Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Westall, Richard
WESTALL, RICHARD (1765–1836), historical painter, came of a Norwich family, but was born at Hertford in 1765. In 1779 he was apprenticed to an heraldic engraver on silver named John Thompson in Gutter Lane, Cheapside. While he was thus employed, the miniature-painter John Alefounder [q. v.] remarked his ability, and advised him to become a painter. He studied after his day's work at an evening school of art with such success that he was able to exhibit a portrait-drawing in 1784 at the Royal Academy, where he was admitted a student in 1785. On completing the term of his apprenticeship in 1786, he commenced his career as an artist, and soon attracted attention by his large and highly finished drawings in watercolour at the Royal Academy. These were chiefly of historical subjects, ‘Jubal,’ ‘Esau seeking Isaac's Blessing,’ ‘Mary Queen of Scots on her Way to Execution,’ ‘Sappho chanting the Hymn of Love,’ ‘Hesiod instructing the Greeks,’ and the like. They were varied by portraits and by pictures in oils of rustic subjects. Westall became an associate in 1792 and an academician in 1794. From 1790 to 1794 he lived at 57 Greek Street, the corner house of Soho Square, which he shared with Thomas Lawrence, each of the artists placing his name on one of the two entrances to the house. In 1794 Westall removed to 54 Upper Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square.
About this time he took to the illustration of books, which continued throughout his life to be his principal occupation. He was employed at first by Alderman John Boydell [q. v.] , for whose ‘Shakespeare’ he designed a number of illustrations between 1795 and 1802, in addition to painting five pictures for the ‘Shakespeare Gallery,’ which were engraved on a larger scale. For Boydell, too, he designed his illustrations to ‘Milton.’ He was also employed by Macklin, and was a contributor to Bowyer's ‘History of England.’ Early in the nineteenth century he was working chiefly for John Sharpe of Piccadilly, who published a very large number of Westall's designs in Park's ‘British Classics’ (1805–9), and in his small editions of the English poets, Milton, Young, Thomson, Goldsmith, Cowper, Beattie, and others (1816–17). For Sharpe, too, he illustrated Scott's ‘Marmion’ in 1809, and Johnson's ‘Rasselas’ in 1817. For the firm of Longmans he illustrated Scott's ‘Lord of the Isles’ (1813), Campbell's ‘Pleasures of Hope’ (1818) and ‘Gertrude of Wyoming’ (1822). Murray published his illustrations to Byron (1819) and Crabbe (1822). Among other books illustrated by Westall may be mentioned his own volume of poems, ‘A Day in Spring,’ 1808, with plates engraved by James and Charles Heath; ‘Illustrations to the Bible,’ thirty-one plates by Charles Heath, 1813; ‘Victories of the Duke of Wellington,’ twelve aquatint plates by Thales Fielding, 1819; ‘The Pilgrim's Progress’ and ‘Don Quixote,’ 1820; Southey's ‘Roderick,’ 1824; and John Hobart Caunter's ‘Illustrations of the Bible,’ 1835–6, 2 vols., with woodcuts after Westall and John Martin. This is by no means an exhaustive list of Westall's work in book illustration. He was second only to Stothard in the abundance with which he supplied designs to the engravers on steel trained in the school of the two Heaths, and in the popularity which his illustrations enjoyed. For their artistic merit there is not very much to be said. They soon degenerated into mannerism, and in the feminine types especially there is great monotony.
Westall was at his best in watercolour, and was the leader of a reform in figure-painting in this medium, contemporaneous with that of Thomas Girtin [q. v.] in landscape. The brilliancy of his colouring was considered novel and astonishing in his own day, though he made large use of opaque pigments. A watercolour drawing by him, ‘Cassandra prophesying the Fall of Troy,’ exhibited in 1796 at the Royal Academy, is in the South Kensington Museum. The British Museum possesses several examples of the years 1793–4, ‘A Shepherd in a Storm,’ exhibited in 1795, and three large drawings dated 1799, ‘The Boar that killed Adonis brought before Venus,’ ‘Judith reciting to the Young Alfred the Songs of the Bards,’ and ‘Cardinal Bourchier entreating Elizabeth Grey to let her Son leave the Sanctuary of Westminster Abbey.’ The last two subjects were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1800. In the same collection are specimens of Westall's work in other styles—landscape, portraiture, and book illustration. There are also thirteen drawings in various styles in the Dyce collection at the South Kensington Museum.
Westall's large pictures in oils were not successful, though one, ‘Elijah raising the Widow's Son,’ was purchased by the directors of the British Institution for four hundred and fifty guineas in 1813. He held an exhibition of his pictures and drawings at his house in Upper Charlotte Street in 1814. He ceased to paint historical subjects in oils when he found that they did not sell. His pictures are now little known, and it is probable that some of them pass under other names. A large picture by him, ‘Buffalo-hunters surprised by Lions,’ has been reproduced as a work of James Ward. ‘Christ crowned with Thorns,’ by Westall, is the altar-piece of All Souls' Church, Langham Place. He exhibited in all 313 works at the Royal Academy, and seventy at the British Institution (Graves, Dict. of Artists).
A large number of Westall's pictures were engraved. Among the historical subjects, in addition to those from Shakespeare, may be mentioned: ‘Queen Elizabeth receiving the News of the Death of her Sister Mary,’ and ‘Joan of Arc receiving the Consecrated Banner,’ engraved in 1792; ‘Charles V resigning the Crown of Spain,’ ‘Telemachus and Calypso’ (two subjects), 1810. Several large engravings of rustic subjects—such as ‘Rural Contemplation’ and ‘Rural Music,’ by T. Gaugain, 1801; ‘The Sad Story’ and ‘The Woodcutter and Cowboy,’ by John Ogborne, 1802; ‘A Storm in Harvest,’ 1802; and ‘Reapers,’ 1805, by Robert Mitchell Meadows—show Westall's talent in a more favourable light. Later works in this style are ‘A Gleaner’ and ‘The Reaper returning by Moonlight,’ 1814. ‘Venus and her Doves,’ ‘Cupid Sleeping,’ ‘The Birth of Shakespeare,’ and ‘The Birth of Otway,’ 1802, are graceful fancy compositions. Twelve subjects illustrating the rites and ceremonies of the church of England, engraved by Agar, Cardon, and Schiavonetti, enjoyed great popularity. Some larger compositions of similar subjects were engraved by R. M. Meadows. Of the portraits by Westall, that of Byron, engraved in mezzotint by Charles Turner, is the best known. Westall was himself an engraver, and published etchings, aquatints (some printed in colours), and (in 1828) mezzotints, from his own pictures or drawings. He also made a few lithographs in the early days of that art.
From 1816 to 1828 Westall lived at 6 South Crescent, Bedford Square, and from 1828 to 1836 at 4 Russell Place, Fitzroy Square. In his later years he lost most of his earnings by imprudent dealings in old pictures and other speculations, and was reduced to such poverty as to need relief from the Royal Academy. He and a blind sister who lived with him were also assisted by the Duchess of Kent. Westall's last professional occupation was as instructor in painting and drawing to the Princess Victoria. He died on 4 Dec. 1836. He was short and slight of figure, and delicate in health. His portrait appears in the engraving of the royal academicians by C. Bestland (1802), after Henry Singleton.[Gent. Mag. 1837, i. 213; Sandby's Hist. of the Royal Academy, i. 306.]