IT was in this week of 1841 that one of Scotland’s greatest painters died on board a ship off Gibraltar. Sir David Wilkie was returning from a trip to the Middle East on board the Oriental when he took ill during the return voyage and passed away on the morning of June 1, which was 182 years ago on Thursday.

As was usually the custom at the time, as Wilkie had died of typhoid his body was not allowed ashore and he was buried at sea near the site of the Battle of Trafalgar, which means we have no burial place or mausoleum to mourn him.

There are monuments to him, especially a marble memorial in Cults Parish Church in Fife which was erected by his sister Helen. His greatest legacies, however, are the magnificent paintings he completed during a lifetime which saw him acclaimed by the monarchy, the public and his fellow artists.

As usual, when dealing with artists, authors and the like, I leave the assessment of a person’s work to others who have more experience of such criticism. I merely present the facts as I see them – though on this occasion I will venture an opinion or two about Wilkie, not least because he was hailed as the “people’s painter” for his work that so often showed ordinary people at work and play.

Born on November 18, 1785, in the manse of Cults Parish Church, south-west of Cupar in the centre of Fife, he was the son of the parish minister the Reverend David Wilkie and his wife Isabella, née Lister. Opposite his own marble memorial in Cults Kirk is a similar monument to his parents commissioned by Wilkie, acknowledging his debt to them.

Rev Wilkie was at first opposed to his son’s choice of profession but relented in the face of sheer talent which had already been drawn to the attention of the Earl of Leven.

With his help, Wilkie was sent to the Trustees Academy in Edinburgh at the age of 15, and he studied under painter and pioneering art teacher John Graham. Wilkie was greatly influenced by the works of watercolourist David Allan, who had died in 1796, and like him he soon became what is known as a “genre painter”, concentrating on scenes of everyday life.

Even though still a teenager, Wilkie made a small hit with his painting of Pitlessie Fair near his home in Fife. It is on display in the National Gallery of Scotland, which states on its website: “Painted when Wilkie was just 19, this ambitious ‘portrait’ of the annual May fair in Pitlessie Village demonstrated his remarkable talent and the kind of painting in which he was to excel.

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“Its subject and character were radical departures from the established conventions of history painting, although it was equally demanding in its compositional organisation and variety of figures.

“Wilkie was inspired by examples of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings and also by Scottish folklore and cultural traditions celebrated in contemporary literature. He met with immediate success in London with this as his showpiece, prompting several prestigious commissions.”

He set up home and studio in London in 1805 and made an instant impact with his painting Village Politicians exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1806. He was soon earning considerable sums through commissions for his Scottish genre paintings and in 1809, the Royal Academy broke its own rules to admit Wilkie as an associate even though he was still short of the required 24 years of age.

Two years later, he was elected a full Academician and his career was ever upwards, so much so that the Duke of Wellington paid him £1200 – about £400,000 in today’s money – for a painting to mark the final victory in the Napoleonic Wars. His Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Despatch from Waterloo is in my opinion his greatest work and when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1822, crush barriers had to be erected to preserve it from a clamorous public.

Wilkie’s success saw him appointed as painter to King George VI and one of his most famous works was of the king on his historic 1822 visit to Edinburgh. It showed that Wilkie was a master of portraiture, and he also embraced historical painting.

He took ill through overwork and travelled to Italy to recuperate. He studied Italian and Spanish art and some critics say that caused a deterioration in his later work. I think it merely broadened his outlook and while he could have stayed as a genre painter, Wilkie really wanted to develop as an artist.

Queen Victoria was not amused, however, and it was as well that Wilkie was knighted by William IV the year before her reign started, as he fell out of favour with the monarch. Then came that fateful trip to the Middle East.

Wilkie’s death was marked by his friend and fellow artist JMW Turner in his 1842 painting Peace – Burial at Sea. It is one of Turner’s darkest paintings with a funeral carriage on board standing for the public ceremony Turner believed his friend should have had. The ship’s sails are also black, and mourning for Wilkie, Turner exclaimed that he wished he could have made them blacker still.

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Many of Wilkie’s best works are held by the National Gallery of Scotland while Turner’s tribute is in the Tate Gallery in London.

His sister’s memorial to Wilkie perfectly sums him up: “Sacred to the memory of Sir David Wilkie RA Principal Painter in Ordinary in England and Wales and Limner for Scotland to King George IV, King William IV and Queen Victoria…

“As the painter of domestic scenes, his works were the ornament alike of the palace and the cottage. Through life, he was guided and animated by those sacred principles to which he had so often listened when a boy in this place, from a father’s lips. In order to acquire the accurate means of illustrating by his art the history of our Saviour he departed for the Holy Land and died on the homeward voyage.”