Main content

Benjamin West drawings


Held at: Historical Society of Pennsylvania [Contact Us]1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19107

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

Benjamin West was born in October 1738 in Springfield Township, Chester (now Delaware) County, Pennsylvania. His father John West, a Quaker, immigrated to Pennsylvania sometime in the early 1700s. By 1718, he had married Sarah Pearson of Marple Township. The couple had a large family and Benjamin was their youngest son. West's parents encouraged his natural artistic talents, which he displayed at an early age; and as a teenager, he informally studied in both Philadelphia and New York City. He spent his early career, from the 1740s to the 1750s, painting portraits, though he also served in the militia during Pennsylvania's Indian campaigns.

His talents caught the eye of Dr. William Smith, provost of the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania), and Smith offered to be West’s patron. Through this patronage, West became acquainted with many of Philadelphia’s most famous citizens, such as William Allen and Benjamin Franklin. By the 1760s, West had made enough money to travel abroad. He first went to Italy, where he lived and studied for about three years. In 1763, he moved to London, England. Here he played a significant role in the development of British art, particularly historical works. In London, West became known as the "American Raphael," and he expanded his repertoire, often using neoclassical elements, to include historical, religious, and mythological subjects in his works. A year after his move to London, he married his American fiancée Elizabeth Shewell (1741-1815).

West became acquainted with many influential Londoners, such as famed portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds and author Samuel Johnson. With Reynolds, West established the Royal Academy of Art in 1768. He eventually served twice as the academy’s president, first from 1792 to 1805 and then from 1806 until 1820. In 1772, he was appointed a royal painter by King George III, who had previously and personally asked for a few works from West. West remained in this position until 1801. West's time in London was also his most prolific; he created such well-known works as The Death of General Wolfe (1771), William Penn's Treaty with the Indians (1772), his French romantic-style Death on a Pale Horse (1802), and Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple (1817), which is now in the collections of Pennsylvania Hospital. West died in London at the age of 81 in March 1820.

This collection of thirty-three of Benjamin West's drawings and sketches is housed in 4 boxes (Box 4 is a flat portfolio) and spans his career in London from about 1765 to about 1819. Though they are but a small sample of his work, these items, many of which are studies or drafts for larger works, demonstrate well his talents and style. Most of the drawings are done in pen, ink, and wash; though there are a few charcoal and pencil drawings as well. The quality of the works ranges as well. For example, Paetus and Arria is a very detailed drawing complete with a colored wash, while Hector Parting with his Wife is just a brief outline sketch. All the works are matted and most of them have what appear to be auction entries pasted on verso. Additionally, a number of them are signed by West himself and inscribed by West's son, Benjamin West Jr. Besides the auction entries, the collection contains no further descriptions of the works.

Box 1, folder 1: Classical subject, wash and pen (1784)

Box 1, folder 2: Angels announcing the Birth of our Saviour - sketch for the picture in the Cathedral at Rochester, wash and ink (undated)

Box 1, folder 3: The Continence of Scipio, wash and pen (undated)

Box 1, folder 4: Chryseis restored to her father, wash, pen, and ink (circa 1771 or 1777)

Box 1, folder 5: Study for a part of the large picture of the shipwreck of St. Paul - painted for the Chapel in the Greenwich Hospital, wash, pen, and ink (circa 1782)

Box 1, folder 6: Sketch from Nature, pen and ink (circa 1765)

Box 1, folder 7: The Cripple or Street Scene with Cripple, wash and pen (undated)

Box 1, folder 8: Group or Group of People, wash and pen (undated)

Box 1, folder 9: Study for the Head of Christ - in the cartoon of the Resurrection, painted on glass by Jervis for St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, pen and ink (1783)

Box 1, folder 10: Agesilaus rejecting the Magnificence offered him by Egyptian Envoys, wash and pen (circa 1773)

Box 2, folder 1: Segestus and his Daughter before Germanicus, wash and pen (circa 1773)

Box 2, folder 2: King David, pen and ink (undated)

Box 2, folder 3: Christ showing a Little Child as the Emblem of Heaven - design for the picture, which was painted by Hart Davis Esq., wash, pen, and ink (1810)

Box 2, folder 4: Study for the figure of Christ, disputing with the Doctors, pen and ink (undated)

Box 2, folder 5: Lady Reading or Faith, pen and ink (1784)

Box 2, folder 6: Fancy subject or A Nymph and Satyr, pencil (undated)

Box 2, folder 7: St. Mark, wash and pen (circa 1785)

Box 2, folder 8: St. Luke, wash, pen, and ink (1785)

Box 2, folder 9: St. Matthew, wash and pen (circa 1785)

Box 2, folder 10: St. John, wash, pen, and ink (1785)

Box 3, folder 1: Christ in the Wilderness, wash, pen, and ink (1810)

Box 3, folder 2: Classical subject or Rinaldo and Armida: A Classical Scene, pen and ink (1788)

Box 3, folder 3: A Group of Angels – a study, charcoal (undated)

Box 3, folder 4: Death of Wat Tyler, charcoal, crayon, and wash (undated)

Box 3, folder 5: Hector parting with his Wife and Child at Scoean Gate - a sketch for the picture which was painted for Dr. Newton, Bishop of Bristol, charcoal, pen, and ink (undated)

Box 3, folder 6: Ox, wash, pen, and ink (1787)

Box 3, folder 7: Our Saviour Bound, wash and ink (circa 1819)

Box 3, folder 8: Agrippina with her Child going through the Roman Camp, when in a state of mutiny, wash, pen, and ink (circa 1785)

Box 3, folder 9: Figures – a study, pen, pencil, and wash (undated)

Box 3, folder 10: Death of Wat Tyler - another representation, wash, pen, and ink (undated)

Box 3, folder 11: Agrippina and her Children weeping over the Ashes of Germanicus, charcoal (1771)

Box 4, item 1: Cymon and Iphigenia, pen and ink (1788)

Box 4, ietm 2: Paetus and Arria, wash and pen (circa 1780) [Note: On verso, this is referred to as Lucrece.]

Weintraub, Stanley and Randy Ploog. Benjamin West drawings from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, May 31 through September 17, 1987. University Park, Pennsylvania: Museum of Art, Penn State, 1987.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Cary Majewicz
Finding Aid Date
; April 2010
Processing made possible by a generous donation from Howard Lewis.
Access Restrictions

The collection is open for research.

Collection Inventory

Print, Suggest