Benjamin West PRA (1738-1820)

Benjamin West, second President of the Royal Academy, was born in Pennsylvania, his grandfather having emigrated to America from England. West showed an early and precocious talent for drawing, and was able to overcome some opposition from his Quaker background and devote himself to art. In 1760 he travelled to Rome, where he was taken under the wing of a leading Italian painter called Mengs. Subsequently, he travelled to Florence, Bologna and Venice, then returning to Rome where he painted his Cymon and Iphigenia. Further travels in Europe took him to Paris (he did not particularly admire the French paintings) and finally, in 1763, to England, where he remained. By 1765 his father brought West's American girlfriend to England, and they were married. West was by this time already a successful portrait painter, friends with Reynolds and many other influential people, including his mentor Archbishop Drummond, who in 1766 introduced him to King George III. A large number of Royal commissions followed, including painted interiors and easel pictures. West was instrumental in the founding of the Royal Academy, and about the time it commenced, painted his chef d'oeuvre, The Death of Wolfe. This painting caused surprise by abandoning the convention that history paintings should clothe the figures in classical dress, and instead wear contemporary clothes. When Reynolds died in 1791, West was elected President of the Academy, but subsequent over-friendly relations with the French seem to have lead to his falling from favour, and he was forced to resign in 1805, the King's architect James Wyatt being elected in his place. However, in the following year West was again elected to the Presidency, holding the position until his death in 1820, last but one of the original Academicians. During West's time as President, he was important in the founding of the British Institution and the Society of Painters in Water Colours (in 1805), as additional venues where artists could exhibit.

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