By Jenny Uglow
The Wordsworth Trust has nearly 50 watercolour sketches by Joseph Wilkinson (1765-1831), one of the figures on the fringes of Wordsworth’s life.
When I became interested in him a couple of years ago, for a hugely enjoyable Wordsworth Trust day in Grasmere, celebrating local artists, the Carlisle historian Denis Perriam, thought back to his time working at Tullie House Museum and remembered an old file, containing correspondence and the typescript of a life, begun by Donald Cook in the 1980s – this miraculously turned up on the back shelves of Carlisle Library, and provided an outline of Wilkinson’s life.
The son of a London merchant who settled in Carlisle, he was educated at Corpus Christi, Cambridge and then became a curate at Irthington ( he did well out of the church, as he also held curacies in Sunderland and Lincoln, and was chaplain to the Marquis of Huntly who had lands in the Lake District). In 1788 he married Mary Wood, daughter of Whitehaven metallurgist Charles Wood., and niece to the famous doctor and scientist William Brownrigg, known best for his work on mine-gases, minerals and salt, and for his investment in the iron industry. After Brownrigg’s wife – the former Mary Spedding – died in 1794, Wilkinson and Mary looked after him at the ‘Great Hall’ at Ormathwaite, until his death in 1800. They then stayed on as tenants until 1803-4 when Wilkinson became Rector of East and West Wretham, near Thetford.
Wilkinson was a passionate artist, and his slightly primitive sketches catch the isolation of Lakeland buildings, and the mystery of the mountains behind. As Stephen Gill has rightly said, he was not a professional ‘but a talented amateur who drew from both love and real knowledge of the landscape in which he had lived’.Sophia Thrale (one of the daughters of Samuel Johnson’s friend, Hester Thrale Piozzi ) remembered arriving to meet him at Patterdale on a tour of the Lakes, to find that Wilkinson had got lost in the mist upon the mountain for hours, ‘ after we persuaded him to take some refreshment, he insisted on going out to sketch again, which he goodnaturedly came on purpose to do’ . As well as sketching the wild and picturesque, he was interested in the industry of the area, painting the Wad Mine at Borrowdale, and, as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, in its myths and legends, like the story of St Bega landing at St Bees.
At Crosthwaite, on 25 August 1802, a day of terrible Lakeland rain, a slightly stunned Sophia Thrale confided to her diary that ‘There was Company to dinner, among them a Mr Coldridge who struck me as being remarkably clever, unfortunately a provincial dialect, but is a most brilliant converser and very entertaining’. The Wilkinsons were friends of Coleridge and the Southeys, currently renting nearby Greta Hall, and Mary Wilkinson was Sara Coleridge’s godmother in 1802.
Seven years later, in June 1809, Joseph asked Coleridge if he or Wordsworth would introduce a volume of his Lake District views, aimed at the growing tourist industry. Wordsworth had already thought, in 1807, of writing a guide to the lakes, but by the following year he had decided, as he told the Revd Pering, that when he tried ‘an insuperable dullness’ came over him. Having lived all his life among the lakes, he said, ‘I should be utterly at a loss were I about to set myself to a formal delineation of them… where to begin, and where to end’. He was therefore interested in Wilkinson’s project, but was worried that his introduction might damage the livelihood of William Green, from Ambleside. Wilkinson assured him their work was different, offered him a fee and Wordsworth wrote the copy. The prints were issued monthly, 12 sets of 4 plates each, costing a guinea (very expensive). The complete, large folio volume Select Views in Cumberland, Westmoreland and Lancashire, by the Rev. Joseph Wilkinson., published. by R. Ackerman, at his Repository of Arts, 101 Strand, appeared in 1810.
In his text, Wordsworth almost ignored the pictures, enthusing about the Lake District’s gradations of colour through the seasons, and about its cottages and farms and traditional economic development, now under threat from new building and planting. It was well known that he actually hated the engravings – this was not Wilkinson’s fault, as the engravings were done by William Frederick Wells, and went seriously wrong when the publishers tried to colour them. Wordsworth told Lady Beaumont that ‘the drawings, or etchings or whatever they may be called are, I know, such as to you and Sir George must be intolerable. You will receive from them that sort of disgust which I do from bad poetry … They will please many who in all the arts are most taken by what is worthless.’ Wilkinson himself, Wordsworth said, ‘though not superabundant in good sense’ agreed that Sir George’s subscription was probably out of a kindness to Wordsworth himself.
The text was later published independently, first as an appendix to his Duddon sonnets, in 1820, then separately in 1822, under the title A Description of the Scenery of the Lakes in the North of England, and revised again in 1835 as his definitive Guide to the Lakes. By then the pictures themselves were forgotten, but if you come across them, don’t sneer, but enjoy them – and accept one of many generations of amateurs who have passionately loved and appreciated the Lakes.
Jenny Uglow’s latest book is In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815. She is a Trustee of the Wordsworth Trust.