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Academy, which gave rise to the following Discourses." — Reynolds, bimself, with that candour, which formed so admirable a feature in his character, confirms the fact.“If prizes were to be given, it appeared not only proper, but almost indispensably necessary, that something should be said by the president on the delivery of those prizes; and the president for his own credit, would wish to say something more than mere words of compliment; which, by being frequently repeated, would soon become flat and uninteresting, and by being uttered to many, would at last become a distinction to none. I thought, therefore, if I were to preface this compliment with some instructive observations on the art, when we crowned merit in the artists whom we rewarded, I might do something to animate and guide them in their future attempts.” Malone adds, “Such was the laudable motive which produced the fifteen Discourses, pronounced by our author between the 2d of Jan. 1769, and the 10th of Dec. 1790, a work which contains such a body of just criticism on an extremely difficult subject, clothed in such perspicuous, elegant, and nervous language, that it is no exaggerated panegyric to assert that it will last as long as the English tongue, and contribute no less than the productions of his pencil, to render his name immortal.” (Some account of SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS, xi.)
It is perfectly clear, from the evidence of Malone, and from Sir Joshua Reynolds' own statement, that if the body of the artists who had, for eight years before, elected Lambert, Hayman, and Kirby, to fill the chair, bad been left without the advice of West, to elect a president of the Royal Academy, they would have again repeated their gross folly, by the re-election of one of their former choice; and the world would not have been enriched by those invaluable Discourses, which have been so often translated on the Contipent, and received with universal approbation.
His Majesty, in 1768, and 1769, and thence forward, publicly proved his earnest desire to excite bis subjects to patronize the highest department of the FINE ARTS, by setting the nobility and gentry a munificent example in his own person. No efforts could be more earnest or paternal. As far as the king of a free people could exert bis influence, the royal wish to lead the public to the great object which he had in mind, was manifested by the frequent admission of Mr. West to the honour of his private conversations, by projecting a magnificent succession of elevated works, to give full scope to his genius, and to exbibit painting in her noblest point of view, and most exalted function. If the long existing prejudice against British painting, in its highest department, produced by the exclusion of pictures from churches, had not retained an entire dominion over the minds of all orders of men, the royal solicitude would have been, to some degree, successful, in causing a few poble, men or gentlemen to give commissions for historical pictures, to WEST and REYNOLDS. But it is a most remarkable fact, that not an instance of the kind occurred until some years afterwards. (The royal commission in Feb. 1768, to paint the story of Regulus, was followed, on the happy conclusion of that grand composition, by the royal commission to paint Hamilcar causing his son Hannibal to swear perpetual hostility against the Romans. The Hannibal having even exceeded the king's sanguine expectations, bis majesty sig. pified his pleasure to Mr. West, to paint a succession of striking subjects from ancient history, for all the vacant spaces on the walls of the same apartment in the palace.
A gracious order to decorate Windsor Castle with representations of signal events from English history, in the reign of Edward III. was succeeded by a still more comprehensive and magnificent idea. His majesty determined to build a royal chapel in the Horns Court, at Windsor Castle, and to employ West to occupy the 'walls with a sublime series of sacred subjects, from the Four Dispensations of the revealed law. This was to have been the triumph of his majesty, as the royal-restorer and patron of the public style in the British empire: it was, also, to have been the signal triumph of British genius, and of WEST in the highest department of painting, over all our foreign competitors on the Continent, who had affected to despise the English as a people disqualified by nature, for the attainment of excellence in the fine arts.
His Majesty expressed, in due course, his royal wish and intention, with the most conscientious regard for the purity of the Established Church, to open the only great field from whence historical painting had ever emanated in any age or country, by introducing the practice of illustrating the interior of the churches in England with paintings from sacred history. This most important 'revolution in favour of the arts, is fully reported by Mr. Galt, in bis Life of Mr. West, and from that interesting work we insert the following passage: “Mr. West, agreeably to the king's desire, drew up a series of subjects from the Scriptures, which might represent the important scenes of the Four Dispensations, in such a manner, as the most scrupulous of any sect or denomination would not justly consider offensive to their particular sentiments. A day was fixed by His Majesty to discuss the propriety of the proceeding. Dr. Hurd, afterwards Bishop of Worcester; Dr. Douglas, Bishop of Salisbury; the Dean of Windsor, and several other dignitaries, were present. The King frankly stated his views; at the same time observing, that he should consider it the greatest glory of his reigo, to have the churches of Britain adorned with the instructive sublimities of the arts of peace. But when I reflect,' said his Majesty, how the ornaments of art were condemned at the Reformation, and still more recently in the unhappy times of Charles the First, I am anxious to govern my own wishes, not only by what is right; but by what is prudent in this matter. If it is conceived that I am tacitly bound, as Head of the Church of England, to prevent any such ornaments from being introduced into places of worship; or if it be considered at all savouring in any degree of a popish practice, how decidedly I may myself think it innocent, I will proceed no further in the business; but, if the church may be adorned with pictures, illustrative of great events in the history of religion, as the Bible itself often is with engravings, I will gladly proceed with the execution of this design.' On the day specified, the dignitaries again waited on his Majesty; when Mr. West had the gratification to hear their decision in favour of the proposed sublime undertaking. Dr. Hurd reported the result of their investigation; stating, that they had most seriously considered the business wbich his Majesty had committed to their opinion, and after most mature deliberation, had conscientiously decided, that the introduction of pictures into the chapel which the king had designed to erect, could not by any means be the least violation of the established regulations of the Church of England; and having attentively examined the list of subjects selected from the Bible, they were of opinion, that there was not one of them, which, if properly treated, even a Quaker might not contemplate with edification.”
“ The arcbitectural plan of the chapel was afterwards formed, with the assistance of Mr. West, under the auspices of the King himself, and the chapel was to be ninety foet in length, by fifty in breadth. Mr. Wyatt, the successor of Sir William Chambers," as the royal architect, was ordered to execute the plan; and it was designed, that the grand flight of steps in the great staircase should lead to a door opening into the royal closet in the chapel of Revealed Religion.”. (Galt's Life of Benjamin West.) ......?
Mr. West spent a large portion of his life in making. designs for this magnificent work, and in meditating upon its several stages. It is known that Lionardo da Vinci, Titian, and other great masters, have each spent years upon a single picture. We are not to be surprised, therefore, that Mr. West, as historical painter to George III. devoted so many years in composing studies and sketches for a series of pictures so well suited to the grandeur of the bighest style of painting, to his enthusiastic attachment to his art, and to bis religious feelings. It was the object of his professional pride, and the subject of his constant contemplations. Eight of these sublime subjects were finished, and a number of the studies and designs com pleted; the plan of the whole was arranged ; wbien circum. stances, which all men lament, occasioned a final laying aside of that great undertaking, to the irreparable loss of the painter, and a fatal stoppage to the advancement of painting in the higbest department of the arts.
When the late King did Mr. West: tbe honour to åp; point him bis historical painter, bis Majesty was graciously pleased to accompany that high distinction with an allowance of one thousand pounds a year, which was paid with great punctuality. This liberal grant from the privy purse merely enabled Mr. West to keep his establishment going on, while he was engaged on the magnificent series of