This vibrant drawing must be a very early compositional sketch for West's acclaimed picture of the same title, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1786, no. 148 and now in the National Galleries of Scotland (fig. 1). It shows an arrangement quite different both from the finished work and from an oil sketch exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1784, in which West had determined the positions of horses and figures that he would retain in the completed picture. Only the statuesque pose of Colin Fitzgerald is the same at this early stage.
The picture was commissioned by Francis Humberston MacKenzie, probably to celebrate his succession as chieftain of Clan MacKenzie in 1783. It shows the 13th Century founding legend of Clan MacKenzie: Colin Fitzgerald, an Irish exile who had found refuge at King Alexander III's court, saved the king from a rampaging stag during a hunting expedition, and was rewarded for his bravery with the MacKenzie lands. However, the MacKenzie family did not manage to take possession of the picture until after West's death. It formed part of West's sons' exhibition of their father's work in 1821, although shortly afterwards must have passed to Francis Humberston MacKenzie's daughter Mary and her husband. It was said that they had to wait so long to acquire the picture because West was so proud of it, and sought to buy it back from them to add to his own collection.
As one of West's first explorations of the subject the present drawing has a spontaneity and turbulence that already shows the marked diagonals, converging on the heroic figure of Colin Fitzgerald, which would unite the composition of the finished picture.
Another drawing from this series in preparation for the painting is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York, see Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, vol. 37, Spring 1980, p. 10, no. 4, illustrated.