Support the conservation of Benjamin West’s altar painting

We're working to conserve the Benjamin West altar painting in the Chapel

The Old Royal Naval College has long attracted the finest artists and architects in the world as demonstrated by Benjamin West’s magisterial altarpiece in the Chapel.

From 9 May 2022 until the end of August, visitors to the Chapel will have a rare opportunity to see first-hand our expert team undertake the conservation of this major artwork in situ.

What is the painting?

The dramatic altar painting at the East end of the Chapel is by the American artist Benjamin West (1738-1820). It depicts the shipwreck of St Paul off the island of Malta. The painting is considered to be one of Benjamin West’s finest works.

The Chapel was completed in 1752 as part of the Royal Hospital for Seamen, Greenwich. The painting was specially commissioned following a fire in 1779 that badly damaged the interior of the Chapel. The painting was hung here ten years later, in 1789.

The painting within its frame is 4.65 metres wide and 8.5 metres high, the floor to ceiling painting demonstrates the sheer range of West’s talents and his ability to mix profound subject matter with a dramatic handling of light, movement and narrative, the key ingredients in any history painting. The altarpiece is now the only one of West’s major works to survive in its original location, here in the Chapel at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich.

The composition depicts the scene in the Acts of the Apostles in which Saint Paul is shipwrecked on his way to Rome where he will be prosecuted. At the centre of the painting, Paul stands heroically over the fire lit by the ship’s passengers to keep warm. Intruding on the scene is the snake from whose poisonous bite Paul miraculously feels no effect.
The way the scene is portrayed shows West responding to the baroque spirit of the Old Royal Naval College’s architecture, marrying this earlier more dramatic sensibility with the harmonious forms of Neo-Classicism. The maritime scene would have been appropriate for the Chapel, which served naval pensioners, many of whom might have recognised their own experiences in West’s narrative.

Who was Benjamin West?

Benjamin West was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania in 1738. His talents as a painter were obvious from a young age but it wasn’t until he travelled to Italy in 1760 to learn from the Old Masters that he came under the influence of European Neo-Classicism. He would become a leading exponent of the style.

West subsequently settled in London, establishing himself at the vanguard of the British art world. He would become Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, a role now held by Old Royal Naval College trustee Desmond Shawe-Taylor, and succeeded Joshua Reynolds as the second ever president of the Royal Academy.

During his lifetime West was recognised as perhaps the foremost painter in the United Kingdom and one of the leading lights of the Neo-Classicist school which dominated the intellectual climate of enlightenment in Europe. As an American, West was also something of a novelty, a thoroughly modern figure whose career informed the way Britain was reconfiguring the way it through of the New World.

Professor Emeritus in the History of Art at Yale University, Jules David Prown, indicates the level of West’s renown when he writes that the artist was known ‘the Raphael of America’. Perhaps best known now for his 1770 The Death of General Wolfe (see below), a masterclass in the genre of history painting. West died in 1820 and was buried with Reynolds in Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral.

What is the conservation work?

Today, this colossal altar painting requires urgent conservation.

The painting within its frame is 4.65 metres wide and 8.5 metres high. It underwent conservation work in the 1950s and again in the 1970s. The surface of the painting has been badly affected by dust and other pollutants in the atmosphere of this busy part of London.

Following a programme of investigation by leading painting conservators, Paine and Stewart (who recently executed the award-winning conservation of Thornhill’s Painted Hall), a full surface clean of the painting’s surface will be necessary. Adhering to the principle of minimal intervention, the primary intention will be to retain the existing varnish.

Dust residue and other surface debris has severely compromised the aesthetic qualities of this painting and there is a significant reduction of the original luminosity of the pigments, as well as a flattening of the powerful 3- dimensionality of the figures. The elaborate frame, designed by Richard Lawrence, suffers from localised damage along its lower edge and an overall distribution of dust and grime also significantly compromises the visual quality of the frame.

How can you help?

The Old Royal Naval College is a charity which relies on the generosity of the public to help maintain and protect some of the nation’s finest art and architecture.

We are seeking your support to help us with this important project. Every donation will help us conserve the painting, install a new and environmentally friendly lighting scheme, and provide new ways to discover and enjoy West’s masterpiece.

You can support the conservation of Benjamin West’s masterpiece by making a donation or for more information contact [email protected].

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