In 1889, the painter and art historian William McKay commented that in this dynamic sketch for [or after] one of Wilkie's most celebrated paintings, The Penny Wedding (Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace):
'we had the keynote of Scottish painting down to quite recent times, both in its merits and shortcomings'.
(From an 1889 lecture, ibid.)
The Penny Wedding was commissioned in May 1813 by the Prince Regent, later King George IV, as a companion to the Blind Man's Buff (Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace) of 1812. The composition, which was not begun until 1817, was finished in November 1818 and delivered to Carlton House in January of the following year.
Wilkie explained the subject-matter of this painting in the 1819 Royal Academy catalogue: 'This marriage festival, once common in Scotland, at which each of the guests paid a subscription to defray the expenses of the feast, and by the overplus to enable the new-married couple to commence housekeeping'. This subject had been treated by Wilkie's predecessor, David Allan in 1795 (Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland), and also by William Lizars (RA 1812; Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland) and Alexander Carse (RA 1819). Wilkie, however, chose to reduce the emphasis on drunkenness and debauchery, with which the theme had long been associated. In direct contrast to Carse's painting, which was exhibited at the Academy in the same year, eating and drinking occur in the background of Wilkie's scene, while the foreground is dominated by an energetic dance. One reviewer even described Wilkie's picture as showing: 'the national decorum of the Scotch, prudential, even in its warmest rites' (Annals of the Fine Arts, iv, 1819, 309, cited in N. Tromans, David Wilkie: Painter of everyday life, exhibition catalogue, Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2002, p. 78, no. 16). William Carey, a contemporary art critic and dealer, even suggested that by placing an old man removing his cap to say grace in the centre of the composition: 'Mr. Wilkie has seized the moment when all the incidental frolic and unbridled levity are chastened by the religious act of grace' (New Monthly Magazine, xi, July 1819, 545, cited in ibid.). Music in the scene is provided by the celebrated Perthshire fiddler and composer, Neil Gow (d. 1807), whose likeness may have been taken from Raeburn's portrait of the musician (c. 1793; Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland).
Wilkie's The Penny Wedding is the artist's first pure genre painting to be set intentionally in the past. Wilkie was not alone in his desire to recapture the manners, customs and character of old Scotland in the face of rapid urbanization and Anglicization; this nostalgia was shared by Carse and also by Walter Scott and John Galt. Wilkie seems to have drawn inspiration from 17th century Dutch and Flemish artists' treatment of the subject of marriage, while the subtle arrangement of complex figure groups suggests the influence of Watteau; Wilkie is known to have admired Watteau's Les plaisirs du bal (London, Dulwich Picture Gallery).
This lively sketch was owned by Sir William Knighton, 1st Bt., a courtier, physician and significant collector of pictures, who first met Wilkie in 1823 and soon became one of his most important patrons, as well as a friend and counsellor. Knighton, who was born and brought up in Devon, studied medicine at Guy's Hospital and Edinburgh before establishing a practice in Hanover Square. In 1809, he attended the 1st Marquess Wellesley as his physician on his embassy to Spain, and was afterwards recommended to the Prince of Wales, later King George IV. First appointed as his physician, Knighton came increasingly to be relied upon by the Prince until, in 1821, he was appointed Private Secretary to the King and Keeper of the Privy Purse.
Knighton was a considerable patron of Wilkie during the latter part of the artist's career, owning such pictures as the early Self-portrait of 1804-06 (Edinburgh, Scottish National Portrait Gallery), a Portrait of Sir Walter Scott of 1828 (Edinburgh, Faculty of Advocates) and Washington Irving in the archives of Seville of 1828-29 (Leicester, Leicestershire Museums and Art Gallery). The surviving fragment of a three-quarter-length portrait of Sir William Knighton by Wilkie, dated circa 1834/5, was sold in these Rooms on 15 June 2001 (lot 40). The artist also appears to have started a portrait of Lady Knighton in 1831 and his portrait of the Knighton's son, Sir William Wellesley Knighton, painted in 1839-40, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1841 (both now lost). Knighton's son was to became Wilkie's pupil and the culminative result of their joint patronage amounted to the seventeen paintings and numerous drawings by Wilkie, including the present sketch, that were offered for sale at Christie's, 21-23 May 1885, after Knighton's death.
The present sketch is clearly signed and dated 1830, the year of King George IV's death and the year in which Knighton retired from life at Court. In December 1829, Wilkie had been allowed to borrow the finished picture for engraving and also for exhibition at the Royal Institution in Edinburgh. It was returned to the Royal household after the King's death, in October 1831. This sketch seems likely to have been given to Knighton by the artist as a gift, or souvenir in recognition of Knighton's help in negotiating the loan of the finished painting. It may have been executed in 1830 as a simplified reduction after the original, composed to give the appearance of a sketch. The trick, although not without parallel, was unusual, and only done to oblige Wilkie's most valued patrons. An earlier instance is the small replicas of his famous pictures made for the Earl of Mulgrave. This idea is supported by the slight bitumenisation in the darker tones, which is common in Wilkie's work from the 1820s onwards. Alternatively, this may be a sketch in preparation for the finished painting, in which the composition and figure groups are laid out clearly, but a number of still-life details have yet to be added (for example the wooden bowl in the right foreground), given to Knighton in 1830 and thus dated so. A number of drawings for The Penny Wedding also survive, including a drawing in the British Museum, possibly the first compositional sketch, in which the bridal couple appears to be placed on the right of the design. Three drawings for figures and groups on the left of the design are in the National Gallery of Scotland, and further drawings for two couples dancing and hand studies for various figures are in the British Museum, London.
The present sketch was later owned by the shipowner, Sir Donald Currie. One of the wealthiest men of his day, Currie was born in Greenock, but moved to Belfast in 1826, where he was educated at the Belfast Academy and the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, before returning to Greenock in 1840, and moving to Liverpool in 1844. He established the Castle Shipping Line of sailing-ships between Liverpool and Calcutta in 1862. Two years later he moved to London, setting up a new line of steamers between England and South Africa in 1872, which became the source of much of his wealth. Currie was a discerning collector of J.M.W. Turner. On his retirement, he made several substantial monetary donations, notably to University College Hospital, London, and the universities of Edinburgh and Queen's, Belfast.
We are grateful to Professor Hamish Miles and Nicholas Tromans for their assistance in cataloguing this lot.