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Benjamin West
1738–1820

Elizabeth Linley and her son, Thomas Sheridan

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Medium
Black chalk on lilac coloured paper
On the original backing sheet
Size
13 ¾ × 8 ¾ inches · 350 × 222 mm
Notes
Signed and dated ‘B. West 1775’, lower right,
also inscribed verso of backing sheet: ‘Mother and Child – a study from nature’
and signed ‘Benjⁿ West’
Collections
  • Private collection, USA, to 2017.
Literature
  • For the portrait see: Helmut Von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West, New Haven and London, 1986, cat. no.696, p.552; 
  • Alex Kidson, Earlier British Paintings in the Walker Art Gallery and Sudley House, Liverpool, 2012, pp.238-239. 

This boldly executed drawing was made by Benjamin West in 1775 in preparation for a large and impressive full-length painting now in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Previously unrecorded, this drawing sheds valuable corroborative evidence on the full-length portrait now in Liverpool, confirming a date of 1775 and adding weight to the traditional suggestion that the portrait depicts the great playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, his wife, the singer Elizabeth Linley and their son Thomas.

By 1775 West was a successful painter with a flourishing practice; a founder member of the Royal Academy, West became historical painter to George III in 1772. The 1770s proved to be a hugely successful decade, he produced his ambitious and highly celebrated Death of General Wolfe in 1770, which was conceived as a history painting with the intention of morally uplifting its audience. The popularity of this picture (purchased by Lord Grosvenor, who eventually owned at least eleven pictures by West) and the engraving that was produced after it by William Woollett in 1776, one of the most commercially successful prints ever produced, served as an inspiration to aspiring history painters for many years. Part of West’s success was his inclusion of portraits within a historical composition.

Portraiture remained an important part of his artistic output and the present sheet is a rare rediscovery of a drawing related directly to a portrait. Carefully signed by West on the recto with the date 1775, it is inscribed and signed on the original mount by West: ‘Mother and Child – a study from nature.’ The drawing made in black chalk on pink, prepared paper shows a young child on his mother’s lap, reaching up with his right hand. The rapidly executed life drawing relates to a large, full-length portrait of a family group, in which the baby is shown receiving a flower from the standing figure of his father. The painting entered the collection of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool identified as The Sheridan Family. As Von Erffa and Staley and later Kidson have pointed out, the figures in the painting bare a close resemblance to known portraits of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and his wife, Elizabeth Linley.[1] The date on the drawing, 1775, fits with the biographies of the sitters. Thomas Sheridan was born 17 March 1775, the same year Richard Brinsley Sheridan had his first great theatrical successes as a playwright with The Rivals and The Duenna and the start of his managerial career at Drury Lane Theatre in succession to David Garrick. The drawing is preserved in exceptional condition, a rapid, intelligent and lively life drawing it offers important information about the careful preparation West made for his large-scale compositions.

References

  1. Helmut Von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West, New Haven and London, 1986, cat. no.696, p.552; Alex Kidson, Earlier British Paintings in the Walker Art Gallery and Sudley House, Liverpool, 2012, pp.238-239.