About the artwork
The Lady Lever picture was ordered for the British Embassy in Paris by the Lord Chamberlain and in October 1837 Wilkie commenced work. It promised to be a very financially rewarding task with the possibility of repeat portraits and copies. In the event it was an unmitigated disaster and was so badly received that the critical scorn heaped upon it, in part precipitated the artist leaving the country.
Victoria granted Wilkie sittings for the portrait at Brighton and at Windsor Castle. Wilkie's own view of the Queen was that she was 'glossy and clean-looking' and 'eminently beautiful' but he later complained that she had not been an attentive sitter nor had she given him time to do sufficient work on the portrait in her presence. Victoria's dislike of the picture appears in part to have been fostered by the then Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, who was very close to her and saw her on a daily basis.
While providing her with sensitive and useful help guiding her through her various duties as an inexperienced constitutional monarch, his old mannish rather starry-eyed adulation of her as a beautiful young virgin queen did not equip him best for an objective judgment of her appearance. Charles Greville, the diarist, thought that Melbourne and Victoria's relationship was unconsciously sexual and the public picked up on their mutual infatuation too. At Ascot Victoria was booed as 'Mrs Melbourne'.
Wilkie, when the portrait was finished, considered it to be 'very like her, but no-one can tell how likenesses strike other people'. Victoria in her journal wrote that Lord Melbourne thought it 'a bad thing to send these bad pictures of me all over the Continent'. In 1840 the picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy. The critic and novelist William Thackeray writing forFraser's Magazine compared Victoria to a ship's figurehead and thought the robes looked as though carved from oak and that it was a bad likeness. Other newspapers were also condemnatory but it fell to The Observer to outdo all this sycophantic indignation:
"The countenance is wholly unlike that of our youthful and lovely sovereign; the colour, as compared with her fresh tints and blooming carnations, is as brick dust to rouge and pearl powder; the figure is dowdy and ungraceful, stiff without dignity, formal without the vestige of grandeur, and clumsy with not the least semblance of power and life. The hands and arms, which, in the original, are of a rare whiteness and delicacy, are here those of a nut-brown milkmaid, or some other rustic damsel of low degree, being at once dark-coloured, coarse-skinned, muscular and large to the utmost point of ungainliness; and the feet, where discernible are made to match."
Victoria was in reality 51 inches high, had the distinctive and pronounced Hanoverian nose, possessed a weak chin and was inclined to fat (her waistline would later expand to 48 inches). Dressed in state robes her bulk gained further amplitude. Showing her full-face and under a light that gave little definition to her already weak facial bone structure was probably a mistake on Wilkie's part, as was setting her against the clichéd Baroque setting for royal state portraits of a substantial swagged curtain and a marble column. It makes her look small, something the queen was anxious about. She had said as much to Melbourne.
Had Wilkie approached the problem like the earlier court painter Sir Anthony Van Dyke faced with the similarly diminutive Charles I he might have adopted a lower viewpoint that gave the illusion of height to the subject. A profiled view of Victoria's face might have been more flattering. Temperamentally Wilkie was probably the wrong artist for a formal portrait of this type and would perhaps have been better suited to something more informal. Nonetheless he was correct to think that he had been badly treated.
The picture was duly delivered to the British Embassy in Paris, but substituted seven years later by a copy made by William Corden of the F.X. Winterhalter painting. It was donated to the then Ambassador's wife, the Marchioness of Normanby, a former lady of the bedchamber to Queen Victoria. A measure of how much Victoria loathed the portrait is that when the subsequent Marquis of Normanby offered it to the National Portrait Gallery in 1899 she intervened to prevent it being accepted.
Throughout her long reign Victoria was an assiduous manager of her own public projection. She later virtually stage-managed photographs of herself as a grieving widow and both she and her husband Prince Albert had many family portraits made showing them as dutiful and loving parents of a large brood of young royals, on holiday in the Highlands or in the nursery at Windsor. The rejection of Wilkie's picture in 1840 was her first exercise in the control of the royal image.
Wilkie went abroad in 1840 travelling and painting in the Middle East. In 1840 he sent a small portrait from Constantinople of the Sultan Abd-ul-Mejid as a gift to Victoria. The monarch is shown seated and in a fairly relaxed posture and there appears to have been some sympathy between artist and sitter. This picture remains in the royal collection and was shown at the Royal Academy in 1842.
Wilkie died at sea off Malta on the return journey to England in 1841. His own memorial was the magnificent painting by Turner entitled 'Peace-Burial at Sea' shown at the same Royal Academy exhibition in 1842 and now in the Tate Gallery. Turner also knew what it was to be rejected by Victoria, having made a pitch for royal patronage in 1841 with the painting of Prince Albert's birthplace 'Schloss Rosenau'now at Sudley House in Mossley Hill.
Lever acquired the picture for his collection in 1906
David Wilkie (1785-1841) was the most successful Scottish artist of the first half of the nineteenth century. He achieved almost instant success when he moved to London from Edinburgh in 1805. At the Royal Academy in that year Wilkie exhibited what was regarded as a new type of narrative subject picture showing affectionate views of Scottish rural celebrations and festivities.
Often humorous, invariably full of incident and seen at the time as paralleling Dutch seventeenth-century genre scenes by artists like Teniers, his pictures struck a popular chord. Along with the poetry of Robert Burns, and the novels of Walter Scott he satisfied the growing taste for Scottish subjects.
During the 1820s Wilkie's style broadened as he moved away from precise and clear figure delineation towards a lusher browner and more fluid brushwork. He experimented with mixing into his oil paints combinations of wax and megilp (a mixture of linseed oil and varnish). He mistakenly believed, as had Sir Joshua Reynolds before him that the resultant deep tones and darker overall appearance was closer to the finish of Old Masters like Titian and Rembrandt.
Although his considerable network of patrons ensured he had many commissions, particularly for portraits, Wilkie was henceforth subject to criticism and he never again held the ascendancy in popular affection that he had enjoyed in his early career.
Wilkie was a popular royal painter. George IV gave him well-paid commissions when he was Prince of Wales and he made him his 'Painter in Ordinary' when he became King. George's successor William IV knighted Wilkie in 1836. When the 18 year old Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, Wilkie was again appointed as Painter in Ordinary and was thus a natural choice to make state portraits of the young queen for various foreign embassies.