Christ Blessing the Children
Research by Marjorie Gregson
The Public Catalogue Foundation have attributed this painting to William West, but Fylde Council have been advised by Christies that the work should be attributed to a follower of Benjamin West (1738-1820), second President of the Royal Academy.
Indeed, when the painting was accepted into the Collection by the Lancashire Museums Service, the 'follower' was named as Mather Brown (1761-1831), who was born in Boston, Massachusetts but was active in England. He was the son of Gawen and Elizabeth (Byes) Brown and was taught by his aunt until around 1773 (age 12) when he became a pupil of Gilbert Stuart. He arrived in London in 1781 to further his training in Benjamin West's studio, entered the Royal Academy schools in 1782 and began to exhibit a year later. In 1784 he painted two religious paintings for the church of St Mary's-in-the-Strand, which led him into partnership with the painter, Daniel Orme for the commercialisation of these and other works through exhibition and the sale of engravings. However, despite his success he began to concentrate on portraiture, painting one of the earliest known portraits of Thomas Jefferson, who was visiting London.
His 1788 full-length portrait of Prince Frederick Augustus in the uniform of Colonel of the Coldstream Guards led to his appointment as History and Portrait Painter to the Prince, later the Duke of York and Albany. Other paintings include the Prince of Wales, later George IV and Queen Charlotte. A falling off of patronage in the mid-1790s, and failure to be elected to the Royal Academy, led Brown to leave London in 1808 for Bath, Bristol and Liverpool. He settled in Manchester, returning to London almost two decades later. In 1824, even after West's death, he continued to imitate his teacher's style of painting. Unable to secure commissions, Brown eventually died in poverty in London.
William West was an English landscape painter in oils and watercolours. He was a member of the Bristol School of Art and a member of the Society of British Artists. West arrived in Bristol around 1823 and started exhibiting there. From 1824 he participated in the sketching activities of the Bristol School and during the same year exhibited at the Royal Academy and the British Institution. After 1826 he did not exhibit at these two institutions again until 1845. From 1847 he concentrated on Norwegian subjects and became known as 'Norway West' or 'Waterfall West' because of his fondness for location and subject. Two of his works, On the High Road from Bergen to Christiana, Norway and At Naes, Norway, were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1848.
Other works include:
Cheyne Beach, Ilfracombe )
Simplon Pass )
Scene in North Wales ) all in the Bristol Museum Art Gallery
The Israelites Led by the Pillar of Fire by Night Nottingham City Museum & Galleries
In 1828 he acquired the rights to an eighteenth century windmill overlooking the Clifton Gorge. The following year he installed a large telescope in its tower to turn it into an observatory, replacing it in 1830 with a camera obscura. The Avon Gorge from the Summit of the Observatory, an oil painting from the vantage point he had built, was exhibited in 1834. From 1835 he extended the windmill to create a new observatory, filling it with a collection of maps, globes and optical instruments.
In 1837 West opened a 200ft tunnel, which he had excavated from the observatory down to St Vincent’s Cave on the cliff face of the Avon Gorge.
In 1839 West started exhibiting 'various kinds of photogenic drawing' and was selling 'superior photogenic paper' at the observatory. He wrote to Henry Fox Talbot, photography pioneer, that 'having been for some time as an amateur engaged in photographic pursuits' he would like a licence to practice commercially. No surviving examples are known.
The 1851 census shows West to be residing at The Observatory, stating that he was born in 1793 in Dartford, Kent, which differs from the date of birth commonly given.
Benjamin West was born in 1738 in Springfield, Pennsylvania. An American history and portrait painter, and close friend of Benjamin Franklin, he spent almost all his career in England. After early success as a portrait painter in New York, he studied in Italy from 1760-63 before settling in England. His painting, Death of Wolfe, was a popular and critical success and was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1771, where he was a founder member. It was so admired that he had to make several replicas, making a fortune from the engravings. George III appointed West his official history painter in 1772 with an annual fee of £1000.
West painted a series of large canvases showing scenes from the life of Edward III for St George’s Hall in Windsor Castle and painted twenty-eight works on 'the progress of revealed religion' for a chapel in the castle. He painted nine portraits of members of the royal family, including two of the king.
A prolific artist, he became known for his large scale history paintings, which used expressive figures, colours and compositional schemes to help the viewer to identify with the scene depicted. In 1806 he produced the Death of Nelson to commemorate Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar.
West was also renowned for his religious paintings. Christ Healing the Sick was originally intended for a Quaker Hospital in Philadelphia but instead he sold it to the British Institution for £3000, which in turn presented it to the National Gallery. West then made and sent a copy to Philadelphia. Its success led him to paint even larger works, including Death on a Pale Horse, exhibited in 1817. He died in London in 1820.
Other paintings include
Archangel Michael Binding the Devil Trinity College, Cambridge
General James Wolfe Government Art Collection
Moses receiving the law on Mount Sinai Parliamentary Art Collection
This painting is greatly in need of repair and conservation.
One wonders if William West was indeed the artist as it is so unlike the subjects with which he was associated. It is more likely to have been painted by a follower of Benjamin West, who was an acknowledged artist of Biblical scenes and had painted the very same subject.
The seated figure of Jesus, dressed in white robes, and the naked infant he is holding, are illuminated against the warm but muted colours of the onlookers. The composition of the inwardly facing figures is tight, framing the central figures of Christ and the baby. His robes are finely painted, although those worn by the women merge into the sombre background.
Unlike Benjamin West’s painting there are few children depicted and the small child beneath his elbow is not particularly well executed. Neither is he as prominent as he might have been considering the title of the picture.