Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of King William IV (1765-1837), Three-Quarter Length, Wearing the Robes of the Garter c.1831

David Wilkie 

Portrait of King William IV (1765-1837), Three-Quarter Length, Wearing the Robes of the Garter, David Wilkie
Oil and Canvas
19th Century
52 1/8 x 42 1/8 inches (132.4cm x 107cm)
Possibly, the artist, until sold at Christie's, London, 25 April 1842, lot 656, ‘William IV in Robes’; Bought by Graves for 58.16 gns.; With Arthur J. Sulley, London; Blakeslee Galleries, New York; American Art Galleries, New York, 22 April 1915, lot 226 ($650 to W. Seaman); Robert C. Vose, Boston, by 1921-1923; Arthur J. Secor; Gifted by above in 1923 to the Toledo Museum of Art, by whom de-accessioned, 2014.
Buffalo Academy of Fine Arts, Academy Notes, XVI, July-December 1921, pp. 53-55; Toledo Museum of Art Museum News, no. 56, April 1930, p. 27, repr. p. 1; Connoisseur, XCI, March 1933, p. 181, repr; B.M. Godwin, Catalogue of European Paintings, Toledo, 1939, pp. 314-315; H. Vollmer, in H. Thieme and F. Becker, Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler, Leipzig, 1947, XXXVI, p. 4; O. Millar, The Later Georgian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen, London, 1969, under no. 1185; The Toledo Museum of Art, European Paintings, Toledo, 1976, pp. 167-168, pl. 330.
Buffalo, Albright Art Gallery, Catalogue of a Collection of Paintings lent by Messrs. R.C. and N.M. Vose of Boston, Mass., 8-31 January 1921, no. 52; Boston, Vose Gallery, Selected Portraits and Ideal Figure Pictures, 2-14 January 1922, no. 3; The Toledo Museum of Art, Portraits and Portraiture Throughout the Ages, 3-31 October 1937, no. 33.
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David Wilkie was one of the most illustrious artists of the early nineteenth century, specializing in portraiture as well as history and genre painting. He enjoyed a meteoric rise from his relatively humble Scottish origins, and began in 1804 with portrait commissions in his native Edinburgh. Just twenty years later, however, he enjoyed the distinction of seeing his own work in the National Gallery in London, and in 1830 succeeded Sir Thomas Lawrence as Principal Painter in Ordinary to King George IV and later William IV, by whom he was knighted in 1836. This composition is his most important portrait of William IV.

The present work relates to Wilkie’s full-length portrait of the king at Windsor Castle, in which William is seen with the Imperial Crown on a table beside him and a ship’s compass (a reference to his days in the Royal Navy) at his feet. The Windsor portrait was designed to be included in the Waterloo Gallery, alongside the numerous portraits by the late Sir Thomas Lawrence. Wilkie’s first sitting with the king was at the Pavilion in Brighton on 7th November 1831. By 28th February the following year, Wilkie wrote to Sir William Knighton that the portrait ‘…is all painted in’ and that ‘[William] Seguier [the Surveyor of the King’s Pictures] did not propose any alteration, but wishes me with glazings to work it up to as much force in colour as possible.’ The full-length at Windsor today appears somewhat dull under its many layers of old, yellowed varnish, and it is only in the present, recently conserved version that one can see the full, colourful effect Wilkie intended. The finished full-length, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1832, was clearly a popular image, for in July 1833 Wilkie wrote to Knighton that he was in the process of finishing two further versions, one of which is doubtless the present picture. It is possible that this picture is that which remained in the artist’s possession, and was sold by his trustees at Christie’s in London in 1842.

William’s reign was marked by dramatic political change. The widespread unpopularity of his lavish spending elder brother, George IV, presented William with a difficult challenge on becoming king in 1830. He quickly demonstrated an ability to fully embrace a need for change, and in a bid to distance himself from his predecessor quickly reduced the monarchy’s expenditure by releasing ownership of three royal yachts, a number of expensive horses, and George IV’s collection of exotic birds. He opened up areas of the grounds at Windsor to the public and demolished a number of royal properties in the center of London to make way for what is now Trafalgar Square. There was even an auction of surplus furniture in Buckingham Palace, held by Bonhams.

Although William’s (and by proxy the monarchy’s) reception amongst the general population was improving, his position amongst the ruling class was in doubt, who viewed his understanding of politics weak and at times naïve. The topic of electoral reform, which had been a central subject of campaign around the general election after George IV’s death, gave William a good opportunity to exert on a public stage his ideals of fairness and equality. Spearheaded by his Prime Minister, Charles, 2nd Earl Grey (1764-1845), the path to widening the franchise was complicated, not least because the bill had to pass the House of Lords, many of whose members benefitted from controlling the famous ‘rotten borough’ constituencies that allowed them to influence the Commons. The first bill was rejected by the Lords in 1831, prompting an immediate outbreak of violence in many cities and towns. There was widespread talk of revolution. William’s plan to ensure the bill’s passage through the Lords was simple, however; he would create enough new, pliant peers to ensure that Grey had the necessary votes. In the event, the mere threat of a deluge of new peers was enough to tip the balance, and in 1832 a revised bill received Royal Assent on 7th June 1832.

Thereafter William’s relationship with parliament became difficult and he made little attempt to involve himself with the cabinet, whose ideas on foreign policy conflicted with his own. By early 1837 William was in rapidly declining health, experiencing bouts of serious asthma attacks as well as heart problems. In the early hours of 20th June 1837 William died, and was succeeded by his younger brother’s daughter, Victoria. William was the last British monarch to also be king of Hanover, in Germany, as salic law prevented Victoria succeeding to the Hanoverian throne.
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