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Benjamin West

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Benjamin West

by John Downman
oil on copper, 1777
8 1/2 in. x 7 in. (216 mm x 178 mm)
Transferred from National Gallery, 1994
Primary Collection
NPG 6264


John Downman used this distinctive neoclassic…

Sitterback to top

  • Benjamin West (1738-1820), History painter and President of the Royal Academy. Sitter associated with 43 portraits, Artist associated with 39 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • John Downman (1750-1824), Artist. Artist associated with 34 portraits.

This portraitback to top

This affectionate portrait was painted by West's former student, John Downman, who described him as 'my most beloved teacher'.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 654
  • Simon, Jacob, The Art of the Picture Frame: Artists, Patrons and the Framing of Portraits in Britain, 1997 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 8 November 1996 - 9 February 1997), p. 83, 164 Read entry

    Carved and gilt pine, mitred and pinned, the top edge, the top scoop and the sight-edge beading and tongue burnished water gilding on a plum bole, the oil gilding of the top waterleaf on a yellow base, the spandrels of oak, battens on the reverse on all four sides filling out the rebate, as found on some oilier Downman frames; the frame aperture marginally wider than the copper panel, hence the modern black slip. 1 5⁄ 16 inches wide (2 1⁄ 4 inches including the spandrels at the centre of each side).

    John Downman used this distinctive frame pattern for almost all his small portraits from the late 1770s until the mid-1790s and on occasion thereafter until the early 1800s. This oil portrait of Benjamin West, 'my beloved teacher', as Downman described him on one of his studies now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, dates to 1777, some six or seven years after he had left West's studio. It was not with his oils, however, but with pretty, small-scale chalk-and-watercolour portraits, often in profile, that Downman was to make his name in the 1780s.

    Of the small Downman portraits in the National Portrait Gallery only this one and the drawing of the actress Elizabeth Farren, Countess of Derby, dated 1787, retain their Downman frames. The pair to the latter, a portrait of Mrs Siddons, is to be reframed with a Downman frame recently acquired for the purpose.

    It is possible that Downman used the firm of Foxhall to frame his work. His portrait of Mrs Hugh Watts of 1783 (sold Christie's, 10 July 1990, lot 87) bears the label of 'Foxhall & Sons, Carvers Gilders and Picture Frame Makers, No 19 Cavendish Street'. In 1799 Downman made drawings of Mrs Foxhall and her son (British Museum).

Subjects & Themesback to top

Events of 1777back to top

Current affairs

Trent and Mersey Canal is completed under the supervision of engineer James Brindley.
Philanthropist and reformer John Howard publishes his study The State of the Prisons in England and Wales.

Art and science

Artist James Barry begins his monumental series of paintings The Progress of Human Culture for the Great Room of the Society of Arts in London. He completes it in 1783.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan's second play, The School for Scandal, is an immediate success in London's Drury Lane Theatre.
Entrepreneur William Bass establishes the Bass Brewery at Burton upon Trent.


American War of Independence: George Washington, heavily defeated at the Battle of Brandywine, is forced to relinquish Philadelphia to the British under General William Howe. At the two Battles of Saratoga only weeks later General John Burgoyne is forced to surrender to the Americans, marking a turning point in the war. The Continental Congress agrees the final version of the Articles of Confederation, defining the terms on which states join the Union.

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