A painting by Scottish artist Sir David Wilkie, that was thought to be lost for more than 140 years, goes on display at the National Gallery, London today 20 November 2014 – and its purchase is all thanks to the gift of a Birmingham art teacher.
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.”
Wilkie is often called the first truly international British artist, and A Young Woman Kneeling at a Prayer Desk will enhance the National Gallery’s collection of British painting in the nineteenth century by artists who have themselves been highly influential in the development of European painting. It will also further emphasise the great inspiration which British painters of this period drew from the Old Masters. It is just the second Scottish work to enter the National Gallery collection (the first being The Archers by Raeburn, acquired in 2001).
Dr Susan Foister, Deputy Director and Curator of British Paintings says “The painting vividly shows off Wilkie’s outstanding painterly powers to concentrated effect within its small compass. The young subject of the painting is depicted kneeling at an altar, but she has turned her face directly to us. In this way Wilkie creates a moment of small drama, the sense of discovering, even intruding on, the girl at her private prayers. The pose does not merely enable her features to be clearly identifiable to those who knew her, it also creates a moving connection to the viewer, which is emphasised by the dramatic illumination of her face and figure, her solemn expression and the accuracy and delicacy with which Wilkie suggests the face of a young girl poised between childhood and adulthood..”
A Young Woman Kneeling at a Prayer Desk goes on display in Room 34 of the National Gallery today alongside works by Turner, Constable, Gainsborough and Reynolds.
For more information, visit the National Gallery’s website.