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The life of West has been written by the ingenious author of “Annals of the Parish,” with such minuteness of research and general accuracy of information, that little may seem to be left for a new biographer but to remodel his narrative, correct some dates, and add a few anecdotes. Something more, however, is necessary. He who writes the biography of any living person, is fettered much even as to matters of fact—much more in his expression of feelings and opinions—and not only was the President alive when Mr. Galt composed his memoir, but they were intimate friends.
John West, the father of Benjamin, was of that family settled at Long Crendon, in Buckinghamshire, which produced Colonel James West, the friend and companion in arms of John Hampden. Upon one occasion, in the course of a conversation in Buckingham Palace, respecting his picture of the Institution of the Garter, West happened to make some allusion to his English descent; when the Marquis of Buckingham, to the manifest pleasure of the late king, declared that the Wests of Long Crendon were undoubted descendants of the Lord Delaware, renowned in the wars of Edward the Third and the Black Prince, and that the artist's likeness had therefore a right to a place among those of the nobles and warriors in his own piece. The warlike propensities of this branch of the race had been long extinguished; in 1667 they had embraced the peaceful tenets of the Quakers, and emigrated to America with some other families desirous of escaping from the contests and distrac tions of their native isle. John West remained behind only till his education was completed at the Quakers' Seminary at Uxbridge: he then followed his family to Philadelphia—married Sarah Pearson • (whose grandfather was the confidential friend of William Penn, and aided him in founding the state of Pennsylvania),—and settled at Springfield in that province. One part of the marriage portion of his wife was a negro slave, an affectionate and faithful creature; but in his intercourse, as a merchant, with Barbadoes, John West happened to witness the cruelties to which certain unhappy Africans were subjected, and—touched in conscience—the worthy Quaker liberated his bondsman and retained him as a hired servant. Others of the Society of Friends followed his example—the charitable feeling spread far and wide—it was privately taught and publicly preached, and finally established as one of the tenets of that people, that no person could remain a member of their community who held a human creature in slavery. When Mrs. West, already the mother of nine children, was again about to be confined, she went to hear one Edward Peckover preach in the fields near her residence. The subject which he chose was popular with such an audience—the corrupt and degraded condition of the Old World—the pure morality and flourishing establishments of the New. The language of the preacher was veheiment and inflammatory. He pictured the licentious manners and atheistical principles of France, and the love of sordid gain which stained the character of England; and declared that the day and the hour were at hand, when those countries would be desolated with the tempest of God’s vengeance—the mass of the atheists and money-changers swallowed up—and the terrified remnant would seek refuge in happy America. The pains of premature labour came upon Mrs. West during this terrible sermon—she shrieked out—the women formed a circle round her, and carried her from the field; and such was her agitation of mind, that she had nearly expired before she reached her own house. She continued dangerously ill for twelve days, when (October 10th, 1738) she was safely delivered of her youngest son, Benjamin. This made some impression on the mind of John West, and as the presumption of man generally interprets such occurrences in his own favour, he imagined that something more than common was indicated for the fortunes of the child. Peckover, glad, no doubt, to find that his wild sermon instead of rebuke brought praise, warmly supported the belief of the credulous Quaker, and desired him to watch over his son with more than ordinary solicitude. “For a child,” said he, “sent into the world under such remarkable circumstances, will assuredly prove a wonderful man.” One lucky prediction establishes the fame of the prophet, but othere are thousands on whose future fame friends and parents fondly reckoned, in whose favour “remarkable circumstances” too condescended to occur, and who remain inglorious in spite of the stars. From one thus ushered into life by sermon and prophecy much was looked for. Nothing, however, happened till his seventh year, when little Benjamin was placed with a fly-flap in his hand to watch the sleeping infant of his eldest sister, while his mother gathered flowers in the garden. As he sat by the cradle, the child smiled in sleep; he was struck with its beauty, and seeking some paper, drew its portrait in red and black ink. His mother returned, and snatching the paper, which he sought to conceal, exclaimed to her daughter, “I declare he has made a likeness of little Sally" She took him in her arms and kissed him fondly. The drawing was shown to her husband, the prediction of Peckover recurred to his fancy, and he expressed his hope that the boy would become some day very eminent. If he meant as an artist, how this was to come to pass must have seemed, however, not so clear: there were neither professors, paintings, nor prints among the primitives of Pennsylvania. Yet West was born amid circumstances not unfavourable to the developement of his powers. The benevolent fraternity of Quakers had that simplicity of manners, and that serenity of look which artists love; while around them the nations of
Europe had scattered their children as thick as the .
trees of the forest. The gay Frenchman, the plodding Dutchman, the energetic Englishman, and the laborious Scot—all were there, each emblazoned with the peculiarities, and speaking the peculiar language of his native soil. The wilderness, too, had its picturesque tribes, who presented a school of nature for the study of the naked figure; and it appears that West was early aware of some of ...these advantages. When he was some eight years old, a party of roaming Indians paid their summer visit to Springfield, and were much pleased with the rude sketches which the boy had made of birds, and fruits, and flowers, for in such drawings many of the wild Americans have both taste and skill. They showed him some of their own workmanship, and taught him how to prepare the red and yellow colours with which they stained their weapons; to these his mother added indigo, and thus he was possessed of
the three primary colours. The Indians, unwilling to leave such a boy in ignorance of their other acquirements, taught him archery, in which he became expert enough to shoot refractory birds, which refused to come on milder terms for their likenesses. The future President of the British Academy, taking lessons in painting and in archery from a tribe of Cherokees, might be a subject worthy of the pencil. The wants of West increased with his knowledge. He could draw, and he had obtained colours, but how to lay those colours skilfully on, he could not well conceive. A neighbour informed him that this was done with brushes formed of camels' hair; there were no camels in America, and he had recourse to the cat, from whose back and tail he supplied his wants. The cat was a favourite, and the altered condition of her fur was imputed to disease, till the boy's confession explained the cause, much to the amusement of his father, who nevertheless rebuked him, but more in affection than in anger. Better help was at hand. One Pennington, a merchant, was so much pleased with the sketches of his cousin Benjamin that he sent him a box of paints and pencils, with canvass prepared for the easel, and six engravings by Grevling. , West placed the box on a chair at his bedside, and was unable to sleep. He rose with the dawn, carried his canvass and colours to the garret, hung up the engravings, prepared a palette, and commenced copying. So completely was he under the control of this species of enchantment, that he absented himself from school, laboured secretly and incessantly, and without interruption for several days, when the anxious inquiries of the schoolmaster introduced his mother to his studio with no pleasure in her looks. But her anger subsided as she looked upon his performance. He had avoided copyism, and made a picture composed from two of the engravings, telling a new