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Artist of the month: January 2016

Richard Westall RA, (1765 – 1836)

Published 1 January 2016

Alongside an illustrious career exhibiting at the Royal Academy, Richard Westall RA was the drawing master to a young Princess Victoria, soon to be Queen.

  • Working late one night at the RA, Richard Westall’s Self-Portrait caught my eye (pictured; below). He chose to show himself as a Romantic figure: with his tousled hair he looks rather dashing. He is looking at something intensely, but is perhaps thinking about deeper things. He painted the picture when he was in his late 20s, just before he became a full Royal Academician in 1794.

  • Richard Westall RA, Self portrait

    Richard Westall RA, Self portrait, 1793.

    Oil on canvas. © Royal Academy of Arts, London.

  • As part of becoming a Royal Academician, artists have to present a work of art to the academy, known as their Diploma Work. Westall’s is called A Peasant Boy (pictured), painted around 1794 and reminiscent of Gainsborough’s earlier sentimentalised scenes of rural life. The “peasant boy” is barefoot, but has clean clothes in good repair, healthy ruddy cheeks and neat hair. His gentle demeanour and soft expression are no threat to us. This is in keeping with the late eighteenth-century Picturesque movement, in which more attention was paid to making people look attractive than to realistic depiction. Rural poverty was thus made a palatable subject for art and for wealthy art collectors. One of Westall’s champions was Richard Payne Knight, a leading promoter of Picturesque ideas. He praised Westall, and others, for showing characters “from common familiar life”. Payne Knight allegedly thought that Westall was as good as Raphael or Rubens.

    Westall is variously recorded as being born in 1765 in Reepham in Norfolk, or in Hertford. He first exhibited at the RA in 1784, eventually exhibiting 384 works at the Academy in the course of his career. He became a student in the RA Schools in 1785, six years after they opened.

  • He was well known amoung other artists. From 1790 until 1794 he lived with Thomas Lawrence, who would later become President of the Royal Academy, and the RA collection includes a drawing by Westall of the artist William Daniell and a print by Westall of the artist William Hodges (pictured). Westall had a half-brother William, who was also an artist.

    Richard Westall had his greatest success as a painter of literary and historical subjects including scenes from Shakespeare, Milton, Scott, Byron and Goethe. The RA collection includes a print of Nestor and Tydides from the Illiad (pictured). Many of these were in watercolour or were book illustrations. The peak of his career was in 1814 when he held an exhibition in Pall Mall of over 300 pictures. But his career went into decline and he became short of money, partly because of the expense of organising his exhibition. He undertook many commissions to illustrate books and continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy. He evidently continued to be well networked in London: in the late 1827 he became drawing master to the eight year-old Princess Victoria, later Queen Victoria. He taught her twice weekly until his death in 1836. She recalled Westall was “a very indulgent, patient agreeable master, and a very worthy man.”

  • Maurice Davies is Head of Collections at the RA.

    January’s object of the month is Sir George Clausen RA, Landscape with snow, Carency (1919). See more from the RA Collection.