Sir David Wilkie RA (1785 - 1841)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

One of Scotland’s most celebrated artists, Sir David Wilkie made his career painting lively scenes of everyday events and incidents. His work proved so popular at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibitions that one of his paintings was the first to have a barrier placed around it to protect it from the crowd of jostling viewers.

Wilkie was born in Cults, Fife, the son of a Church of Scotland minister. He began his artistic training at Edinburgh’s Trustees Academy aged 15. One of his first paintings depicts the annual May Fair in his birthplace Pitlessie Fair. Depicting a large crowd, it showcased Wilkie’s observational skill and his interest in Dutch painting. Wilkie completed the work aged 19 and moved to London the following year, continuing his studies at the Royal Academy Schools.

Wilkie began exhibiting at the Summer Exhibition in 1806 and quickly became popular with the public and his fellow artists. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1809, despite being a few weeks shy of the minimum age of 24, and became a full Royal Academician two years later.

One of Wilkie’s most important commissions came from the Duke of Wellington who wanted to commemorate the end of the Napoleonic Wars. As requested by the Duke himself, Chelsea Pensioners reading the Waterloo Dispatch (1822; Apsley House) depicts a group of old soldiers and others first hearing news of the Prussian and British victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. It cleverly combines the everyday sight of men at a pub with a moment of great historical significance. When it was exhibited at the 1822 Summer Exhibition, the painting proved so popular that barriers had to be put up to protect it from the crowds.

In 1822, the newly crowned King George IV became the first reigning British monarch to visit Scotland in almost 200 years. His arrival at Holyrood House was captured by Wilkie in a state portrait that took almost seven years to complete. During its production, the stress of pleasing a royal patron, together with the shock of several family bereavements, caused Wilkie to suffer a nervous breakdown in 1825. To recuperate, he set off on a tour of Europe, during which he studied the work of Italian and Spanish Old Masters.

Wilkie was appointed the King’s Principal Painter in Ordinary in 1830 and was knighted in 1836. His work fell out of royal favour during Queen Victoria’s, however; she declared The First Council of Queen Victoria “one of the worst pictures I have ever seen”. In 1840, Wilkie left London to visit the Holy Land with the intention of gathering material to paint Biblical scenes. During his return voyage the following year, he became unwell after leaving Malta and died onboard a ship off the coast of Gibraltar. His passing was captured by his friend and fellow Royal Academician, JMW Turner, in Peace - Burial at Sea.


Royal Academician

Born: 18 November 1785 in Cults, Fife, Scotland, United Kingdom

Died: 1 June 1841

Nationality: British

RA Schools student from 28 November 1805

Elected ARA: 6 November 1809

Elected RA: 11 February 1811

Gender: Male

Preferred media: Painting, Printmaking, and Etching

Works by Sir David Wilkie in the RA Collection

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Works after Sir David Wilkie in the RA Collection

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Works associated with Sir David Wilkie in the RA Collection

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Associated books

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Associated archives

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