cunningham’s other brothers were the naval surgeon Peter Miller Cunningham (1789–1864) and the poet, Thomas Mounsey Cunningham (1776–1834).

Cunningham was apprenticed to a stonemason, but gave his leisure to reading and writing imitations of old Scottish ballads. Cunningham contributed some songs to Roche’s Literary Recreations in 1807, and in 1809 he collected old ballads for Robert Hartley Cromek’s Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song; he sent in, however, poems of his own, which the editor inserted, even though he may have suspected their real authorship. It gained for him the friendship of Walter Scott and Hogg.

In 1810 Cunningham went to London, where he worked as a parliamentary reporter and journalist till 1814, when he became clerk of the works in the studio of the sculptor, Francis Chantrey, a post he kept until Chantrey’s death in 1841. Cunningham meanwhile continued to write, three novels, a life of Sir David Wilkie, and Lives of Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, besides many songs. His prose is often spoiled by its misplaced and too ambitious rhetoric; his verse also is ornate, and both are full of mannerisms, Some of his songs, however, hold a high place among British lyrics. A Wet Sheet and a Flowing Sea is one of the best British sea-songs, although written by a landsman; and many other of Cunningham’s songs became popular. He also brought out an edition of Robert Burns’ Works.

He was married to Jean Walker, who had been servant in a house where he lived, and they had five sons and one daughter, all of whom rose to important positions, and inherited in some degree his literary gifts. Among them were Joseph Davey Cunningham, Alexander Cunningham, Peter Cunningham and Francis Cunningham.

Works:

  • Sir Marmaduke Maxwell (1820) (play)
  • The King of the Peak (1822)
  • Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1829–33)

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