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Oil painting - The Refusal
  • The Refusal
    Wilkie, David Sir, RA, born 1785 - died 1841
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The Refusal

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Place of origin:

    Great Britain (painted)

  • Date:

    1814 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Wilkie, David Sir, RA, born 1785 - died 1841 (artist)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    oil on panel

  • Credit Line:

    Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Paintings, Room 82, The Edwin and Susan Davies Galleries, case WEST WALL

Wilkie took his subject from the Robert Burns song 'Duncan Gray', (1798) in which proud Maggie initially refuses Duncan's proposal of marriage, but later changes her mind. Wilkie's friend, the painter William Mulready, was the model for Duncan.

Physical description

Oil on panel depicting an uneasy encounter between the two principal protagonists. Duncan has come to woo Maggie, who is at first stand-offish until her admirer's pride is hurt, whereupon she falls lovesick.

Place of Origin

Great Britain (painted)


1814 (painted)


Wilkie, David Sir, RA, born 1785 - died 1841 (artist)

Materials and Techniques

oil on panel


Height: 60.5 cm estimate, Width: 52.5 cm estimate

Object history note

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.

Tromans, Nicholas. David Wilkie: painter of everyday life. exh.cat. London: Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2002, p.72, cat. no. 13

"13.The Refusal
Victoria and Albert Museum
oil on panel, 63 x 51.3 cm
signed, and dated 1814

Bought by Dr. Matthew Baillie, Wilkie's physician, for 330gns.; exhibited at the RA in 1814 as The Refusal, from Burns' song of Duncan Gray. It was later swapped by Baillie for The Pedlar (no. 15). Wilkie then retouched the picture and sent it to the British Institution in 1818 under the new title of 'Love-making'; bought by Charles Townshend, 250gns.

This picture was begun late in 1813, immediately upon completion of the Letter of Introduction (no. 12), on 'the same size.' Like its companion, this illustration to Burns' song Duncan Gray pares down the psychological interplay of Wilkie's first pictures to concentrate upon an uneasy encounter between two principal protagonists. Duncan has come to woo Maggie, who is at first stand-offish until her admirer's pride is hurt, whereupon she falls lovesick; finally they manage to synchronise their affections.
The text had been suggested to Wilkie as a subject as early as 1807 by George Thomson, the folk-music collector and publisher, to whom Burns had sent the song soon after they began their collaboration on A Select Collection of Original Scotch Airs in 1792; in 1819 Wilkie painted a smaller repetition of the composition for him (NGS). Thomson was notoriously guilty of playing fast and loose with the material Burns sent him, and Wilkie has followed his precedent: his amendments to the poem include adding the girl's family, anxious at her wilfulness, and omitting the drink - according to Burns the story takes place 'On blythe yule night when we were fu" (drunk).
The Refusal stands out among the pictures Wilkie painted in London before his Highland tour of 1817 as being the most evocatively Scottish (he had already painted at least one other illustration to Burns - The Vision - while a student in Edinburgh). Thus it appealed strongly to the miniature painter Andrew Robertson when he considered the future of a Scottish school of painting in a speech to the Highland Society of London in 1818 marking the election of Wilkie as an honorary member (at the time the picture was on show at the British Institution): 'In one moment it comprises the whole drama of that favourite song, and holds out an useful model to young women. So rich is the invention of Wilkie, so exquisite his feeling, that he goes farther even than our immortal Bard; not only do his figures speak, but the spectator is insensibly taught to moralize. What moral did a Dutch picture ever inculcate?' Perhaps thinking of Edinburgh rather than London, Robertson concluded 'Would to God, that Wilkie's Duncan Gray could be secured as the foundation of a national gallery!' (Literary Gazette [4 April 1818], 216-7)."

Troman's notes under cat. no. 4, "The Blind Fiddler" (Tate Gallery), which is also on panel and dates from 1806, that this "was the first major work of Wilkie's to be painted on a wooden panel rather than canvas, one of the most far-reaching technical means by which he sought to emulate Netherlandish art after his move to London (several eighteenth-century French painters had also regularly used panel, such as Greuze and Vigée-Lebrun)." The "Broken Jar" was painted a decade later, and Wilkie continued to use panel as well as canvas throughout his career.

Historical context note

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 .

Descriptive line

Oil painting entitled 'The Refusal' by Sir David Wilkie. Great Britain, 1814.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Tromans, Nicholas. David Wilkie: painter of everyday life. exh.cat. London: Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2002, p.72, cat. no. 13
See Work in Progress. Sir David Wilkie: Drawings into Paintings, National Gallery of Scotland, August 13 to September 24, 1975. pp.9-14 [Copies on Departmental File for Artist: D. Wilkie, and object file for this painting]


Oil paint; Panel


Oil painting


Paintings; Scotland


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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