. . . was the youngest son of John West and Sarah Pearson and was born near Springfield, in Chester [now Delaware] County, in the State of Pennsylvania, on the 10th of October, 1738.”
So begins Scottish writer John Galt’s The Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West, Esq., a 2-volume work published in 1816 (volume 1) and 1820 (volume 2). Benjamin West (1738-1820) was an influential early American artist. He was born and raised in Pennsylvania, but studied art in Italy and England. West moved to London, England, in 1763 and it became his permanent residence. He co-founded London’s Royal Academy of Art in 1768 and was appointed a painter to King George III in 1772. Among his most famous works are The Death of General Wolfe (1771), William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (1772), Death on a Pale Horse (1802), and Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple (1817), which is now in the collections of Pennsylvania Hospital.
Earlier this year a patron adopted HSP’s collection of Benjamin West drawings (#3149). Having processed that collection, I was more than happy to begin work on the Galt collection, which was also adopted. Now when it came to this collection, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. In our collections database, the material is briefly described as “a collection [that] contains materials pertaining to the life and works of Benjamin West by author John Galt.” Based on this, I thought I’d find either published or handwritten pages of a biography along with items that Galt may have collected for research, such as letters and documents by West, prints of his artwork, and papers on Philadelphia’s history and the history of the Royal Academy of Art. Interesting stuff maybe, but I didn’t think I’d find much of anything with a “wow” factor.
So, I started processing and, well . . . wow.
Turns out this collection is actually made up of a series of seven disbound extra-illustrated volumes. An “extra-illustrated” book contains pages from a published book that are inlaid or mounted in a bound volume along with engravings, prints, and original manuscripts, somewhat like an elaborate scrapbook. While it sounds haphazard, it’s actually not and the creator of the volume(s) usually takes great care to match up documents with people and places mentioned on particular pages. For example (below), on page 136, Galt mentioned Isaac Newton and the artist Titian. Among the pages following it are images related to Newton and Titian. (There are also pictures of Bellini and Giorgioni, who are also mentioned, but not included here.)
Since the pages were cut out and removed from the volumes, what we are left with are four boxes and several flat files of published pages from John Galt’s biography on Benjamin West; many original letters to and from West; numerous prints and engravings of West, other artists, lots of unrelated folks such as William Penn and Plutarch, and locations and landmarks like scenes from Italy and Windsor Castle; various miscellaneous documents including deeds and accounts; and some original sketches and drawings by West himself…exciting, no! Alright, maybe I’m the only one who’s excited about that last point, but I truly didn’t expect to find original works by West–and such nice hidden gems they are! These works continue in the vein of West’s religious and classical themes (and there are others besides these three).
So far, processing has been a blast because each page brings a little something new and different. I’ve gotten through the smaller pages and images that were boxed; there are still several flat files of oversized pages in storage that will surely bring new surprises.
And on that note, I leave you with two last bits of intrigue. Notice that the letters below all have tears running their lengths. In fact, almost all the original letters to and from West in this collection were, at some point in the past, each torn in several pieces and subsequently repaired. Though I’m happy to see that they were repaired, I still wonder why they were damaged in the first place…?
And finally, anybody out there read Russian?
The processing of John Galt’s The Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West, Esq., is still underway and the finding aid will go online in the next couple months. A link will be provided once it’s posted.