The Penny Wedding oil on canvas, 88.5 x 131.5cm (34 13/16 x 51 3/4in).
Provenance: Flight Lieutenant Statham, and by descent Exhibited: BI, 1819 National Gallery of Scotland, c1972-present. Literature: Errington, L, 'Alexander Carse' (National Galleries of Scotland, 1987), pp15-16; plate 8 Tromans, N, 'David Wilkie, the People's Painter' (Edinburgh, 2007), pp242, 253. Forbes, D, 'Genre Painting in Scotland 1780-1830', Oxford Art Journal, Feb. 2000, pp88-89
Note: Carse and Wilkie both showed 'Penny Wedding' subjects in 1819. Tromans notes that although Wilkie offered Carse little or no encouragement, and was uncomfortable about the close relations between their work, this was only the latest parallel in their iconography and choice of subject (eg illustrating 'Duncan Gray' and the 'Cottar's Saturday Night', or the similarities in tone between Carse's 'Arrival of the Country Relations' and Wilkie's 'Letter of Introduction' of the following year).
There were several precedents for the 'Penny Wedding', notably by David Allan and William Lizars. Allan had been a formative influence on both men, but Carse's treatment of the theme remains closer to Allan than Wilkie's, celebrating the 'grotesque peculiarities of national manners' (Tromans, p242) through the raucous merriment of such an occasion, while Wilkie 'tidied up' country life. Ironically, this was met with some disapproval by his Royal patron. Genre subjects were popular with the aristocracy, and Carse's patrons also included the Duke of Buccleuch and Earl Moira.
Forbes also notes that Scottish genre painting was less subject to enforced 'decorum', an attempt to neutralise the vernacular, than the English equivalent. However, Carse's consistent popularity with exhibition visitors fed critical disapproval about his perceived lack of 'academic rigour'. Such an approach may now seem appropriate for one of the most accessible and joyous of Scottish genre themes.
The principle of the 'Penny Wedding', where guests contributed to defray the expenses of the feast and any surplus was used to set the couple up in their new home, had been common in the country, but this custom was being eroded by industrialisation. While a man removes his bonnet to say a hasty grace, a rare moment of restraint, the wedding scene whorls around him. A toast to the couple is shared on the left, complete with still life vignette, and a man jigs in the centre to the band perched in the corner. To the right, a group of men gorge on a joint of meat while interlopers behind insist they have already paid.