Whether Sir Joshua Reynolds ever claimed that Benjamin West’s 1770 painting of The Death of General Wolfe would bring about a “revolution in the art”, it didn’t. West was next commissioned by William Penn’s son Thomas to paint The Treaty of Penn with the Indians or William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (1771-72), the one modern history painting he showed alongside four traditional narrative works at the Royal Academy in 1772. Although it proved popular and successful, being reproduced in prints and on all manner of other surfaces, even bedspreads, it was savaged for its historical inaccuracies, and for misrepresenting the reality of westward expansion in North America.
Another of West’s narrative paintings that year is based on a story from Canto 9 of Book 1 of Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene: The Cave of Despair (1772). The Knight of Holiness, bearing a red cross, vows to battle the creature Despair. When he finds the creature’s cave, it is littered with corpses, and Despair has only just finished killing the latest. Despair then tries to convince the knight that he should kill himself, an action which Una prevents him from doing. Una is at the far left, preventing the knight from stabbing himself with his own dagger. The figure of Despair sits looking frail rather than fearsome, with his latest victim lying dead at the lower right corner.
West also painted a steady series of religious works, including Isaac’s Servant Tying the Bracelet on Rebecca’s Arm, in 1775. This shows a moment from the story of Eliezer of Damascus, a servant to Abraham and his son Isaac, who identified Rebecca as the bride for Isaac. Eliezer was sent with ten camels on a mission to find the bride as the woman who offered to draw water for him and for his camels to drink. Having found her at a well, Eliezer gave her two golden bracelets and a nose ring, tokens which she showed her family, and which marked her as Isaac’s intended wife.
In 1778, West tried again at modern history, with The Battle of La Hogue, a large canvas showing a relatively minor naval action which took place between 21 and 24 May 1692 off the French port of Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue. It was hardly modern, and sank below the waves.
Of all West’s ‘modern history’ paintings, The Death of Chatham is the most contemporaneous, as he painted it immediately after the sudden collapse and later death of William Pitt the Elder, the First Earl of Chatham, in the House of Lords on 7 April 1778.
Chatham had been the political architect of the British success in the Seven Years’ War between 1757-63, which had won the British power in North America. He was a strong opponent of American independence, and when the Duke of Richmond proposed the withdrawal of British troops from America, Chatham made his way to the House of Lords to answer Richmond’s motion. Chatham appeared feeble at the start of his speech, and when he finished he collapsed, as shown in West’s painting. He did not die then, but just over a month later.
For West, an American who by this time had lived in Britain for fifteen years and received a salary from its king, this must have been an emotive subject. He manages to avoid overdramatising the moment, but in doing so understates it.
West was unfortunately upstaged by his former protegé John Singleton Copley, whose more dramatic version of this motif was painted in 1779-80, and immediately became the definitive painting of the event. Indeed, some consider unjustly that this work made Copley an equal partner with West in creating the new modern history painting.
West didn’t complete another modern history painting until 1806, nearly thirty years after The Death of Chatham. In the meantime he became involved in another scheme to establish a British school of narrative painting, this time centred not on modern history, but on the plays of William Shakespeare.
West’s painting showing a scene from Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet: Act IV, Scene V (Ophelia Before the King and Queen), painted in 1792, was originally made for inclusion in the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in London. John Boydell was an engraver and publisher who decided to exploit popular interest in Shakespeare’s works in an ambitious plan for a gallery of paintings of scenes from the plays, prints for general sale, and an illustrated edition of the plays.
This was launched in 1786, the gallery opened in Pall Mall, London, and the books published from 1791 to 1803. Unfortunately Boydell failed to secure the support that the project needed, and the paintings which he commissioned, including this one, were sold off in 1805, leaving Boydell’s company in bankruptcy. West was one of the many artists to have suffered as a result.
In 1792, following the death of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had been the first President of the Royal Academy, West was elected its second president. He served in that capacity until his death, apart from a period of a year between 1805-06 following his resignation.
West’s last attempt to paint modern history is this painting of The Death of Nelson he completed in 1806, one of the first works by a prominent artist to tell this story.
The quarterdeck of Victory is shown as being crowded with people, some apparently mustered to watch Nelson’s dying hours. Nelson, at the lower centre, reclines with the support of three young sailors (probably midshipmen). There is little or no evidence of his injury, although his face has a distinctive pallor, and there is a small splash of blood near his hat, which rests on the deck to the left of his legs.
To the right of the hero is Captain Hardy, holding an outstretched hand which appears to be Nelson’s, but which bears gold braid which doesn’t match that of Nelson’s other (missing) arm, tucked into his jacket. Hardy holds papers in his right hand, and is half-kneeling.
To the left of Nelson’s group are five figures, a mixture of Royal Marines in their scarlet tunics and sailors in deep blue, who appear to be cheering with their hats raised, looking towards Nelson with surprise. A contrasting group of young officers stands to the right, behind Hardy, who appear to be merely witnesses to Nelson’s plight.
There are other groups around tending to wounded sailors, and on the poop deck behind, a party of Royal Marines are still shooting at the enemy, while naval officers are raising their hats in celebration.
Although the central group around Nelson echoes West’s composition in The Death of General Wolfe, it’s not the base of a triangle, and the painter’s spotlight is more extensive. The closest that he comes here to a triangle is in the standing figures to the left of Nelson, whose role and actions appear incongruous.
West’s painting succeeded not on its strengths, but on its timeliness and public adulation for its subject. Exhibited first in the artist’s studio, it apparently attracted thirty thousand viewers in just over a month. He went on to paint two further works on the theme, showing Nelson’s death below in the cockpit, and The Immortality of Nelson.
Following West’s death, this ‘epic composition’ was offered to the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich, which declined it. West’s rival Arthur William Devis eventually succeeded in making his painting of 1807 the most popular image of this event. Once again, West’s modern history had come in second place. Benjamin West died in 1820, when still serving as the President of the Royal Academy. He was given the state honour of burial in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, in London.
Next week I’ll return to Shakespeare galleries, and the plan to establish a British school of narrative painting.
John Galt (1816), The Life and Studies of Benjamin West, prior to his arrival in England. Available for download from archive.org
John Galt (1820), The life, studies, and works of Benjamin West, esq., President of the Royal Academy of London. Available for download from archive.org
Text and other versions of the two volumes are available for download from Project Gutenberg.
Loyd Grossman (2015) Benjamin West and the Struggle to be Modern, Merrell. ISBN 978 1 8589 4641 2.