The first President of the Royal Academy was Sir Joshua Reynolds – an easy starter for ten. But who was the second? Not only did I not know until recently, but I wouldn’t have recognised any of his works, and if I was told his first name was Benjamin, I would have said Benjamin Robert Haydon. But thanks to the power of CLC, I now know a bit more.
Benjamin West was by modern standards an unusual P.R.A. because he was an American – but of course, he was born well before ‘the times that try men’s souls’, on 10 October 1738, ‘near Springfield, in Chester County, in the State of Pennsylvania’, the youngest of ten children of a Quaker innkeeper. His first biographer, Scotsman John Galt (1779–1839) is better remembered (if at all) as a novelist, and a pioneer in Canada. He published the first part of his two-volume work, ‘compiled from materials furnished by’ West himself, and which described West’s life and career in America and Italy, in 1816. A second volume which appeared in 1820 was, apparently, almost complete when West died on 11 March of that year.
Galt emphasises the accuracy of his work: in the preface to Volume 1 he states that it was important that ‘the narrative should appear in his own time, in order that the authenticity of the incidents might not rest on the authority of any biographer’. In Volume 2, he explains that: ‘Nearly the whole of this work was printed during the last illness of Mr West. The manuscript had long previously been read to him. My custom was, to note down those points which seemed, in our conversations, to bear on his biography, and, from time to time, to submit an entire chapter to his perusal.’
Up to a point … But West seems to have been an astute self-publicist, presenting himself as a natural, untrained genius. His ODNB entry notes that ‘the two volumes are full of improbable tales that serve to glorify the artist as a self-taught genius. Perhaps the most quoted myth from Galt is that the local Indians showed West how to make his first colours from wild berries and the young artist plucked hairs from his cat’s tail to make his first paintbrush.’ On the other hand, he was not well educated, and his early artistic training was minimal – what he had in spades was self-belief, which in the years of his success became a complacency which annoyed many of his colleagues and rivals. The portrait by one of his American protégés, Gilbert Stuart, from 1783–4, now in the National Portrait Gallery, conveys some of these qualities, as does the bust by Sir Francis Chantrey, now in the Royal Academy.
West began his career in Philadelphia as a portrait painter, and was encouraged by friends to go to Italy to study further. In 1760, having saved enough money for the voyage, he sailed for Livorno, intending to work in Rome. Introductions and chance acquaintances meant that he quickly arrived close to the centre of cultural life, and Anton Raphael Mengs, at that point the pre-eminent foreign artist in the city, advised him to go on a tour of the great Renaissance centres to study the Old Masters, on the ground that he needed no further technical teaching. This plan had to be put on hold, as West became seriously ill – which Galt attributes to the effect of the constant excitement of Rome upon a sober Pennsylvanian Quaker – and returned to Livorno for a recuperation which lasted for nearly a year.
Once recovered, and further subsidised by the good burghers of Philadelphia, West made the recommended tour, to Florence, Bologna, and Venice, ‘visiting in his route all the objects which Mengs had recommended to his attention’, and being particularly impressed and intrigued by Titian’s use of colour, which he sought to emulate in a series of experiments over many years.
West then returned to Rome, and spent time studying the antiquities, and especially collections of engraved cameos, by which he improved his knowledge of ‘the antient costume’ – one of many hints that West was in the process of turning from portraits to history painting, at that time the most admired genre.
A chance encounter in Venice with George III’s librarian led to a royal commission of a mythological subject for the king, and West determined to visit London on his way home: in fact, he stayed there for the rest of his life. His fiancée travelled to England and they were married in September 1764, by which time West was already being described in London as ‘the American Raphael’. He became a favourite of George III (though Queen Charlotte seems not to have liked him), and was one of the four artists selected by the king to put forward proposals for a new ‘Royal Academy of the Arts’, which was founded in 1768. (Which one is he in Zoffany’s famous group portrait?)
His forte increasingly became large, neo-classical history paintings, including Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus – did West know that his birthday, 10 October, was also the date of Germanicus’ death (or murder?) in CE 19?
The most famous of his works is The Death of General Wolfe (he painted two nearly identical version, in 1770 and 1771), and he also did two deaths of Nelson (whom he had known personally), one in 1806, which shows a highly romanticised death, on deck, amid the flying cannon balls, and a second, in 1808, where the great hero is pictured in the murky cockpit below decks where he did actually die.
West became President of the Royal Academy on Reynolds’s death in 1792, and apart from a brief ousting in 1805, after which he was restored, remained in the post until his own death in 1820. One American admirer said that ‘his influence on the art he professed will never cease’, but in fact his high-minded, classically inspired history painting was part of a genre on the decline even in his own lifetime, and it was not until a resurgence of interest in the 1980s, with a catalogue raisonné and an exhibition at the Royal Academy, that he emerged from the shadows cast before by Reynolds and after by Turner (compare his 1839 version of Agrippina’s return, now in Tate Britain) and Constable. His successor, by the way, was Sir Thomas Lawrence, the ne plus ultra of flattering portraitists.