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Among these are his father and several of the farmers and rustics of the village, whose likenesses he took at church, for which profane conduct, as the rigid presbyterians would deem it, very heavy complaints were made to the father of the youthful artist. The number of figures in this picture appears, at first sight, to be su great, that the spectator would suppose there could not be less than five hundred; yet the management of the various groups and of the light and shade is so excellent, that he has bustle and tumult without confusion, and the eye is agreeably led through the various scenes of rustic merriment without being fatigued.
This delineation of the whimsical incidents of a couns try fair, in which young Wilkie displayed great talent for humour, was executed at a time when he knew little of the method of painting in oil, and for this reason it has not that clearness of touch so conspicuous in his subsequent productions. He shewed it, when finished, to his instructor, Mr. Graham, who was highly astonished
to see so superior a performance by so young an artist, , and earnestly advised him to prosecute the study of that
department of the art, adding, that it was the path in which he would be certain to excel. This picture, we have been informed, was purchased of him for fifty guimeas by the lady of Mr. Whitbread.
Eager after improvement, and desirous of availingu himself of the resources afforded by the metropolis, Mr. Wilkie repaired to London early in the year 1805, and became a student of the Royal Academy. Here he devoted hiinself with extraordinary assiduity to the study of the profession he had adopted. As he was unable to tind purchasers, even at very low prices, for pictures executed in the style in which he so highly excels, he was at first obliged to confine his percil to portraits.
His talents were thus buried in obscurity till the ex. hibition of the Royal Academy in 1806. Some tine prior to this he had received a commission from Lord Mansfield to paint a picture from any subject he might think proper. Mr. Wilkie selected one from Macniel's celebrated poem entitled Scotland's Scaith, or the his tory of Will and Jean. All who are acquainted with the work must acknowledge that he could not have made a more judicious choice of a scene, as it forms one of the inost prominent features in the poem, which is intended to enforce the idea, that excessive drinking and po
litics are the scaith or bane of the lower classes of the community in Scotland.
This picture represents a scene of the politicians of lower life, collected in a public house, after the labors of the day, disputing upon some point of politics which may be supposed at that moment to have interested every class of society, and to have found its way into the shop of the mechanic, and the cottage of the husbandman. In the principal group the light falls on Will, a young carpenter, who from, the shrewd winking of his eyes, the expression of his mouth, the extended arm, with the acute angle of the wrist, and the end of the fore-finger on the table, happily convers a self-approbation of the sagacity and superiority of his mind over those of his kearers. He appears to be engaged in warm dispute with a figure on his left hand, who seems extremely anxious for an opportunity to reply; but the carpenter, determined to proceed, is directing his discourse to a venerable-looking man who sits opposite to him with spectacles on his nose, and apparently acts as umpire between the cootending parties. Close to Will's opponent, at the farther end of the table, is placed another figúre, who seems to be carelessly balancing the argument with a knife with which he has been carving, the bread and cheese that lies upon the table, together with drinkingvessels, &c. The figure of the two disputants are admirably characteristic of the conceit which a little knowledge produces upon vulgar minds; they evince great observation of rustic nature and the influence of the little heats of parties and politics on such as would naturally bę supposed beyond the sphere of their opera
· The countenance of Will, as well as every part of his figure is extremely expressive; he appears to be exerting all his powers to convince his antagonist, who, on the contrary, seems to be thoroughly satisfied of the fallacy of his arguments, and only wants an opportunity to expose it. The expression in the countenance of the umpire is most exquisitely delineated; he appears cool, deliberate, and candid, as if weighing maturely the question in agitation, Indeed, we have no hesitation to assert, that this head was never excelled even by Teniers himself. In a half tint, behind Will, sits an old man reading a newspaper, which Macneil describes as the
Gazetteer, a violent anti-ministerial print published at Edinburgh, and which powerfully tended to intiaise the minds of the people. The expression of the face of the reader, indicates with great felicity his composed and settled acquiescence in the conclusions of his own mind, and his undaunted adherence to his own opinions, amidst the din of his battling associates. He is easy and quiet, and thinks for himself; while another inau in the opposite part of the picture, is scratching his head, seemingly sensible, that he does not possess the haranguing eloquence of the carpenter, but tolerably confident in his own mind that he is the best informed man in the room. Several figures in the shadow lounging about the fire, several of which are engaged in dispute, form the subordinate group of this excellent perforrnauce. Nearer the fore-ground, is a child eating something of which a dog seems very desirous of partaking, and close to them stands a bench, under which are kitchen utensils. In the opposite corner of the room is the landlady coining out of a closet, with bottles, &c. to furnish her customers with a fresh supply of liquor. A fine gloomy repose pervades the back-ground and the figures in shadow, and gives astonishing brilliancy to the principal group.
This rare display of juvenile talent, was sent by our artist to the exhibition of the Royal Academy, for 1806, where it shone like a star of the first brilliancy among the productions by which it was surrounded. At the dinner which, it is well known, is annually given by the Royal Academy, previous to the opening of the exhibition, to the most distinguished amateurs and other emiñent characters. Mr. Angerstein, the munificent patron and consummate judge of the fine arts, instantly discovered the merits of Mr. Wilkie's performance. He called to the attention of the Prince of Wales and the other gentlemen present, as to an extraordinary phenomenon in modern painting, declaring that it possessed all the spirit of a Teniers, accompanied by the humour of a Hogarth. Such an encomium from such a man would, doubtless, have been highly flattering to the most renowned artist : the reader may then judge how soothing how encouraging must have been its effect on the mind of a mere youth, whose name was yet totally unkpown, and was now just emerging from obscurity. Nor was this all, the public unanimously coincided in the sentiments
expressed by Mr. Angerstein, and Wilkie was inmediately ranked among the inost eminent of his profession.
On the first day of the exhibition, when our young artist went to gratify himself with a survey of the latest productions of the British school, he met Mr. Fuseli, the master of the academy, whose attention to his students is as honourable to his character as his professional excellence is to his genius. He had always taken the most friendly notice of Wilkie. Addressing him on this occasion, he pointed to his performance, observing that it was a very dangerous picture; for, if he did not surpass it in bis next attempt, it would prove fatal to his newly-acquired reputation. “ Young man," continued he, “this day will prove either the most auspicious or the most unfortunate of your life." By this emphatic expression, Mr. Fuseli, it is presumed, intended to convey a most important lesson to the mind of his youthfhl and inexperienced pupil. He meant to say, “ This day, on which your talents are for the first time displayed to the world, will open you a path to fortune, fame, and eininence, if by assiduous study you endeavour to mature the abilities you possess, and make prudence and modesty the guides of your future conduct. If, on the contrary, you indulge that arrogance and self-sufficiency which success is apt to excite; if you listen to the needy flatterers which never fail to surround rising eminence; if you suiter yourself to be drawn aside by their allurements into the paths of indolence, dissipation, and vice, inevitable destruction awaits you; and the more conspicuous your talents, the inore signal will be the ruin in which you will be inyolved.” • A most striking illustration of the truth of this advice may be found in the history of the late unfortunate George Moriand.
It has been already observed that the “ Village Politicians” was painted by Mr. Wilkie for the Earl of Mansfield. We regret that truth obliges us to state that his lordship’s conduct with regard to this picture was not calculated to confer any honour on his character, either as a man of fortune or a patron of the arts. Having hesitated to give the very low sum of ten guineas, at first reqpired by Mr. Wilkie, the latter, after the merits of the piece were universally acknowledged, thought himself justified in demanding an advance upon the price he had before asked. His lordship, with a truly mercantile spirit,
was a considerable time in coming to a decision; and such was the high sense of honour entertained by our young artist, that, among the various offers made by gentlemen who were eager to possess this juvenile master-piece, he even refused one of two hundred guineas ! -- The price he received from Lord Mansfield was fifteen guineas.
The promise of future excellence held out by the 66 Village Politicians,," was confirmed by his next production, which served to convince the public that Mr. Wilkie's former picture was not a work of accident, a mere lucky casualty, but that his powers are those of a regular, steady, and improving genius.
The subject is a “ Blind Fiddler, playing on his fiddle, in a house where he has stopped to rest hinself, for the entertainment of the master, his wife, and children.” The fiddler is seated in the act of playing; next to him is his wife, with her child on her lap, and at her feet a basket, containing the little pedlary wares which she has to sell. At the feet of the fiddler lie his fiddle-case, and some scattered domestic utensils, and kitchen herbs, just brought in for the use of the family. The group of figures at the end of the picture, which balances in corn. position that of the fiddler and his wife, consists of the mistress of the house, and her child on her lap ; the master of the house snapping his fingers, and looking with great glee upon his child, with the design of inviting it to laugh and dance, and exhibit its perception of youthful joy at the sound of the fiddle. Near the master of the house, stands, with his back to the fire, a sober, thinking man, seemingly the grandfather of the younger part of the family. He listens with great complacency to the rustic musician, but is evidently more impressed with humane compassion at the situation of the Poor Fiddler, than delighted with the efforts of his skill. At the fire-place sits a young lad, in the train of the fiddler, wrap't up in the comforts of the chimney-corner, and indifferent to every thing besides. Between the mother and the Fid. dler are two children, a boy and a girl; the girl exhibits a fondness for music, and presses forward with an eager familiarity ; but the boy is peevish and sulky, and shews that he neither likes the music nor the company of the fiddler and his family. Behind the mother is the eldest boy, about twelve years old : he has in his hand a small pair of bellows, which he has placed under his chin, in