Page images
PDF
EPUB
[blocks in formation]

West in England, 1763-Cunningham's life of West-Costume of an Indian Warrior-West's great success, and the friendship of George the ThirdWest at his esel-His pupils-Not a quaker in dress or manner-Declines the title and supposed honours of knighthood-General impression that he had been knighted-Eavy and jealousy manifested towards him-Allston's feeling towards him-He visits France.

On the 20th of June, 1763, West arrived in London. He had while in Rome, painted his pictures of Cimon and Iphigenia, and Angelica and Medora, and proved that he needed no longer the instruction of modern Italy. Raphael he would willingly have studied all his life, if Raphael could have been transported by him to the land in which he was to abide. He says, "Michael Angelo has not succeeded in giving a probable character to any of his works, the Moses, perhaps, excepted. The works of Raphael grow daily more interesting, natural and noble."

Wherever West went, circumstances combined for his advantage. His friends, Allen, Hamilton, and Smith had arrived before him in London, and received him with joy and triumph. The portrait of Governor Hamilton, painted at this time, is in Philadelphia now. Thus he found warm friends ready to introduce him to the best and most powerful of the land of his fathers. His merit insured him a favourable reception, and he was soon induced to determine upon taking rooms, and trying to establish himself as an historical painter in the metropolis of England.

The state of the art of painting in that country, is thus described by Mr. Cunningham: "Reynolds was devoted to portraits. Hogarth was on the brink of the grave; Barry engaged in controversaries in Rome; Wilson neglected; Gainsborough's excellence lay in landscape;" Wilson mentioned above only painted landscape; Hogarth's genius led him into another path: the heroic had no charms for him, and the beau ideal was probably unknown and unfelt-simple everyday nature satisfied him, he worshipped her, and the goddess smiled upon him. In fact England had no distinguished historical painter, and circumstances again placed West where he was formed best to thrive.

State of historical painting.

55

In a work called "The Percy Anecdotes," it is said, that on the arrival of Mr. West in England, he "soon displayed his powers in historical painting, in a most excellent picture; the subject was that of Pylades and Orestes, one of his very best works." The author dilates on the curiosity excited and the admiration elicited by the work, and proceeds, "but the most wonderful part of the story is, that notwithstanding all this vast bustle and commendation bestowed upon this justly admired picture, by which, Mr. West's servant gained upwards of thirty pounds for showing it, no mortal ever asked the price of the work, or so much as offered to give him a commission to paint any other subject. Indeed there was one gentleman, who was so highly delighted with the picture, and spoke of it with such great praise to his father, that the latter immediately asked him the reason he did not purchase what he so much admired; when he answered, "What could I do, if I had it? You would not surely have me hang up a modern English picture in my house, unless it was a portrait ?"

This is a good satire upon those who buy up old pictures, and despise the efforts of artists who are producing excellent works in their presence.

We will here quote a passage from a letter of Mr. Leslie's: "The following account of the commencement of Mr. West's career in London I had from Sir George Beaumont; as I have not either Galt's or Allen Cunningham's life of West by me, I do not know whether or not they have related it in the same way. When Mr. West arrived in London, the general opinion was so unfavourable to modern art, that it was scarcely thought possible for an artist to paint an historical or fancy picture worthy to hang up beside the old masters. Hogarth had produced his matchless pictures in vain. The connoisseur who would have ventured to place the inimitable scenes of the "Marriage a la mode," on his walls, (I mean the pictures, the prints were in great request,) would have hazarded most fearfully his reputation for taste. This prejudice against living genius continued until the arrival of West, and it must have required some courage in a young man at that time to make his appearance in England, in the character of an historical painter. One of the first pictures, if not the very first he produced, was from the story of Pylades and Orestes, (there is an admirable copy of it in this country, painted by Mr. Sully.) This picture attracted so much attention, that Mr. West's servant was employed from morning till night in opening the door to visiters, and the man received a considerable sum of money by showing it, while the master was obliged to content

56

Sir George Beaumont.

himself with empty praise. All admired, but no one dared to buy it. It was curious enough, however, that the reputation of this picture raised him into high favour as a portrait painter, for portrait painters were employed. I know not how long the picture remained on the artist's hands, but when I first saw it, it was in the collection of Sir George Beaumont. He gave it with nearly all his pictures to the government, who were induced by so magnificent a present to purchase the Angerstein collection, and united the two, to form a National Gallery. Hogarth's merit as a painter is now acknowledged, and the six pictures of the "Marriage a la mode," were hanging in the same room with the "Pylades and Orestes" when I left London."

Those who have read Cunningham's Lives of Painters, (and that is all readers of taste,) will know something of Sir George Beaumont; for he was not only a man of the highest standing in fortune and fashion, but he was a painter. He was truly a patron, not only of the art, but of individuals who had merit and wanted assistance; he was the protector, supporter, adviser, of the poor youth who evinced genius, but had not the means of procuring the instruction necessary to his welldoing. Jackson, one of the greatest portrait painters England boasts, was an apprentice to a tailor. His talent for drawing gained him the attention of Lord Mulgrave, who happened to reside near him in Yorkshire; his Lordship and Sir George Beaumont purchased the lad's freedom from the shop-board and the goose, and he immediately presented himself as if by instinct, before Beaumont in London, and expressed his wish to study in the Royal Academy: "You have done wisely," said Sir George, "London is the place for talents such as yours." He then gave him a plan of study and concluded, "To enable you to do all this, you shall have fifty pounds a year while you are a student, and live in my house; you will soon require no aid." This is the patronage of friendship, the protection of the rich, the good, and the wise, afforded to the meritorious poor, seeking support and instruction.

Mr. West sent his pictures of Angelica and Medora, Cimon and Iphigenia and others finished since his arrival, to the public exhibition room, at that time, in Spring Garden. His success was complete, and he attracted the notice "of some of the dignitaries of the church. He painted for Dr. Newton the parting of Hector and Andromache,—and for the bishop of Worcester, the Return of the Prodigal Son. His reputation rose so much with these productions, that Lord Rockingham tempted him with the offer of a permanent engagement, and a

[blocks in formation]

salary of seven hundred pounds a year, to embellish with historical paintings his mansion in Yorkshire. West consulted his friends concerning this alluring offer-they were sensible men-they advised him to confide in the public: and he followed, for a time, their salutary counsel.

"This successful beginning, and the promise of full employment, induced him to resolve on remaining in the Old Country. But he was attached to a young lady in his native landabsence had augmented his regard, and he wished to return to Philadelphia, marry her, and bring her to England. He disclosed the state of his affections to his friends, Smith and Allen; those gentlemen took a less romantic view of the matter, advised the artist to stick to his esel, and arranged the whole so prudently, that the lady came to London accompanied by a relation whose time was not so valuable as West's-and they were married on the 2d of September, 1765, in the church of St. Martin's in the Fields."

This relation was West's father, Miss Shewell having agreed to leave America on that condition. "The venerable figure of the old quaker is conspicuous in Penn's treaty, in the family picture of West, and in a large allegorical painting in St. George's Hospital, London. The reasons given by West for not crossing the Atlantic, appeared sufficient in the eyes of his betrothed and her friends, and unlike the bride of a king, she came to the youth who had gained her heart, accompanied by his father, and was united to the man who in her last stage of life, she declared to have been all his days without fault. On receiving from Mr. Leslie the anecdote of Benjamin West's oldest brother, left in England as above related, and first seen by his father at the age of forty, I inquired of my excellent correspondent for his authority, he answered, "The information respecting Mr. West's elder brother, I had from a quarter I can thoroughly rely on. It was given me by my venerable friend William Dillwy, a quaker gentleman and a native of Philadelphia. He had known Mr. West from his youth, and indeed I think their acquaintance commenced before either of them left America. Raphael West remembers his grandfather and uncle, and confirms Mr. Dillwyn's account of the latter being a watch-maker and settled at Reading. Mr. Dillwyn was intimate with Wilberforce and Clarkson, and took an active part with them in their great work of the abolition of the slave trade. He told me that Mr. West accommodated the committees with the use of his large rooms in Newman-street. Raphael West remembers his grandfather as being very neat in his dress. Mr. West told me that on

58

Filial piety, and criticism of George the Fourth. asking the old gentleman how he was struck with the appearance of London after his long absence, he replied,The streets and houses look very much as they did, but can thee tell me, my son, what has become of all the Englishmen? When I left England forty years since, the men were generally a portly, comely race, with ample garments, and large flowing wigs; rather slow in their movements, and grave and dignified in their deportment:-but now, they are docked and cropped, and skipping about in scanty clothes, like so many monkeys.'" "I believe," continues Mr. Leslie, "Mr. West has introduced the portraits of his father, and half brother in his picture of Penn's treaty. This picture is in the possession of John Penn, Esq. of Stike, the lineal descendant of William Penn. Mr. West told me that he introduced his father and some other quakers from Philadelphia to a private audience with George the Third at the request of the king. On this occasion, the Prince of Wales remarked, rather irreverently that the king had always been fond of quakers ever since he kept that little quaker w

-

[ocr errors]

This is a specimen of the "finest gentleman in England”— We give another, connected with West, when this fine gentleman was George the Fourth. "An anecdote connected with Benjamin West has just occurred to my memory," says Leslie, "I cannot vouch for its truth, but it was current among the artists, and I think it highly probable that it is true. You most likely know that one room in Windsor Castle is entirely filled with his pictures, consisting of a series of subjects from the history of Edward the Third; the surrender of Calais ; the battles of Cressy and Poictiers, the Installation of the knights of the garter, &c. &c. George the Fourth, who amused himself during the last years of his life in making alterations in the castle, took it into his head to consign all these pictures to the lumber-room. Fortunately, however, he consulted Sir Thomas Lawrence on the subject. Lawrence who was considered in general to be sufficiently complaisant to his majesty, had the courage on this occasion to differ from him, and told him he thought these pictures formed a most appropriate ornament to the castle, and that if they were removed, there was no living artist capable of supplying their place with similar subjects! His opinion saved the pictures."

"In portraits," says an English author, "we saw Reynolds rise eminently superior, while West chose for the exercise of his pencil the heroes and heroines of antiquity." "Struck with the superior merits of an historical design by Mr. West, then a very young man, his majesty commissioned him to

« PreviousContinue »