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1838 The Queen Expects

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The commission was a difficult, nigh-impossible one, and it was going to highlight the cruelty with which the Summer Exhibition could expose a picture’s weaknesses; nevertheless, it got off to a perfectly respectable start. On 17 October 1837, the eighteen-year-old Queen Victoria, who had acceded to the throne only that summer, was sitting in her royal residence at Brighton to the newly reappointed Painter in Ordinary to the Monarch, Sir David Wilkie, having commanded him to execute a picture of her attending her first council of state.1 This dramatic early episode in her monarchy had taken place on 20 June, just hours after the old king, William IV, had died, and had seen Victoria asserting her authority in the company of nearly a hundred male privy councillors, including the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. Some four months later, she was clearly getting used to telling people what to do: as Wilkie recalled in a letter to this sister written on the day of the commission, she not only commanded him to paint this complex picture, but “has been telling me who to put in it.”2 The artist dutifully went to work, and, in a second letter that he wrote to his sister eleven days later, he notes that:

I proceed with the picture … Her face I have painted, nearly a profile—it is thought like her. She sat today in her dress—a white satin, covered with gauze embroidered. I think it looks well. All here think the subject good, and she likes it herself.3

However, by the following month, as he confirmed by a letter to the artist William Collins, the doubts were obviously beginning to creep in. These were induced in part by the sheer number of portraits (it ended up becoming more than thirty) that Wilkie had realised he was going to have to include in the painting, and the challenges this task was going to pose him. As he writes rather wearily to Collins, “this will be a picture of considerable plague in adjusting the persons, but as everyone seems keen about the subject, I shall proceed, though I am putting things at a stand.”4 The main cause of anxiety, however, is hinted at in that last phrase: the fact that, as he wrote in another, later letter, “I soon found it was expected [that is, by Queen Victoria] that the picture should be ready for the next Exhibition,” something, he went on to add, that “nothing but a great effort” would allow him to accomplish.5

Consequently, spring 1838 witnessed Wilkie, underneath the studious veneer of calm that he always seems to have assumed in public, working furiously to get his picture completed, and becoming ever more frustrated with the difficulties it was posing. These were logistical as well as artistic. As he complained to Collins in early February,

I go on with my picture of the Queen in Council, but with great trouble. I have just applied to Sir Robert Peel to sit, having had the Duke of Sussex, the Duke of Wellington, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Melbourne, Lord Landsdowne, Lord John Russell, and the Archibishop of Canterbury.6

Getting appointments with such luminaries was not the only challenge: as he had no doubt foreseen when discussing the problems of “adjusting the persons” in the previous November, he also had to deal with his sitters’ arrogance, vanity, and sense of entitlement. In the words of his first biographer, Allan Cunningham, published just five years later,

in the painting of his royal commission, the artist … experienced difficulties such as genius ought never to be exposed to, from the far descended and the polite … those who know the presumption and vanity of man, will not wonder at the jostle and intrigue among the sitters for place even in a picture, nor feel surprised to hear that some who were in the rear desired to be in the van [the front], while others who modestly took the back deserved the foreground; and that some, whose fine looks, rather than fine intellect, pushed them into favour, were solicitous about their complexions.7

Despite all these problems, Wilkie did somehow get his picture finished in time for the Summer Exhibition (Fig. 1). As he notes to Collins on 16 April 1838, “The pictures are all in at the Academy. I have sent The Queen’s First Council: it contains about thirty portraits, which form the interest of the picture.”8 The artist was on the Academy’s Hanging Committee that year, and his work enjoyed a good position in the Great Room at Trafalgar Square, where it hung directly beneath a second, more conventional portrait of the new Queen, produced for the Guildhall by Victoria’s then-favourite painter, George Hayter (Fig. 2).9 Given the prominence of the painting’s subject, location, and producer—Wilkie was, alongside Turner, the most celebrated British artist of his period—it was inevitable that, as The Athenaeum reported, The First Council of Queen Victoria was “the object of most general attention” at that year’s Academy’s display.10

This attention, at least as it was expressed in the press, was not at all favourable, however. A writer in The Gentleman’s Magazine, having spotted one of most famous of Wilkie’s earlier genre paintings, The Blind Fiddler, as he walked around the neighbouring National Gallery, expressed astonishment at the inferiority of the artist’s new painting when compared to its predecessor:

It is in fact scarcely possible to believe that they can both have proceeded from the same hand. The portraits contained in the new picture are commonplace, and, in most instances, poor resemblances of the individuals intended to be portrayed. The composition is withal characterised by a sickly, treacly tone of colour, and by a feebleness of execution and effect.11

The critic of The Athenaeum was a little kinder, praising Wilkie’s likeness of Victoria as one that captured “that modest firmness, that gentle confidence, that deep sense of responsibility, which made the interview he has commemorated so affecting and impressive to all concerned in it.” But this critic, too, then goes on to decry the mannerism of many of the other portraits in the picture, and the sense of “needless monotony” they generate.12 And even when there was sympathy for the challenges faced by the artist, the verdict was ultimately damning. Thus, a critic in The Monthly Chronicle wrote that the artist:

no doubt has had extraordinary difficulties, to contend with, not only in the monotonous costume, schooled attitudes, and conventional deportment of modern existence, but by the suggestions of individual amour propre [that is, his sitters’ sense of self-worth], and so forth. We make these allowances, still the picture does not please us.13

For this critic, the painting was not only “cold and monotonous” in tone, but depicted Victoria as someone who “sits on the edge of her chair like a timid country girl”. The writer’s concluding sentences are perhaps the most telling of all: 

On the whole this picture falls below our expectations, and below the capabilities of the subject; it has every appearance in conception and execution of too much hurry. We are sorry to say all of this, but it is the truth.14

What made things especially dangerous for Wilkie was that such opinions seem to have become shared by his royal patron. The Queen, even as early as February 1838, noted that the picture “contains very few good likenesses; Lord Melbourne’s is quite detestable and really quite vexes me”; and when it came to the display of her portraits at the Exhibition, she no doubt far preferred Hayter’s dull but untroubled canvas.15 By the end of the year, Melbourne was turning Victoria further against the Painter in Ordinary, declaring to her that it “was a great mistake making Wilkie portrait painter”.16 Soon thereafter, following the disastrous reception given to a state portrait of the Queen by the artist at the 1840 Summer Exhibition, she abandoned Wilkie entirely. In 1847, she made her true feelings about his “First Council” painting apparent in her journal, when she described it “as one of the worst pictures I have ever seen, both as to painting & likenesses.”17 Sometimes, the demands of pleasing a patron, preparing a painting for the Summer Exhibition, and impressing the critics at the display, were simply too much for an artist, and a picture, to bear.

  1. Allan Cunningham, The Life of Sir David Wilkie, 3 vols (London: John Murray, 1843), Vol. 3, 226.↩︎

  2. Wilkie to “Miss Wilkie”, 17 October 1837, in Cunningham, The Life of Sir David Wilkie.↩︎

  3. Wilkie to “Miss Wilkie”, 28 October 1837, in Cunningham, The Life of Sir David Wilkie, 227.↩︎

  4. Wilkie to William Collins, 12 November 1837, quoted in Cunningham, The Life of Sir David Wilkie, 229.↩︎

  5. Wilkie to Lady Baird, 2 February 1838, quoted in Cunningham, The Life of Sir David Wilkie, 235.↩︎

  6. Wilkie to William Collins, 12 February 1838, quoted in Cunningham, The Life of Sir David Wilkie, 237–238.↩︎

  7. Cunningham, The Life of Sir David Wilkie, 241–242.↩︎

  8. Wilkie to William Collins, 16 April 1838, quoted in Cunningham, The Life of Sir David Wilkie, 239.↩︎

  9. The relative positions of the two paintings are described by Wilkie in another letter to Collins, this time of 7 May, quoted in Cunningham, The Life of Sir David Wilkie, 244. For Hayter, see Barbara Coffey Bryant’s exemplary entry on the artist, “Sir George Hayter”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).↩︎

  10. “Fine Arts: Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum 550, 12 May 1838, 347.↩︎

  11. “Fine Arts: Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The Gentleman’s Magazine (June 1838): 632.↩︎

  12. “Fine Arts: Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum 550, 12 May 1838, 347.↩︎

  13. “The Exhibition of the Royal Academy: English Art and Artists”, The Monthly Chronicle 1 (1838): 349.↩︎

  14. “The Exhibition of the Royal Academy: English Art and Artists”, The Monthly Chronicle 1 (1838): 350. It seems only fair to note that the picture did receive at least one positive review—see “Stricutures on Pictures”, Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country 17 (June 1838): 760–761—but even this proceeds to poke fun at the artist’s methods of painting.↩︎

  15. Quoted in Oliver Millar, Pictures in the Royal Collection: Later Georgian Pictures, 2 vols (London: Phaidon, 1969), “Text”, 146. Millar’s entry on the painting includes a helpful key to all the sitters in the picture.↩︎

  16. Quoted in Alex Kidson, Earlier British Paintings in the Lady Lever Art Gallery (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), 171; Kidson also discusses the disastrous reception of Wilkie’s state portrait of Victoria at the 1840 Exhibition, 171–175.↩︎

  17. Quoted in Millar, Pictures in the Royal Collection, 146.↩︎

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