Benjamin West drawings

Collection 3149

circa 1765-circa 1819, undated
(0.95 Linear feet ; 4 boxes)

Summary Information

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania
West, Benjamin, 1730-1813.
Benjamin West drawings
circa 1765-circa 1819, undated
0.95 Linear feet ; 4 boxes
Finding aid prepared by Cary Majewicz
Processing made possible by a generous donation from Howard Lewis.
Graphic materials [Box]
Benjamin West was raised in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and worked most of his life as an artist in Pennsylvania and London, England. He created a wide variety of works during his career, from simple portraits to historical and religious scenes, and often utilized neoclassical elements in his designs. This collection consists of thirty-three original drawings and sketches by West, several of which served as studies or were made in preparation for larger paintings.

Preferred Citation note

Cite as: [Indicate cited item or series here], Benjamin West drawings (Collection 3149), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Return to Table of Contents »

Biographical/Historical note

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.

Return to Table of Contents »

Scope and Contents note

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.

Return to Table of Contents »

Collection inventory

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.]

Return to Table of Contents »

Administrative Information

Publication Information

 The Historical Society of Pennsylvania ; April 2010

1300 Locust Street
Philadelphia, PA, 19107

Conditions Governing Access note

The collection is open for research.

Return to Table of Contents »

Related Materials

Related Archival Materials note

At the Historical Society of Pennsylvania:

The Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West, by John Galt, in extra-illustrated form (Collection 3239).

von Erffa/Staley Benjamin West Archive (Collection 3000)

Benjamin West correspondence, Society small collection (Collection 22B).

Benjamin West drawings and account books (Collection 704).

Benjamin West subscription account book for James Heath's engravings (Am .18621).

At other institutions:

Benjamin West papers, Col. 394, The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Delaware.

Return to Table of Contents »

Controlled Access Headings


  • Drawings and graphics.


  • Artists--Pennsylvania--Philadelphia.
  • Neoclassicism (Art)--England--Influence.

Return to Table of Contents »


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.

Return to Table of Contents »