WEST, Benjamin
(b. 1738, Springfield, d. 1820, London)

Edward III Crossing the Somme

Oil on canvas, 137,2 x 149,9 cm
Royal Collection, Windsor

The American artist, Benjamin West, arrived in England in 1763, after spending three years in Italy. He quickly gained the patronage of George III, for whom he became Historical Painter in 1772 carrying out a number of projects, especially at Windsor Castle, involving classical, historical and religious subjects. West was a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 and succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as President in 1792.

A series of eight paintings illustrating events from the reign of Edward III was commissioned from West by George III to decorate the Audience Chamber at Windsor Castle. The task took three years to complete from 1786 to 1789, but the arrangement was dismantled by George IV during the mid-1820s when much of Windsor Castle was redesigned by Jeffry Wyatville. However, a view of the Audience Chamber with the pictures still in place is included in W. H. Pyne's The History of the Royal Residences of 1819. The present painting was double-hung on the left of the throne balancing The Burghers of Calais on the right, positioned above the door.

The series illustrates Edward III's campaign in northern France during the summer of 1346. Edward III crossing the Somme is the first in the sequence and shows an incident preceding the Battle of Crécy, when the king was trying to cross the River Somme at Blanche Tache, near Abbeville, in order to escape the French army. Edward III encountered and engaged a part of the French force under Godemar de Faye, the outcome of which, like the Battle of Crécy itself, was dependent upon the skill of the English archers seen in the upper right of the composition. The king is on horseback just to the right of centre and the figures accompanying him can be identified with the aid of a key provided by the artist for George III. An oil sketch of the composition is in the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California.

A subject taken from medieval history was an unusual choice for this date. According to West's earliest biographer, John Galt, it was George III who, 'recollecting that Windsor Castle had, in its present form, been created by Edward the Third, said, that he thought the achievements of his splendid reign were well calculated for pictures, and would prove very suitable ornaments to the halls and chambers of that venerable edifice.' In addition to his military prowess, Edward III had also been the founder of the Order of the Garter that is so closely associated with Windsor Castle. The paintings by West must be seen, therefore, as part of a revival of interest in the Middle Ages that was being pioneered by antiquarians such as Joseph Struttz and Francis Grose, to whose works the artist clearly referred for details of the arms, armour, and dress. For the historical narrative the primary sources in English were an early translation of the Chronicles (1325-1400) of Jean Froissart and the History of England (1754-62) by David Hume. West's work showed that ideal truth could be sought in themes unrelated to antiquity, and his lively treatment of such subject matter reveals his innovative qualities as an artist.