I spent part of a meeting this morning staring at Benjamin West’s Self-portrait over the fireplace on the other side of the room and realising how little I know about him, other than the fact that he came from Philadelphia, was trained as a painter in Italy, came to London in 1763, and was the longest serving President of the Royal Academy, taking over from Joshua Reynolds in 1792, resigning in 1805, reinstated in 1806, and serving until his death in office in 1820.
What sort of person was he ? His Self-portrait in the RA suggests someone rather smoothly worldly, wearing a cravat, sitting in the President’s chair (it was painted in 1793, the year after he was elected President), with his hand wrapped over a pile of books, and with the river facade of Somerset House behind. I know that he was a successful artist. I didn’t know that he was a successful dealer as well, buying Titian’s Death of Actaeon at auction in 1785 for 20 guineas and appointed Surveyor of the King’s Pictures in 1791, the year before he became President of the RA.
Although he was much admired and supported as an artist by George III, becoming official historical painter to the king in 1772 and commissioned to supply history paintings to both Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, this did not prevent him from supporting the French Revolution and visiting Paris in 1802 in order to pay his respects to Napoleon.
© Royal Academy of Arts, London; Photographer: John Hammond