Born one of ten children to a country inn-keeper in Springfield, Pennsylvania, Benjamin West's artistic, professional and indeed geographical journey was remarkable, securing a reputation such that in 1792 he succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as President of the British Royal Academy, and has been described as 'the first American artist to achieve an international reputation and to influence artistic trends in Europe' (Robert C. Adams in J. Turner, ed., The Dictionary of Art, London, 1996, XXXIII, p. 90).
The stock-in-trade of West's early work was portrait painting, although by the 1750s he was being encouraged to explore the history and Biblical subjects for which he would become most celebrated. In July 1760, West arrived in Rome on a visit paid for by two leading Philadelphia families. Furnished with letters of introduction, considerable personal charm and the novelty of his nationality, he soon established himself, working as a pupil of Anton Raphael Mengs, and associating with, among others, Gavin Hamilton - both an accomplished history painter and an influential dealer in classical sculpture and old masters. Arriving in London in the summer of 1763, a series of exhibited pictures were much-lauded, soon establishing West as the leading history painter in England and the most advanced proponent of neo-classical painting in Europe.
A foundation member of the Royal Academy in 1768, at about this time West secured the favour of King George III, which resulted in many highly lucrative Royal commissions. His Death of General Wolfe, exhibited at the Academy in 1771, met with great critical and popular success and is considered to have brought a new realism to history painting; Reynolds remarked that it would 'occasion a revolution in art'. Consulted on attributions and appraisals (including the Walpole Collection from Houghton Hall, sold en bloc to Catherine the Great in 1779 with the assistance of James Christie), elected President of the Royal Academy in 1792, and known to act for the King at auctions, West held a commanding position in English art circles.
Landscapes and genre scenes occupy a small part of West's oeuvre, and while he painted scenes of Greenwich, Hammersmith, Paddington, and St Paul's Cathedral (seen in the background of two portraits), as well as the back of his house and garden off Oxford Street, this is the only occasion he is known to have treated a subject set in what is immediately recognisable as central London. Indeed the picture's topographical credentials were promoted when first sold, by West's sons in 1829, when it was described as 'a highly interesting topographical picture represented with great local fidelity'. Unusual also for being a pastoral scene, the work underscores the fact that West was a far more versatile artist than is sometimes realised. The qualities that made him so convincing a neo-classical artist are here displayed in the fashionable costumes of the groups of lateral observers. The 1829 catalogue describes the picture as 'not quite finished', which is presumably a reference to the figures in the right middle distance, although whether one reads these as unfinished or just freely and sketchily painted is open to interpretation.
Milk-maids kept cows and sold milk in St. James's Park from the late seventeenth century until 1905, and in the eighteenth century it became fashionable to visit the park in the morning to drink milk or syllabub, a mixture of wine and milk straight from the cow. West's picture shows the east end of the park near Whitehall, where milk was traditionally sold, looking south towards Westminster Abbey. Writing in 1848, Leigh Hunt (the artist's great-nephew) commented: 'The late Mr. West, the painter, was so pleased with this pastoral group of cows and milk-drinkers in the park, that he went out of the line of his art to make a picture of it.' (loc. cit.). The work was likely intended as a companion piece to Paddington Passage-boats Returning from Uxbridge in the Evening (fig.1, Detroit Institute of Arts), which West exhibited at the Academy in 1802, and is of the same size and also on panel.
The Collection of Professor Sir Albert Richardson, P.R.A. will be sold at Christie's King Street on 18 and 19 September 2013. The sale will include Old Master and British Paintings, British Watercolours and Architectural Drawings, English and European Furniture, Sculpture and Objects, Garden Statuary, Books, Clocks, Musical Instruments and Georgian Costume. For further information please see lot 13 in this sale.