This fluid oil sketch was made by David Wilkie in preparation for one of his most ambitious works The Entrance of George IV at Holyrood House commissioned by the monarch to celebrate his visit to Edinburgh in 1822, the first time a reigning British monarch had visited Scotland since Charles I. The present rapid oil sketch was made to show the King during the gestation of the composition.
George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in the summer of August 1822 was seen as an important opportunity to both celebrate burgeoning Scottish national identity and British unity. Lavishly – if rather ridiculously – choreographed by Sir Walter Scott, the royal visit offered a picturesque opportunity for painters to celebrate the new King’s reign. David Wilkie was present in Edinburgh and wrote a wry account to his sister:
‘When it was known that the King was on the eve of landing, every body ran to his station, and I hastened to mine, namely, Holyrood House… I saw the King alight; he had not much colour, but upon the whole was looking well. He was dressed in a field marshal’s uniform, with a green ribbon of the order of the Thistle.’
Wilkie adds that: ‘Collins saw the landing to great advantage; and, to our surprise, who should start up upon the occasion to see the same occurrence, but J.M.W. Turner, Esq., R.A. P.P.!!! who is now with us we cannot tell how.’ Turner, like Wilkie, hoped to procure a commission from George IV, planning a cycle of nineteen paintings commemorating the event.
In 1823 Wilkie was informed by the home secretary, Sir Robert Peel, that the King had chosen him to succeed Raeburn as the King’s Limner in Scotland. At the same moment he began his painting of the royal visit for the King, planning a composition on an epic scale: the final painting was to be over 6 feet long. The scene he chose was a fanciful variation on the episode he had described to his sister: George IV arriving at Holyrood, resplendent in his field marshal’s uniform and wearing the Order of the Thistle surrounded by a cast of characters some real but many invented or borrowed from Rubens.
The painting had a complex gestation. On 27 August 1823 Wilkie showed King George IV an unidentified sketch of the composition and wrote the following day: ‘The figure of the King in the sketch he did not approve of, but as I had made various in oil to show, one was fixed upon...as being in attitude and figure very near the mark.’ Robert Peel wrote of these alternatives on 29 August that Wilkie: ‘has quite failed in his likeness of the King.... He has made three different sketches in different attitudes but his conception of the King's person and manner is not at all a correct one.’ Despite Peel’s disparaging comments, the present panel may, in fact, be one of those sketches ‘in oil’ that Wilkie presented to George IV.
A central difficulty in the resolution of the composition lay in finding the right posture for the King. In the present sketch Wilkie has given the stout monarch an air of martial authority, the parted legs giving a sense of stately movement. This was the configuration finally settled upon. Where this study differs from the final composition is in the arrangement of the arms; here his left is akimbo, his hand touching his sword-belt; in the final composition the King raises his hat in his outstretched right hand and his left-hand rests by his side. That this sketch was made when the composition was already fairly advanced is suggested by the inclusion of the rapid swirls of paint at the King’s feet, which can be identified as a small dog when read in conjunction with the finished painting. Wilkie has used all his skills as a technician in oil to invest the figure of the king with suitable swagger, the rich glazing of the cloak, careful modelling of the lights and bravura details of the feathered hat, highly polished boots and gilt trim of the uniform all offset the careful and characterful portrait of the King himself. It therefore seems highly likely that this was the flattering oil study Wilkie had approved by George IV before completing the royal commission. The sketch remained with Wilkie being recorded in his posthumous sale, where it was acquired by his brother, Thomas Wilkie.
- Allan Cunningham, The Life of Sir David Wilkie; with his journals, tours and critical remarks on works of art; and a selection from his correspondence, London, 1843, vol.II, p.84.
- Turner did paint two sketches for his proposed scheme, interestingly both on mahogany panels, a medium favoured by Wilkie. For Turner’s project see Gerald E. Finley, Turner and George the Fourth in Edinburgh 1822, London, 1981.
- Eds. Hamish Miles and David Blayney Brown, Sir David Wilkie of Scotland (1785-1841), exh. cat., New Haven (Yale Center for British Art), 1987, p.222.