The recto is a design for a ceiling presumably intended, but never realized, for the ceiling of the Royal Chapel in Windsor Castle. The decoration of the chapel with paintings by West, replacing earlier ones by Andrea Verrio, was a venture that was underway by October 1779, when West mentioned it in a letter, and that would be terminated only in 1801, when he was told to suspend work on the paintings (von Erffa and Staley, op.cit., Appendix I: 'West's Painting for the Royal Chapel in Windsor Castle', pp. 577-81). During those years West completed eighteen large paintings for the chapel and began, designed or proposed several more, for a planned total of perhaps as many as 36 paintings, in what became the largest undertaking of his long career. The scheme was planned in collaboration with the royal architect Sir William Chambers, and this drawing and several others would appear to be joint works, with Chambers or a draughtsman in his office responsible for the architectural frameworks and West composing the more freely and boldly drawn pictorial compositions seen within them. Related designs in which, as in this drawing, the settings feature as prominently as the paintings are in the Royal Library at Windsor and in the Yale Center for British Art. They are all highly finished, particularly in the architectural detail, and must have been made at the inception of the project, as presentation pieces, to show King George III what the architect and painter intended to do.
The iconographic theme of the paintings was 'the process of Revealed Religion, from its commencement to its completion'. The narrative sequence of the completed pictures starts with The Expulsion of Adam from Paradise from Genesis (National Gallery of Art, Washington) and runs to Paul and Barnabas rejecting the Jews and receiving the Gentiles from The Acts of the Apostles (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia), but West intended to carry the story further. A drawing in the Royal Library shows a side wall of the chapel dominated by five already existing large windows and, above them, five lightly indicated in subjects from Revelation, the final book of the New Testament. West never completed any of them for the chapel, but he did exhibit a large drawing under the title The triumph of death, from the Revelation, but which is now known as Death on the Pale Horse, at the Royal Academy in 1784 (Royal Academy of Arts, London) and a painted sketch of the same composition in 1796 (Detroit Institute of Arts), identifying both as 'for his Majesty's Chapel'. The large central oval of the ceiling design shows the Last Judgement and so, if realized on the chapel's ceiling, would have carried the visionary description of the end of the world, as forecast in Revalations, to a grand finale. Above and below are four square panels with depictions of the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who are traditionally present, usually represented by their symbols - human/angel, lion, ox and eagle respectively, all discernable in West's design - in medieval scenes of The Last Judgement.
Designed as early as 1779, The Last Judgement constitutes a noteworthy break from the sober scenes from Greek and Roman history, such as The Departure of Regulus (Royal Collection), shown by West in the first Royal Academy exhibition in 1769 and bought by King George III, or scenes from more modern history, notably The Death of General Wolfe (National Gallery of Canada), exhibited in 1771, with which he had established his reputation. With the chapel paintings, the main focus of West's activity moved from classical or historical subjects to biblical ones, and his style gradually shifted from the Neo-classical severity of his early works to a much more dramatically baroque manner more in keeping with the often visionary nature of biblical revelation. In designing a Last Judgement he must have had in mind the great fresco by Michelangelo showing the subject on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel, which he had studied (see lot 52), but the composition is more reminiscent of baroque ceiling paintings from the 17th and 18th Centuries. West probably retained some memory of ceilings he had seen in Italy before coming to England in 1763. Closer at hand he had the examples of Thornhill at Greenwich and Sebastiano Ricci in the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, the latter an apsidal painting rather than a ceiling, but thematically and stylistically relevant.
The verso of the sheet contains a pencil sketch of a mother and child, but is largely devoted to sketches for the ceiling of the Council Chamber of the Royal Academy in Somerset House, into which the Academy moved in 1780. The mother and child were most likely the artist's wife and their second son, Benjamin West, Jun., born in August 1772. Mrs West looks much as she does in a group portrait of the family painted in 1772 (Yale Center for British Art) but her son has advanced from being a new-born baby on his mother's lap to a boy standing next to her, wearing a lace collar, and seemingly reading a book she holds in her lap.
The sketches for the ceiling were for another project in conjunction with Sir William Chambers, this time in his role as architect of Somerset House. There is no sign, however, of Chambers's hand on the drawings, which pay no attention to the details of the architectural setting and are rough early ideas for the paintings, quite unlike the more polished design for Windsor on the other side of the sheet. Nevertheless, a hypothetical scenario explaining the relationship of the two sides probably should start with Chambers. He would have worked out the architectural redesign of the Windsor Chapel and provided West with drawings showing what he planned, while leaving the spaces for the paintings empty so that West could fill them with his compositions, as West indeed did on the recto of this sheet and in other drawings mentioned above. Then, possibly while in discussion with Chambers, West used the verso of the drawing for the Windsor ceiling to sketch his first ideas for the Somerset House ceiling. Unlike the Windsor ceiling, the one for Somerset House was carried out (although probably by West's then assistant Gilbert Stuart rather than by West himself) and is extant, now transferred to the entrance hall of the Academy's present premises in Burlington House.
The actual ceiling consists of a central roundel of the Graces unveiling Nature, and panels on four sides of it showing the Four Elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. The present drawing consists mainly of a sketch for the overall arrangement, with the panel for Earth carried out in watercolour, the central roundel sketched in black and white, and the other panels little more than suggested as shapes. Additionally, to the side, there is a more finished sketch in watercolours for the Graces unveiling Nature, showing a composition somewhat different from the one at the centre of the overall visualization. Both differ considerably from the painting on the Academy's ceiling (fig. 1) and from an oil sketch in the Smart Museum of the University of Chicago, which appears to have been painted by West as a model for his assistant to follow on the ceiling. Nature is personified as a multi-breasted Diana of Ephesus in all of them. In the two sketches on the present sheet she is drawn frontally in the centre of the composition as a herm, which is being uncovered by the Three Graces, who in the watercolour are accompanied by a seated male figure; in the final painting she is positioned obliquely to the side in an asymmetrical composition the man has disappeared and two putti have been added. The figure of Earth is also quite different in her final realization. Most of her attributes - a lion, two rabbits and a cornucopia - remain, but her position has changed, and she has been joined by two putti.
Since the Council Chamber ceiling was in place in time for the opening of the Royal Academy's first exhibition in its new home in Somerset House in late April 1780, the very preliminary early sketches for it, which we see on the present sheet, must have been drawn well before then, probably at some time in 1779. As suggested above, West's designs for the paintings of the Windsor ceiling on the recto must have been introduced to an architectural drawing supplied to West by Chambers's office, and that drawing had to have been made by the architect before the painter could draw on its verso. So the Windsor project would seem to have been in the works before West started to think about the Council Chamber ceiling, but West's designs must date from approximately the same time, quite possibly during the same few days. The two schemes are so unlike one another as to seem hardly related, but they were the artist's first known attempts at designing ceiling paintings, and, although he found different solutions, the presence of sketches for both ventures on the same sheet establishes their connection with one another.