Sir David Wilkie

The Irish Whiskey Still (Dated 1840)

About this artwork

This painting was produced after Wilkie's visit to Ireland in 1835. He compared Ireland to Spain as a picturesque, wild and romantic place. The whiskey still shown here is an illegal one. Critics gave this picture a moralising slant, claiming it demonstrated human deterioration under the influence of strong drink. This was probably not Wilkie’s intention, as he was entranced by the primitive aspects of Western Ireland. Rural people who refused to recognise British laws as legitimate distilled whiskey illicitly to avoid taxes. Government authorities often saw this sort of law breaking as political dissent, and branded many rural tax avoiders or poachers as criminals. Wilkie almost certainly intended this painting to be a social ‘portrait’ of Irish life, which in the long term would have the significance of a history picture. The current condition of the picture is poor due to excessive bitumen scarring in the shadows. The gallery also has a sketch for the child pouring the whisky into a barrel. A smaller earlier version of this scene exists in a collection in Riga, Latvia.

Sir David Wilkie

Sir David Wilkie

Wilkie achieved international recognition for his highly original paintings of events and episodes from contemporary life. His skills as a narrator were evident in the facial expressions and poses of his characters, and in the informative detail he included. He was born in Fife, the son of a rural minister and began his formal artistic training at the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh when he was fifteen. He then moved to London in 1805 and became a full member of the Royal Academy in 1811. He was appointed Painter to the King in 1830 and knighted in 1836.