Wilkinson, Sir Nevile Rodwell
- Conrad Swan
Wilkinson, Sir Nevile Rodwell (1869–1940), army officer, artist, and herald, was born on 26 October 1869 at Highgate, Middlesex, the third son of Colonel Josiah Wilkinson, a barrister practising at the parliamentary bar, and his wife, Alice Emma, daughter of Thomas Smith, of Highgate. He had an idyllic childhood with much yachting as a family sport and spells of living in the south of France; it was there, among the cypresses, that he executed his first serious drawing. Having been educated at Harrow School, he entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, in 1889, before being gazetted to the Coldstream Guards. He had something of a giant's physique, standing 6 feet 5 inches in his stockinged feet and 7 feet 6 inches when wearing his bearskin.
After a period in Dublin, Wilkinson undertook guard duties at Buckingham and St James's palaces. In addition he enrolled and worked hard at the National Art Training School (later the Royal College of Art, South Kensington). During this period he was fortunate to meet both Sir John Millais and John Singer Sergeant. On the outbreak of the South African War in 1899 he was sent to South Africa, where he served with credit, and was decorated and received four clasps. His marriage on 29 April 1903 to Lady Beatrix Frances Gertrude (d. 1957), elder daughter of Sydney Herbert, fourteenth earl of Pembroke, took him once again to Ireland as he and his wife set up house at Mount Marrion, a property near Dublin belonging to his father-in-law. The couple had two daughters. Wilkinson's ten-year residence paved the way for his later appointment to the office of Ulster king of arms.
The old sycamore tree on the Mount Marrion estate, into the roots of which his three-year-old daughter said she had seen a fairy queen disappear, was significantly to be the inspiration for Wilkinson's celebrated Titania's Palace. This chef-d'œuvre en miniature, completed over some eighteen years, was unique in being neither a luxurious dolls' house nor a model of an existing or possible future structure. It covered a space of 63 square feet, and was finished in every conceivable detail. Wilkinson developed, with the aid of an etchers' glass, a technique for decoration he called 'mosaic painting': minute dots of watercolour, irregular in shape like mosaic tesserae, about 1000 to the square inch. The palace was opened in 1923 by Queen Mary and was much admired by the public. It was exhibited not only in the United Kingdom but also in the Netherlands, Canada, the United States, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand, raising thousands of pounds for children's charities: the raison d'être of the entire exercise.
In 1908 Wilkinson was appointed to succeed Sir Arthur Vicars as Ulster king of arms, the latter having been forced to resign following the scandal of the theft of the Irish crown jewels (the jewelled insignia of the Order of St Patrick) from the Ulster office in Dublin Castle. Untainted by any previous connection with the Ulster office, Wilkinson was well known in Dublin and ideal for the post: a man of commanding presence and stature, he was also an artist of repute who had developed a knowledge of heraldry. Within a few days of taking over he had to break open the strong room in the Ulster office—his predecessor would not hand over the keys—in order to produce the symbols of state to be used at a forthcoming levee. The maces and sword of state were thus retrieved, in the presence of witnesses, while the lord lieutenant and Lady Aberdeen entertained their guests to dinner in another part of the castle.
In the course of his duties Wilkinson proclaimed the accession of George V and attended his coronation. Because of Wilkinson's height a new tabard had to be made for the Ulster king of arms. He was greatly involved in the 1911 visit of the king to Dublin, being the mouthpiece, so to speak, of the lord lieutenant—almost all correspondence on this subject passing between Dublin and London went through the Ulster office. Upon this visit he was made a CVO. With the outbreak of war in 1914 Wilkinson rejoined the army, and served in France and Gallipoli, earning a mention in dispatches and a brevet majority. Notwithstanding war service he returned to Dublin on several occasions for official duties. Following the evacuation of Gallipoli, Wilkinson was sent to Switzerland to look after British interests.
After the war Wilkinson returned to full-time duties at the Ulster office. In 1921 he attended upon the first Catholic lord lieutenant for several centuries, Viscount Fitzalan of Derwent, at his taking up office. In the following year he arranged the first opening of the parliament of Northern Ireland by George V which took place in the Belfast City Hall. Such a location required the greatest tact and diplomacy, as the prime minister of Northern Ireland was thus the guest of the lord mayor, but it was, nevertheless, an opening of parliament. In consequence of the success of the event Wilkinson was advanced in the Royal Victorian Order and made a KCVO. He personally designed the obverse of the great seal of Northern Ireland, which was modelled by Cecil Thomas, and exhibited in the sculpture gallery of the Royal Academy exhibition of 1924: and he wryly observed that this was the first time his work had penetrated into the sacred precincts of Burlington House. He also designed and granted arms for each of the six counties of Northern Ireland. In addition, Wilkinson established the heraldic museum at the Ulster office in 1909—the first of its kind in the world. He also wrote several books, including his reminiscences (1925), Wilton House Pictures (1907), Wilton House Guide (1908), and The Guards' Chapel, 1838–1938 (1938).
In his capacity as Ulster king of arms, and so the sovereign's lieutenant in matters armorial within his area of jurisdiction, Wilkinson was destined to serve during an extraordinarily difficult period of Irish history. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s he functioned from the official Ulster premises in the Bedford Tower within Dublin Castle. Despite the difficult political circumstances he managed to preserve the armorial and genealogical heritage of Ireland. Indeed, so successful was he in this that not long after the establishment of the Irish republic, followed by his death, the republic created the office of chief herald of Ireland to carry on the work so carefully fostered by Wilkinson. He was the last of the permanent royal officers to function from Dublin Castle. He ensured the preservation of records, making it possible for the new chief herald to start with registers dating back some 400 years. Wilkinson died in Dublin on 22 December 1940. His widow subsequently married the seventh earl of Wicklow.
- W. Stoneman, photograph, 1931, NPG
- group portrait, oils (Proclaiming in Dublin the accession of George V), Tower of London