Sketch of a head for 'The Rabbit on the Wall'

Oil Painting
1816 (painted)
Not currently on display at the V&A

Place Of Origin

A faint composite sketch of a head through which another scene (apparently religious) is visible.

object details
Object Type
Materials and Techniques
Oil on millboard
Brief Description
Oil painting entitled 'Sketch of a Head for "The Rabbit on the Wall"' by Sir David Wilkie. Great Britain, 1816.
Physical Description
A faint composite sketch of a head through which another scene (apparently religious) is visible.
  • Estimate height: 5.875in
  • Estimate width: 5.375in
Marks and Inscriptions
'D Wilkie 1816' (Signed and dated by the artist)
Credit line
Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857
Object history
Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857

Extract from Parkinson, Ronald, Catalogue of British Oil Paintings 1820-1860. Victoria & Albert Museum, HMSO, London, 1990. p.xviii.

John Sheepshanks (1784-1863) was the son of a wealthy cloth manufacturer. He entered the family business, but his early enthusiasms were for gardening and the collecting of Dutch and Flemish prints. He retired from business at the age of 40, by which time he had begun collecting predominantly in the field of modern British art. He told Richard Redgrave RA, then a curator in the South Kensington Museum (later the V&A) of his intention to give his collection to the nation. The gallery built to house the collection was the first permanent structure on the V&A site, and all concerned saw the Sheepshanks Gift as forming the nucleus of a National Gallery of British Art. Sheepshanks commissioned works from contemporary artists, bought from the annual RA summer exhibitions, but also bought paintings by artists working before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837. The Sheepshanks Gift is the bedrock of the V&A's collection of British oil paintings, and served to encourage many other collectors to make donations and bequests.

Historical significance: Sir David Wilkie R.A. (November 1785-1841) was born at Cults, which is about twenty miles north of Edinburgh. His father was the minister there and his maternal grandfather owned the mill at Pitlessie. His formal artistic training began when he was fifteen and his family sent him to the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh; this was the earliest publicly funded art school in Britain. He moved to London in 1805, and first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1806 at the age of only twenty. His painting "The Village Politicians" was a sensation and he was immediately something of a celebrity. He went on to become internationally recognised, his paintings of everyday life, with strong narrative themes, peopled with expressive characters and packed with eye-catching details, hugely popular with the public. He was made a full member of the Royal Academy in 1811, was appointed Painter to the King in 1830 and was knighted in 1836.

This rather strange oil sketch on millboard, signed and dated 1816, appears at first glance to be a sketch of two head; one face on, glancing to our right, and one in profile. But then it becomes apparent that the heads are painted over another sketch of what seems to be a religious ceremony in a church.

The head which is full face, glancing to our right corresponds with the head of the young man in Wilkie's painting "The Rabbit on the Wall" (1816). The composition of the finished painting is known from the print by John Burnet after the painting then in the possession of John Turner. This shows a young family of six sitting in a modest cottage interior at night, the father entertaining his family by casting shadows on the wall in the shape of a rabbit made with his fingers in candlelight. The three older children watch with delight, one of them holding the candle, while the youngest, sitting on its mother's knee, tries to reach out and touch the "rabbit". Another oil sketch for this figure is in Tate Britain.

The head to the right in profile has not been identified; it appears to be of a girl, but it does not correspond to any figure in "The Rabbit on the Wall". But the underlying 'ghost' sketch of a scene in a church has been associated with the painting "The Soldier's Grave", signed and dated 1813, in Nottingham (The Castle Museum and Art Gallery). The Nottingham painting is cat. no.10 in Nicholas Tromans David Wilkie: Painter of everyday life (Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2002), and is illustrated. This shows a funeral service taking place in a large church, the figures dwarfed by their surroundings. As Tromans notes, it is "a deliberate exercise in the manner of Rembrandt, echoing his famous 'Woman taken in Adultery', then in the collection of Wilkie's client J. J. Angerstein...". In the V&A picture the figure of the priest from the Nottingham picture is clearly visible; turned with his back to the viewer, wearing a long white surplice over which can be seen the distinctive black "V" shaped academic hood.
Historical context
This is one of eight works attributed to David Wilkie (1785-1841) which were given to the Victoria & Albert Museum by to the collector John Sheepshanks (1784-1863) in 1857, only 16 years after Wilkie's death. But although Sheepshanks and Wilkie were contemporaries and Sheepshanks knew personally many of the artists whose work he owned, it seems likely that the works attributed to Wilkie in Sheepshanks' collection were not purchased directly from the artist .
Accession Number

About this object record

Explore the Collections contains over a million catalogue records, and over half a million images. It is a working database that includes information compiled over the life of the museum. Some of our records may contain offensive and discriminatory language, or reflect outdated ideas, practice and analysis. We are committed to addressing these issues, and to review and update our records accordingly.

You can write to us to suggest improvements to the record.

Suggest Feedback

record createdSeptember 14, 2006
Record URL