In the summer of 1825 Wilkie set out on a belated Grand Tour, precipitated by a nervous breakdown he suffered that year which had left him temporarily unable to paint. He spent two winters in Italy, travelled to Germany, France and Switzerland, and reached Spain in October 1827. He stayed in Spain for seven months, mostly in Madrid, where he found the social life congenial and was afforded the opportunity to study many of the great Old Master paintings in Spanish collections. This picture is the only one to survive of those painted by him in Spain, excepting those in the British Royal Collection.
While in Madrid Wilkie executed a coloured drawing which he was to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1830 titled A Spanish Senorita, with her nurse of the Asturias, walking in the Prado of Madrid. This has been missing since 1922 but is known through an engraving by T.W. Hunt. Wilkie returned to the subject with the present picture which he began at Madrid late in April 1828 and finished in London in mid-December that year, after which it was engraved by Robert Graves, over the title 'The Spanish Princess', as the frontispiece to an annual, The Forget Me Not, for 1830. The drawing and this picture were both in effect costume studies and would doubtless have been of ethnographical interest to contemporary viewers. The little girl in the picture, who is said to have been the daughter of Wilkie's host in Madrid, wears a mantilla and carries a fan, both principal characteristics of female dress in Spain at the time. Wilkie executed the picture with great speed and in its broad painterly handling it is characteristic of the new direction his painting had begun to take while he was abroad, partly as a consequence of his extensive first hand study of the Old Masters which his three year trip had allowed him, but also of his conscious search for an alternative to the meticulous and intensely physically demanding technique of his earlier work.
Although deeply influenced by his stay in Spain, Wilkie executed relatively few paintings while he was there. The three pictures in the British Royal collection: The Spanish Posada: A Guerilla Council of War; The Defence of Saragossa; and The Guerilla's Departure, which King George IV saw on the artist's return and acquired for a total of 2000 gns., are each, like the present picture, signed and dated 'David. Wilkie. Madrid 1828', and together with the present picture represent the whole of the artist's known output of pictures while there (O. Millar, Later Georgian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen, London, 1969, pp.139-140, nos. 1179-1181, II, pls. 269, 272 and 270). The impact of Wilkie's Spanish sojourn was not, however, limited to the works which he painted there and, after his return to England, his imagination was still fired by subjects from Spanish history and literature with Spanish subjects featuring heavily among the works he exhibited at the Royal Academy exhibitions of 1830, 1833, 1834 and 1835.
Sir William Knighton (1776-1836), who bought this picture on the artist's return in 1828, before it was engraved, was an important figure at the Court of King George IV, a friend of the artist and an influential patron. He had initially entered the service of George IV when the latter was Prince of Wales, as a physician in 1810, on the recommendation of the Marquis of Wellesley. However, as Knighton gained the trust and admiration of the Prince and demonstrated both loyalty and a capacity for business, his influence and authority extended to include almost all of George IV's affairs which became an increasingly important role as George IV became progressively Prince Regent (1811) and then King (1820). Eventually he exerted an influence over George IV which few of his ministers enjoyed which was reflected in his formal appointment as Auditor to the Duchy of Cornwall (1817) and then Private Secretary and Keeper of the King's Privy Purse (1822).
Knighton formed an important picture collection which included many paintings and drawings by Wilkie, among them the early Self-portrait (Scottish National Gallery), a Portrait of Sir Walter Scott of 1824 (Faculty of Advocates, Edinburgh), Washington Irving in the archives of Seville (Leicestershire Museums and Art Galleries, Leicester) and The Spanish Mother (based on a drawing which the artist had made in Seville in April 1828) which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1834 (The Fleming Collection). Wilkie also painted a portrait sketch of Knighton which was sold in these rooms on 15 June 2001 (now Royal Collection; see C. Lloyd, 'George IV, Sir William Knighton and Sir David Wilkie', Apollo, August, 2002, p. 54, fig. 4.) as well as a three-quarter-length drawing of Knighton (University of Dundee Museum). The artist is also said to have painted portraits of Lady Knighton and her son, William Wellesley Knighton, who became a pupil of the artist. The 1885 Knighton sale at Christie's (loc.cit.), which took place shortly after William Wellesley Knighton's death, reflected the cumulative patronage of father and son, and included seventeen paintings and numerous drawings by Wilkie. As King George IV had given Knighton control of the Privy Purse, Knighton was also closely involved in the latter's patronage of the arts including his acquisition of so many examples of Wilkie's work. Knighton's own interest in Wilkie may well have been influenced initially by George IV's enthusiasm for the artist. The King had become a patron of the artist early in his career acquiring two important early examples of the artist's genre pictures: his Blind Man's Buff of 1812 and his Penny Wedding of 1818. Knighton's particular interest in Wilkie's Spanish pictures may well also have been stimulated by memories of the time he had himself spent in Spain in July 1809 when he had attended the Marquis of Wellesley as his physician on his embassy to Spain.
The present picture entered the collection of Sir Charles Tennant, 1st Bt. (1823-1906), in 1888. Tennant, a prominent Glasgow industrialist, who was Member of Parliament for Glasgow (1879-80) and later for Peebles and Selkirk (1880-1886), was a Trustee of the National Gallery and formed a notable collection of pictures with the help of W. Morland Agnew who catalogued the collection in 1896. Like other collectors of similar origin he was principally interested in British painting and his collection included ten paintings by Reynolds, including his Viscountess Crosbie; works by Gainsborough and Romney, Hoppner's Frankland Sisters and other portraits, eight Morlands, a major Bonington, two Turners, and examples by Constable and Etty. Other works by Wilkie included The Errand Boy (sold in these Rooms on 10 November 1995, lot 34, for £238,000; fig. 1) and the Study for the Village Festival (sold in these Rooms on 30 November 2000 for £200,000; fig. 2). Among contemporary painters he patronised Orchardson, Walker, and Millais, owning the latter's portrait of Gladstone. The collection was divided between Tennant's London house in Queen Anne's Gate, where the 'Tennant Gallery' was regularly opened to the public, and his Scottish Baronial mansion, the Glen, near Innerleithen.
We are grateful to Professor Hamish Miles for his assistance with this catalogue entry.