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It is well established that portraiture is pre-eminently an art form, but stages of appreciation and fashion are such that the portrait is also a form of commemoration and historical documentation. Interpretation of a painted likeness may often reveal a background narrative, giving insight into circumstances and character of period and event. Such images   present us with opportunities for the explanation and interpretation of social detail in past generations, enhancing our understanding of an often distant past otherwise enshrined only in the bleak and featureless written and printed word.

We are often informed on the general outlines of the past, but our understanding may lack precision and confidence. Pictures represent legitimate evidence and a historical source which may be taken into consideration for reconstructing the historical past. It is all the more valuable to have graphic evidence for a subject that still begs careful analysis and full and satisfactory historical explanation. But where there is only a modicum of graphic evidence to satisfy a healthy curiosity and appetite, the available image may be over-


  • 'The Bagpiper' by Sir David Wilkie, 1812-13. Caricature, character study or historical document?
  • Late 18th-century bagpipe, bellows-blown, with the drones set in a common stock. The chanter is a long flat chanter with an extension or foot-joint.
  • Typical 18th-century style of turning on the neck of the chanter, a mark of the trade of the turner in Scotland, comparing closely with the instrument in Wilkie's portrait.
  • Child's chair with elaborate bobbin-style turning and spindle legs comparing closely with 18thcentury pastoral pipe chanters. All illustrations by courtesy of the National Museums of Scotland

employed and reproduced without proper scrutiny, understanding or appraisal. All evidence, written or graphic, must be subjected to the critical process before valid inferences can be drawn and conclusions reached. The history of piping is no exception to these cautionary remarks and spurious images have often been served up to a credulous and unsuspecting consumer. Since portraits of pipers in Scotland are rare before the middle of the nineteenth century, the same images have been reproduced time and again without a very necessary critical appraisal of character and circumstance. Sir David Wilkie’s Bagpiper is an example of this process and it is worth considering if this portrait has much, a little, or nothing to tell us.

In the wider context of European art, the bagpipe was well-known, especially as the more or less universal musical instrument of angels and animals in medieval Manuscript illumination, and also as the focus of satire and social comment in the lively scenes of sixteenth and seventeenth century art. The Flemish school of painters typically included pipers in their crowded landscapes and Brueghel included pipers and bagpipes in his crowd scenes which were designed to satirise the sin and drunkenness of a European peasantry. The association of the bagpipe with such excess in Scotland has been common in both the literary and colloquial idiom although we have none of the vividness of Brueghel to flesh out the briefly stated sanctions of town council and kirk session.

Sir David Wilkie’s portrait The Bagpiper is painted on a small wood panel, approximately 26 x 21cm. It was painted in London, probably towards the end of the year 1812 or during the opening weeks of 1813. It is likely that it was painted speculatively for exhibition in the British Institution where an exhibition opened on 8 February 1813. The painting was bought for 40 guineas on 21 April 1813 after the exhibition at the British Institution closed. The purchaser was Francis Freeling, to whom Wilkie delivered the painting by hand on 22 April. The painting was sold for £116 lls. 0d. in 1837 on the dispersal of Freeling's estate following his death. The purchaser gifted it to the Tate Gallery in 1847 where it has since remained.

Wilkie's client, Francis Freeling (1764-1836), was renowned in his day as postal reformer and book collector rather than art-collector. He had little or no known connection with Scotland. Born in Bristol, he began his official career in the post office there and entered the General Post Office in London in 1787. He successively filled the offices of Surveyor, principal and resident surveyor, joint secretary and finally sole and principal secretary for       almost half a century, dying at his house in London in July 1836. In a debate in the House of Lords in 1836, the Duke of Wellington stated that under Freeling's management the English post-office had been better administered than any post office in Europe or in any other part of the world. Freeling himself possessed ‘a clear and vigorous understanding ... and the power of expressing his thoughts and opinions, both verbally and in writing, with force and precision’. A baronetcy was conferred on him for his public services in 1828. He spent his leisure in forming a library, was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1801, and was one of the original members of the Roxburghe Club founded in 1812.

The known facts of the history of The Bagpiper tell us little of interpretive value for the   portrait image itself. The life and times of the artist are more revealing. Sir David Wilkie was born in the Parish of Cults, to the south of Cupar in central Fife, where his father was the minister. Inferences to be drawn from the proverbial phrase ‘a son of the manse’ are well borne out in the life and career of the artist. Dedicating himself exclusively to his art, he enjoyed a brilliant career in London and subsequently a considerable reputation abroad, He became a European celebrity, working for kings and statesmen, and not the least part of his popularity derived from his detailed and unselfconscious view of Scotland and its culture.

After training in Edinburgh at the Trustees Academy between 1799 and 1804, he worked briefly in Scotland before settling in London in 1805, where he concentrated on genre painting, a style of imaginative figurative art of which he has been said to be the founder. The tendency has been for the attention of art history to be lavished on landscape and history paintings to the exclusion of the imaginative figurative style evolved by Wilkie and more or less successfully emulated by later generations of Victorian painters. It enjoyed an enthusiastic following in his own day and now comes into its own again, not only as an indicator of contemporary taste but also intrinsically as a form of historical documentation. The interest and enthusiasm of European Romanticism had been focused in the late eighteenth century on Scotland as a fount of primitive virtues and sublime and picturesque landscape. The focus was sharpened by contemporary literary success. A reverence for the ‘romance’ of clan and Jacobite past was created by the story-telling wizardry of Sir Walter Scott, and royalty's endorsement by George IV in the 1820s and later by Queen Victoria and her court set the seal on Scotland's success.

Part of Scotland's success was undoubtedly Wilkie's painting, in which, living in London, he created an unselfconscious view of Scotland and its culture. His first major picture, Pitlessie Fair, is a good example both of Wilkie's style and composition and his popularity. It was an elaborate portrayal of village life and the folk of his father's parish, painted in 1804. For the historian, it is a vivid evocation of Scotland of the Statistical Accounts, the parish by parish, country-wide description by its parish ministers, of whom the artist's father was one. It shows Scotland at the end of the eighteenth century when the process of agricultural change and improvement had taken its first steps. It is a detailed examination and recording of a social life that was soon to pass away and Wilkie may have been deliberately depicting traditional society in transition and consciously recording a past on its deathbed. The artist's known and evident care for factual accuracy effectively deny the painting a sentimental bias. Wilkie's successors as genre painters emphasized the nostalgia in their subjects of comparable historical status rather than the precision of the record.

With these considerations in mind, we can allow a more constructive appraisal of Wilkie's Bagpiper. He portrayed and interpreted the traditional culture of Scotland for the world or at least ‘polite society' beyond. The culture portrayed was in parts typical and in others less so. There is an informative quality about Wilkie's work. He seemed to be deliberately identifying social type and it may be difficult now to decide whether he was representing a character or a stereotype. He seems to be lending symbolic support to one of society's less secure members, the itinerant musician, and perhaps underpinning his social role and appealing for an understanding of subtle undercurrents better known in Scotland than elsewhere. From time to time in history, the wandering minstrel has been shown to merit our attention and Wilkie's ‘Bagpiper’ appears to be one of this caste.

From a piping point of view, the portrait is both curious and significant. It shows a bellows bagpipe being played with the bellows strap apparently worn over the shoulder. But the strap may have nothing to do with the bellows, being a shoulder strap of a carrying bag for reeds or other belongings. Both the dress and the possibility of a shoulder bag place the subject in the role of the itinerant musician and is reminiscent cf the later caricatures by the talented deaf and dumb street artist, Walter Geikie. The three drones against the piper's left shoulder are set in a common stock and may be a bass and two tenors, or a tenor and a bass with an extension modelled as a second tenor drone, or a bass, tenor and baritone. This is the least satisfactory piece of artistic working of technical detail. Another detail worthy of notice is the chanter, which may have been a long, flat chanter, of the 'pastoral pipe' style. It shows at least the comparatively intricate turning at the neck which is particularly distinctive and almost a trademark of Scottish pipe-makers of the eighteenth century. There are several sets of pipes and stray chanters in museum collections with chanters of this style. Unfortunately the chanter goes out of the lower edge of the painting and so does not show an extension or foot-joint which is a particular feature of these pastoral pipes. The turning detail at the neck is a trademark in the sense that it seems to mark out the pipe-makers as essentially wood-turners to trade and training, rather than for example professional musical instrument makers. The turning detail is characteristic of eighteenth century Scottish vernacular furniture making and is well seen for example on chairs of the period.

The slender drones and delicate tulip-style ‘tops' lend credibility to Wilkie's depiction of the bagpipe. We should credit him with greater technical accuracy in this respect than other artists. He was certainly conversant with bagpipes and may have learned to play them. He appears to have possessed a set of small pipes. A portrait of David Wilkie, now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (PG 1443), by his friend Andrew Geddes in 1816 shows Wilkie casually dressed in his house-clothes surrounded by his belongings, some of which appeared as props in his paintings. The artist is leaning on a mahogany chair upholstered in gros point embroidery that is known to have been a piece of family furniture and features prominently in at least one of his paintings. On top of an ornate press against the wall of the room in which Wilkie is portrayed, there is a set of what appears to be bellows blown small pipes, of a dark wood and ivory mounted, consisting almost certainly of drones in a common stock.

Evidence may yet emerge that a particular individual sat for the figure of the piper. Though painted in London, the image may have been modelled on a character seen in his native Fife or in the Lothians, possibly even in Edinburgh where an itinerant musician could profitably ply his trade. In the absence of sufficient historical documentation, we may infer interpretative detail from the picture that is unwarranted. We may assume, for example, that the piper of the portrait was a particular individual, in a particular place, at a particular moment in time, engaged in a particular set of circumstances. This is almost certainly not the case. The very lack of biographical detail among Wilkie'’s own papers and correspondence suggests this, and without new and significant evidence emerging we have to limit our interpretation strictly. Set against this dismissal, we should bear in mind the keen artistic observation that is a mark of Sir David Wilkie's work,

Though probably not a likeness of a particular individual, the portrait can be judged against Wilkie's other type studies. The disposition of elements on the canvas is artistically balanced but lacks a depth which might lend the composition a more convincing and natural quality. The informed eye may have to be persuaded that what we have is a real piper playing a real instrument, Physically for example the left hand appears slightly detached and not in harmony with the right hand. The long-fingered, sinewy, almost skeletal quality of the fingers of an old piper are conveyed by one hand but not by both,

Development and repetition of this subject by other artists tended to produce a form of stereotype, even burlesque seemed to become easy as the nineteenth century progressed, for example, to copy Wilkie's image and label it as ‘Irish Piper’, a caricature of great significance in the era when Ireland's political and social problems were impinging heavily on British consciousness. The image of the Irishman, repugnant to many, created in the political cartoon of the day to evoke instant response included details evident in Wilkie's portrait, the cocked hat, cast of features, the combination of overcoat, waistcoat and necktie, apart from the pipes themselves. It is not without significance that by the mid to late nineteenth century, a bagpipe with bellows and common stock might be more readily associated then (as now) with Ireland rather than Scotland or England. This type of bagpipe was becoming rare by the 1840s and the image more eccentric than when Wilkie painted his original. Much of Wilkie's work enjoyed enormous popularity and was familiar to many. This and others of his paintings were copied by line engraving onto copper plates and prints, often to the number of several thousand taken from them. An image such as The Bagpiper circulated widely and was owned and copied by artists in this form.

It would be difficult now to assess contemporary response to these later workings of Wilkie's subject, but we may guess that they may have evoked a mixture of emotions such as amusement, contempt, or even distaste and revulsion, very different from an earlier   sympathetic recognition of a universal type which Wilkie had portrayed with care and deliberation.

Wilkie's biographer, Allan Cunningham, in his three volume Life of Sir David Wilkie of 1843, reports significantly that The Bagpiper was at first in tartan but that since Sir Walter Scott had not yet invaded the English imagination, this gloss was removed or the composition was in some way changed. The conclusion may have to be that Wilkie had not created a portrait ‘after life', in other words, from his subject posing before him at the easel, in London or elsewhere. The composition was probably a more long-term and abstract process and represents the drawing together of fragments of experience such as the memory of incident or event and the glimpse of individual or character. The portrait represents an aggregation of impressions in the artist's mind cohering into an imaginative and memorable creation (rather than re-creation) of character and situation. Hugh Cheape. National Museums of Scotland.

Note. I am indebted to Professor Hamish Miles of the Barber Institue of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, for the preparation of this essay.