The Scottish Visitors: A Family from Pitlessie

Sir David Wilkie (1785–1841), Pitlessie Fair (detail), 1804. Oil on canvas, 24¼ x 43½ in. Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. Purchased 1921 (NG 1527)

These might not appear to be the most pious folks—the fifth commandment concerning honoring your parents doesn’t appear to be high on these kids’ list. But read more about how Sir David Wilkie secretly sketched his fellow parishioners in church, and then used those drawings to populate his great painting, Pitlessie Fair from 1804.

The latest of our Scottish visitors, the excerpt below is from the exhibition catalog for Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland, available for purchase in the Museum Store.

 Sir David Wilkie 1785–1841, Pitlessie Fair, 1804

Of all the Scottish artists of the first half of the nineteenth century, Wilkie was unique in attaining genuine celebrity within his own lifetime – not merely in Britain itself but in Europe, largely courtesy of royal patronage and the wide circulation of reproductive engravings after his most sought-after pictures. In 1799 the precociously gifted son of the parish minister of Cults in Fife had entered the Trustees Academy in Edinburgh, founded in 1760 as an elementary drawing school. Following the introduction of oil painting into the curriculum in 1802, Wilkie embarked on his first major subject picture, a complex vernacular narrative ‘portrait’ of the annual May fair at Pitlessie village near his native Cults. On completing his formative studies, he returned home to Fife where he earned his living with portraits of the local gentry including the family of William Chalmers of Pitmeddan (in the Gallery’s collection, NG 2433). And it was Fifeshire patronage, that of Thomas Kinnear of Kinloch, a landowning neighbour of Chalmers, which resulted in the crucial commission for Pitlessie Fair and the eventual reorientation of Wilkie’s entire career. In 1805 he moved permanently to London, taking the picture with him as his artistic manifesto.

For immediate inspiration he had been able to draw upon the growing literary cult of the indigenous, folkloric and traditional aspects of Scottish life and the equivalent in painting in the work of David Allan, a former Master of the Trustees Academy, and Alexander Carse, one of whose watercolours of Oldhamstocks Fair, 1796 is in the Gallery’s collection (D 4395). Wilkie’s own composition displays an obvious affinity with village scenes by seventeenth-century Flemish and Dutch genre painters such as Teniers the Younger and Adriaen van Ostade, a pictorial tradition probably familiar to him through engraving and similarly adapted and customised by other Scottish near-contemporaries. Although lacking in integration, Wilkie’s vivid human panorama represents a complete cross section of Fifeshire rural society, many individuals being actual parishioners whom the artist had secretly sketched in church. Lending itself to the multiplication of sub-plots and incidental detail, the essential subject also revealed the artist’s aptitude for portraying psychological interaction between diverse groups – a distinguishing feature of his later work which was emulated, with very variable results, by the majority of his many followers.

However experimental, Pitlessie Fair marked a radical and ultimately extremely influential departure from the prescribed conventions of history painting in the grand manner. Once seen by the Earl of Mansfield, it generated a commission for The Village Politicians (Scone Palace, Perth). This drew prodigious crowds at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1806 and, in the estimation of Wilkie’s fellow artist Benjamin Robert Haydon, revolutionised British genre painting. This phenomenal success encouraged him to mount a private promotional retrospective in Pall Mall in 1812, including Pitlessie Fair. And the precedent of his meteoric rise to fame lured other Scottish painters to London over at least two generations. Among them was Raeburn who, in 1810, was fêted by Wilkie in London when contemplating a permanent relocation.

In gratitude to Thomas Kinnear, who had paid over the artist’s initial asking price, Wilkie presented him with two small oil studies for another early subject picture. Pitlessie Fair remained a Kinnear family heirloom until sold to the Gallery in 1921, after being lent at various times from 1874. It is one of a trio of highly important Wilkie oils in the Gallery’s possession, the other two being The Letter of Introduction, 1813 (NG 1890) – one of the most frequently copied and imitated British paintings of the nineteenth century – and Distraining for Rent, 1815 (NG 2337). –Helen Smailes


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