Richard Westall 1766-1836
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Richard Westall 1766-1836

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Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante


Oil painting on canvas 30 x 25 inches in its antique carved and giltwood frame


Provenance: The Nettlefold Collection (acquired before 1939), and by descent until acquired by us


Exhibited: Royal Academy, 1806 catalogue number 157, “A Bacchante”


Richard Westall was born on 2 January 1765 at Reepham, Norfolk, the eldest son of Benjamin Westall (1736–1794), a brewer, and his first wife, Mary (1739–1770), the daughter of John Ayton of London. He was baptised at All Saints', Norwich, where his father was a churchwarden, on 13 January 1765. The Dictionary of National Biography suggested that he was born in Hertford: this error is of some significance, as he was never regarded as a Norwich artist, although one of the Cromes (probably John) purchased his pictures and the Norwich artist, John Thirtle exhibited Venus and Cupid (after Westall) in 1805. However, the Westalls were an established Norfolk family. The family residence of Kerdistone Manor has been traditionally linked to the Chaucer family.

The death of Richard's mother in 1770 left Benjamin Westall with four young children, the youngest of whom was blind; at about the same time his brewery failed and he was made bankrupt. Westall later referred to these difficult times in his poem A Day in Spring (1808), describing how a relation of his mother, William Ayton, provided assistance:

Thou, the parent of my fame,
Thou, whose warmth preserved the flame,
Which was dying in my breast,
By cold penury opprest.

Benjamin Westall soon married again. With his second wife, Martha Harbord, he went to manage a brewery in Hertford where Richard's younger brother Willliam, also an artist, was born on 12 October1781.

After being placed with an attorney in Norfolk, Westall moved to London, where in 1779 he became apprenticed to John Thompson, a heraldic engraver on silver; he also studied at an evening school run by Thomas Simpson. The Norfolk artist John Alefounder instructed him in the execution of miniatures and advised the young man to become a painter. Accordingly, in 1784 Westall exhibited the first of 384 pictures at the Royal Academy. He was admitted as a student of the Academy Schools in the following year, when he exhibited an illustration of Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale, became an associate of the academy in 1792, and was made a full academician in 1794—the same year as his friend Thomas Lawrence, with whose family he lived between 1790 and 1794.

Westall ‘soon attracted attention by his large and highly finished drawings in watercolour’ (DNB), including the noteworthy Mary Queen of Scots on her Way to Execution (exh. RA, 1787). Horace Walpole described the figure of Sappho in Sappho Chanting the Hymn of Love (exh. RA, 1796) as ‘beautiful beyond description’ and his Hesiod Instructing the Greeks (exh. RA, 1796) as ‘by far one of the finest compositions ever painted in England’ (Letters, 15.404). Joseph Farington recorded in his diary that ‘the King particularly dwelt on Westall's drawings and said he had never seen anything equal to them’ (Farington, Diary, 2.527). However, Westall had his critics. John Williams, who wrote under the pseudonym Anthony Pasquin, remarked of the Hesiod picture, ‘This is such an effort, as no person, possessing taste and knowledge, can regard with satisfaction; yet it involves that trickery and finery which is so captivating to vulgar minds’ (A. Pasquin, A Critical Guide to the Royal Academy, 1796, 24). Some years later William Hazlitt exclaimed to James Northcote: ‘I confess I never liked Westall. It was one of the errors of my youth that I did not think him equal to Raphael and Rubens united, as Payne Knight contended’ (W. Hazlitt, The Round Table, 1908, 382). A further comment from Pasquin, in his critique of the 1794 exhibition, provides stimulus to thought: ‘He [Westall] has been precipitated to the command of the fleet, before he well knows the principles of navigation’ (A. Pasquin, A Liberal Critique on the Present Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 1794, 25). Richard Payne Knight was Westall's most liberal patron and sympathetic critic. In his Analytical Enquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805), he singled out Westall's Storm in Harvest (1796) as one of the ‘most interesting and affecting pictures that art has ever produced’ (p. 304). Indeed, he purchased the picture, along with another, The Grecian Marriage, in which he discerned ‘the utmost purity and dignity of heroic character and composition embellished and not impaired by the most rich and splendid harmony of colouring’ (Edinburgh Review, 23, 1814, 287).

In the 1790s Westall was a contributor to Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery and to Fuseli's Milton Gallery. He went on to illustrate several editions of Sir Walter Scott's novels, the works of Byron (of whom he also painted several portraits, one of which is held by the National Portrait Gallery, London), William Cowper, James Thomson, Robert Burns, George Crabbe, and many leading authors and poets. Byron provided a generous accolade by remarking that Westall's illustrations for Don Juan ‘are quite beautiful—the drawings are superb—the brush has beat the poetry’ (Byron's Letters and Journals, ed L. A. Marchand, 1973–82, 7.165, 168). Westall's naval associations were evident from several oils depicting the life of Nelson, shown at the Royal Academy in 1807 and now in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. He also negotiated with the Admiralty, through Sir Joseph Banks, over his brother's pictures of the landscape etc. of Australia.

Westall's career reached its height in 1814, when he staged his own exhibition in Pall Mall of 312 pictures, 240 ‘never before exhibited’. The names of the proprietors of his paintings and illustrations (listed in the exhibition catalogue) reflect the high contemporary standing of Westall's art. As well as Knight, they included Thomas Hope, the earls of Oxford, Carlisle, and Harrowby, Byron, Samuel Rogers, the prince regent, Isaac D'Israeli, and Westall's brother-in-law and fellow artist William Daniell. Publishers, naturally, were prominent among those who owned his illustrations. The exhibition met with enthusiastic reviews. The critic in the Repository of Arts commented:
That honour which Great Britain has derived from the discovery of the art of painting in transparent water colours, and which most enlightened foreigners have so willingly accorded to us, is in great degree to be ascribed to Mr Westall. His drawings for many years formed the principal feature of attraction at the exhibitions of the Royal Academy. (Repository of Arts, 1814, 357–8)
The critic of the New Monthly reviewed the exhibition over two issues and remarked that Dionysius and Damocles, owned by Hope, was ‘one of the most splendid, tasteful and elegant cabinet pictures of any modern master’ (New Monthly, 1814, 141–2, 248–9). Another painting which attracted interest was Elijah Raising the Widow's Son, exhibited at the British Institution in 1813 and then purchased by that body for 450 guineas. The Times of 5 February 1813 extravagantly compared it to the works of Titian and Rembrandt. This painting was presented to Egham parish church (St John the Baptist) in 1834 but was badly damaged by fire in 1950. The head of Elijah, however, is still visible. John Nash's only surviving London church, All Souls, Langham Place, has an altarpiece by Westall of Christ Crowned with Thorns, presented to that church by George IV at its opening in 1824.

From about 1815 onwards Westall's reputation slowly declined. In addition, he broke his right arm after falling from a horse and the injury took two years to mend. Almost bankrupt, he considered leaving for France. Perhaps the most interesting exhibited paintings of his later years were from Goethe's Faust. His Faust and Lilith, the Young Witch (exh. RA, 1831) bears comparison with Eugène Delacroix's 1828 lithograph of the same subject. In this instance, it appears that Westall may have been inspired by the French artist's illustration, but Delacroix profited by Westall's works in turn. His painting of Gulnare rend visite à Conrad en prison (1822/3) drew on the composition of Westall's drawing of this scene from Byron, engraved by Charles Heath. This was not the only instance of Westall's illustrations influencing the work of foreign artists. Engravings of his works were widely available abroad, particularly in France, and won him an international reputation that outlasted his celebrity at home. William Etty, after a visit to France in the 1820s, mentioned Westall as among those whose work is ‘not only admired but imitated’ (D. Farr, William Etty, 1958, 44, 120). Recent research has shown that the French lithographer Camille Rocqueplan made use of Westall's illustrations of Scott, while Géricault drew on his Byron illustrations, and his Faust paintings have been found to have influenced the German artist Theodore Matthias von Holst. Westall was also a major inspiration for the American artist Edward Hicks.

Westall remained a bachelor but was apparently once engaged to a Miss Bennett, the sister of his pupil William James Bennett; he painted a portrait of his intended bride for the 1804 exhibition at the Royal Academy. He died on 4 December 1836 at his home, 4 Russell Place, Fitzroy Square, London. For the last nine years of his life he had been drawing master to Princess Victoria; he visited her twice a week and painted a charming portrait of her (Royal Collection), which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1830. Echoing his own poem, the princess sorrowfully recorded that the once popular and successful painter had died ‘by cold penury opprest’.

Also saddened by Westall's death was John Constable, who attended his funeral. The link between the two men was not an artistic one. As a representative of another generation of painters, Constable had been critical of ‘the School of Westall’; C. R. Leslie, Constable's biographer, no doubt echoed the opinion of his subject when he wrote in 1812 that ‘His [Westall's] faults seem to arise from a wish to improve upon nature’ (C. R. Leslie, Autobiographical Recollections, ed. T. Taylor, 1860, 18–20). Westall had clearly belonged to the neo-classical, romantic, and historical schools of the late eighteenth century, and his reputation declined quickly in the robust atmosphere of the early nineteenth century. Nevertheless, he was a significant and innovative figure in the development of the English watercolour, his elegant and precise book illustrations set new standards in that field, and his portraits and historical and religious paintings have deservedly received more scholarly attention recently than hitherto. He was a leading artist for some twenty years, and fruitful comparisons of his works with those of other better-known contemporaries can and have been made: his portraits have been considered alongside those of Thomas Lawrence, while his more sentimental pieces resemble the pastorals of Francis Wheatley and his illustrations to Milton stand comparison with the works of Henry Fuseli. Examples of Westall's work, including Milton and his Daughters, are in Sir John Soane's Museum, London.

Most of Emma Hamilton’s attitudes were taken from classical antiquity. One contemporary describes her ‘with the assistance of one or two Etruscan vases and an urn’ she would become ‘a Sibyl, then a Fury, A Niobe, a Sophonisba, a Bacchante drinking wine’. This last posture was how she was portrayed in the (undated) picture by Robert Fagan (1745-1816) who met her in Rome and Naples in the early 1790's. Fagan uses a tripod a Greek oinochoe, no doubt from Sir William’s own collection as attributes to define Emma as Bacchante.

In another work (see this website under Fagan). Fagan painted Emma with a knowing smile on her face, as she takes on a more vivacious, if equally seductive part. The same source noted how Emma would drop her classical guises to take on the character of a Neapolitan peasant woman dancing a tarantella with castanets. Emma is shown here in the brightly coloured costumes of the south of Italy about to embark on her dance. Fagan’s romanticisation of the life of the Neapolitan peasantry would have attuned well with the Neapolitan court. Ferdinand and Maria Carolina at Naples liked to withdraw from the formality of court life and affect a bucolic existence as humble peasants, perhaps inspired by the example of Marie Antoinette’s hameau at Versailles (the French queen was of course Maria Carolina’s sister).

The royal family were painted by Philip Hackert in peasant costumes ‘indulging in the fantasy that they are helping to harvest the crops’ (Museo de San Martino, Naples). For Sir William Hamilton there would not have been a marked distinction between Emma’s classical and more modern attitudes. It was customary to see in the life and customs of the Neapolitan peasantry survivals from the classical past. ‘the local customs of the inhabitants were unique and certainly picturesque…Local games such as mora, dances such as the tarantella, and religious customs all seemed to have reflections in objects and paintings discovered in the excavations, and thus appeared to have ancient roots.  These were depicted by local and visiting artists such as David Allan and Pietro Fabris. A direct comparison may be made with Allan 1776 picture A Procidian Girl (Duke of Hamilton).

Westall, painting a decade later than Fagan, relies more on the prototypes of the French paintress Elizabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun who also captures Lady Hamilton's flirtatiousness in a striking image. Emma's capricious and flighty character endeared her to many artists (Romney painted her portrait endlessly), and she attracted the approving attention of such serious literary luminaries as Goethe. The pose of “A Bacchante” suits Emma's daring and flagrant breach of the studied social norms of late 18th century Britain: ....”women inspired to ecstatic frenzy by Dionysus. Adorned with wreaths of ivy oak or fir, .....they celebrate the power of Dionysus in song music and dance........They are beyond all human concerns, conventions and fears.” (George Hanfmann: Oxford Classical Dictionary [528])

The tria juncta in uno, as the Hamiltons and Nelson called themselves, had arrived back in Britain from the Mediterranean in November 1800, renting a house at 23 Piccadilly. Emma was heavily pregnant with Nelson's twins and much of London society snubbed them – perhaps an early foretaste of Victorian prudery – but they continued to live regardless of the opinions of their peers, and convinced of their own destiny. They were not, of course, without their supporters among the Court, since many were aware of the service Nelson and the Hamiltons had rendered to the maintenance of Monarchy whilst in Naples.

The purchase of a house at Merton provided not just a rustic retreat but also a chance for Emma to build a shrine to her lover: ‘The whole house, staircase and all, are covered with nothing but pictures of her and him, of all sizes and sorts, and representations of his naval actions, coats of arms, pieces of plate in his honour’ (Life and Letters of Sir Gilbert Elliot, First Earl of Minto, ed. Countess of Minto, 3 vols., 1874, 3.242). The death of Sir William Hamilton in April 1803 released Emma from the social embarrassment of the ménage a trois, and her confidence rose, though the departure for the sea of Nelson the following month repressed her spirits once more.

The present painting was undertaken at about this time, and shows the irrepressible Emma once more throwing convention to the wind, much as she had dome for her portrait by Vigee-Lebrun. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy the following May, along with eight other pictures by Westall. His exhibits seem to have been a success, and Joseph Faringdon notes in his Diary for Friday the 4th May 1804 that he had been visited that morning by Westall in the company of the redoubtable connoisseur and collector Thomas Hope (1769-1831), who “in consequence of having seen his pictures in the Exhibition had ordered two Historical Pictures from him – the price of that size 120 guineas – but would give more if work required it.”