National Gallery buys newly discovered Wilkie

November 20 2014

Image of National Gallery buys newly discovered Wilkie

Picture: The National Gallery

The National Gallery in London has acquired its first painting by the Scottish artist David Wilkie, after it was discovered in a US auction by the sleuthing, London based art dealer Ben Elwes. Says the NG press release:

A Young Woman Kneeling at a Prayer Desk was discovered in the USA after last being heard of in1872, when it was put up for sale by a relative of the 1st Earl Mulgrave. It is thought his daughter – Lady Augusta Phipps, who died in 1813 aged just 12 – is the subject of the painting.

The work was known to exist because it had featured in an oil sketch Display of Eight Paintings that the artist sent to his brother, Captain Wilkie, an army officer in India.

It was London-based art dealer Ben Elwes who recognised the painting as a Wilkie when he saw it in the catalogue for a sale in New York. He says “I know the work of Wilkie very well and I could see straight away that this was a painting of very great quality. It was tremendously exciting to make this discovery.”

The National Gallery is able to purchase A Young Woman Kneeling at a Prayer Desk thanks to Marcia Lay – an art teacher who taught at Lordswood Girls School, Harborne, for more than 20 years. She died in June 2012, leaving a generous gift in her Will to the National Gallery, and this will fully fund the purchase of the painting in what is Legacy Awareness Month.  Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said “This acquisition is a fantastic example of legacy giving and one that I hope will inspire others to do the same. Thanks to the wonderful generosity of Marcia Lay, an art teacher, this beautiful painting will be seen and enjoyed by a huge audience for the first time, so helping to ensure that her name – and her gesture - is celebrated for generations to come.”

Congrats all round - a great story.

Update - a reader writes:

The Wilkie is nice but I don’t think it’s outstanding enough for the National, nor can I believe Wilkie could ever have been a priority for them in filling gaps.

Another reader, Selby Whittingham, points out that of course this is not in fact the National Gallery's 'first' Wilkie; there were plenty before the official split of the National's collection to form the Tate gallery in 1954, including The Blind Fiddler, which was part of the original 1826 Sir George Beaumont bequest which got the National collection going. Such was the artist's repute in those days that the National even had a statue of Wilkie by Samuel Joseph. The statue is now in storage at Tate, along with 58 of 60 works by Wilkie in Tate's collection.

Update II - another reader writes:

This is hardly a National Gallery-level picture. Regional museum at best. And on top of their recent acquisition of Lawrence's Portrait of Emily Lamb, which is the sort of thing you'd find in a Christie's or Sotheby's Day Sale. What's happening with the NG's quality control?

Update III - another reader writes to send a link to the National Gallery's collecting policy, but adds:

[...]though, for the life of me, I can't see where the Wilkie fit in [...]

Another reader leaps to the National's defence though, in response to our first two comments above:

I think your two recent commentators are being rather snobbish about the National Gallery’s very recent acquisition of the David Wilkie portrait.   Certainly, the Louvre did not think they were making an acquisition only suitable for a “Provincial” collection when they bought Wilkie’s portrait of his Parents in 2012. ( ref: Latribunedelart )  They, just like the NG, obviously thought he is a painter of international interest and worth, and the quality of the NG’s new “Portrait of a Young Woman kneeling at a Prayer Desk” is patently obvious.  I wonder if such distain would be shown by your commentators if the portrait was by a contemporary French artist ( say Isabey, Baron Gerard or a Troubadour-style Ingres ) rather than a Scottish artist?!

The Lawrence portrait of “Emily Mary Lamb” was an Acceptance in Lieu so the National Gallery paid nothing for this example of the artist’s fluent sketch portrait.  And the Wilkie fits easily into the NG’s Acquisition Policy of 2012, which details “Developing the canon” especially in eighteenth and nineteenth century painting, and Criteria 2: Narrative significance—does the painting enhance the way the National Gallery tells the story of art?

Both the Lawrence and the Wilkie fit the policy, albeit with small scale examples: and they are likely to remain on view amongst the grander British paintings in the collection.  Much more shocking, in my opinion, is why Tate Britain is unable or unwilling to display more of its rich and deep collection of historic British painting and still insists in giving over too much space to contemporary art?

I expect most of us can agree on the last point.

Another reader, who was involved in the Lawrence case cited above, writes to express further support for the two acquisitions, and lays into comment number 2 in some style:

I'm appalled that you've provided a stage for [the second comment above].

This person must be very grand to be able to pooh-pooh the taste and knowledge of the talented curators of the National Gallery. Emily Lamb is a beautiful portrait by one of this nation's greatest artists, of an important and interesting sitter, and it would certainly have been deemed "Evening Sale" material -- I know, because I was privy to its valuation during negotiations, and -- more practically -- I have foreign clients who would have paid through the nose if it could have been exported. It is a blessing to everyone that it has wound up on the Gallery's walls.

More importantly, someone should point out that given the piteous undervaluing of Old Masters as a field in general, the Day Sales at both Christie's and Sotheby's are often full of museum-quality pictures, for example the impeccably-preserved cover lot by Lemoyne at Christie's, or the fascinating Jan Boeckhorst at Sotheby's. Your contributor should look at all these works -- and the Wilkie, for that matter -- with more attention, and ask himself why all of the above artists are not better known to the lay public, rather than making the sort of snobbish and arrogant claims which are the armour of the secret intellectual insecurities of a pseudo-connoisseur. If museums do not display works by Lawrence, Wilkie, Lemoyne, Boeckhorst and other long-unfashionable or unrecognised artists, then they fail in their function, which is (at least in part) to deepen and broaden the public knowledge of the history of art, and its appreciation of all sorts of different real artistry -- an appreciation which should be the empirical bedrock of how we judge a work of art. The truth is that if Wilkie had even a fraction of the layman's celebrity that he deserves, this self-appointed critic would not dare to denigrate the acquisition. He does not realise that; the National Gallery curators do, and kudos to them.

I will refrain from sinking my teeth into the other moronic implication of this comment -- that it is acceptable or expected for regional museums to be second rate simply because they're further away from HIS address -- or perhaps because their visitors, poor hapless country rubes that they are, suffer from being less sophisticated than your omniscient, urbane, self-contented interlocutor?

Maybe it's the exhaustion talking -- I always enjoy reading this stuff but have never before been moved to write in. But that comment just gets my goat. What a twit.

At the risk of incurring this reader's permanent wrath, I must confess that I never quite saw the Lamb portrait as a natural fit for the National Gallery, and indeed said so at the time. The feeling was only strengthened after having been to see it hanging at the National, for it seemed to me overwhelmed by the pictures hanging nearby. But for what it's worth, I can see that it would have been in an Evening Sale! I can't find out what sum the picture was valued at, but I note from the AIL annual report that there was a 'negotiation' on the price before it was accepted, which means it must have started somewhat higher than the final figure.

Finally, another reader has this succinct view:

Ps, WT* is that NG Wilkie all about? Day sale mediocrity indeed.

Update IV: another reader is not at all convinced by the Wilkie:

You have recently highlighted the recent purchase of Wilkie's Young Woman Kneeling at a Prayer Desk and appeal to buy a new frame for one of their Titians.

I don't know the terms of Marcia Lay's bequest, and we should be grateful for any such generosity, but do these examples really represent the level of ambition we should aspire to for our National Collection? As far as I'm aware, they have not had a public appear for a painting since 2009. At the moment there is an export block on a wonderful early Italian painting by Giovanni da Rimini, that is one of a tiny number pre-renaissance Riminese paintings in the UK. The National has only a single work from this school, from the time when Italy was developing concepts that would define Western art until the 19th century. A beautiful Bruegel and one on Stubbs' most notable non-equine pictures were sold at the same time and will doubtless be up for export shortly. If the National Gallery isn't going to make an effort to save even one of these, what are they there for? It is hard work raising money for artworks, but it has begun to feel as though the National Gallery, as with the British Museum, has decided it can no longer be bothered even to try.

Update V - a reader wonders:

Wouldn’t you say this was a posthumous portrait done to memorialise the deceased daughter?  Using her clothes and maybe a miniature or drawing likeness, and staged by Wilkie to maximise the idea of a child ‘gone to heaven’.

Update VI - a reader who's been to see the picture writes:

It’s been very interesting reading the debate on the NG’s new Wilkie acquisition. I went to see it on Friday evening and liked it a lot (more than expected after the first couple of comments on the post). It looks beautifully painted and (though I’m far from an expert) in good condition.

The main issue is that it’s on display in Room 34, right next to Gainsborough’s Mrs Siddons and two along from Hogarth’s Graham Children. As such, it (and Lawrence’s Emily Mary Lamb) are completely dwarfed in scale. This is made even more pronounced by the sheer size of Room 34 itself. I’d have thought it would have been far better to hang them both in Room 35 (together with Mr and Mrs Andrews and Hogarth’s “Shrimp Girl”), which would much better suit their more intimate scale.

While another focuses on what we might have bought instead:

The reader who writes about the plight of the Rimini panel currently at risk of going abroad hits the nail squarely on its head.  Nine out of 11 export stopped paintings eventually went abroad last year and the National Gallery, to my knowledge, did not campaign for a single one.  I would like someone from the Gallery to explain why the Wilkie painting enables them to tell a better story of the development of Western art as compared to what would have been possible should any of the major paintings by Le Brun, Cropsey, Puligo or Coello have been acquired.  The Rimini Panel should be subject to an all guns blazing appeal given its rarity, beauty and provenance and it’s disappointing (but not surprising) that so far we hear nothing from those who could make a difference.

I think losing the Le Brun was a great shame.

Another reader tells us what the price was for both the Lawrence and the Wilkie:

Just on the question of prices for the Lawrence “Mary Lamb” portrait and the Wilkie.  The 2010-12 Acceptance in Lieu Report Appendix confirms that 472,500GBP was settled for the Lawrence and, according to the “Herald” the NG paid 200,000GBP for the Wilkie.

Finally, our chastised commenter number 2 writes to ask:

What is more snobbish (or Twit-ish); daring to express a view on the quality or not of a painting, or saying we must all slavishly follow the views of art dealers and museum curators, just because the former group sold it to the latter?

Update VII - I'm told by a reader who attended, that when the picture was unveiled at a recent Beaumont Group dinner (they're are the gallery's better off donors) there was something of a collective intake of breath, as if to say, 'what the...?'

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