In the hierarchy of art as understood in the 18th century, at the pinnacle was history painting. From the 1740s to 1760s, English portraiture developed rapidly and became popular, however, those who could afford history painting (which tended to be large) mostly still looked to the Continent for their artists. In 1768, George III commissioned a series of history paintings from Benjamin West (from Pennsylvania). One of these was The Departure of Regulus, painted in 1769.
This was a time of turbulent politics among London artists. Kirby had been roped in as president of the Society of Artists, but a rival group led by Sir William Chambers (Kirby’s boss) was in the process of founding the Royal Academy (without Kirby’s knowledge). Reynolds was to be its first president, followed by West.
The anecdote below occurs in a number of forms, this one is taken from Northcote’s Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Many such anecdotes are burnished over time, but the dates are plausible and this picture was shown in the first 1769 exhibition. If the identification is correct, the participants, who would have known their history, doubtless appreciated the irony.
It was just about this time that Mr. West had finished his picture of the subject of Regulus, which was painted by the command of the King, and, on the morning appointed by his Majesty, he went with it to the palace in order to shew it to him, when the King was graciously pleased to approve of it highly: and at the time, whilst his Majesty was looking at the picture with Mr. West in the room, they were informed by a page, that Mr. Kirby was without waiting for his Majesty’s commands. He was immediately sent for, and, on his entrance, the King directed his (Mr. Kirby’s) attention to the picture, asking his opinion of it; Mr. Kirby commended the picture much, and particularly that part which fell under his own province, to wit, the perspective as in that science Kirby had been the King’s instructor. Kirby asked who was the painter of so good a picture, when the King pointed to Mr. West as the artist who had done it. Mr. Kirby then observed, that such a work ought most certainly to be seen by the public at large, and hoped his Majesty would permit it to be in the exhibition of the incorporated society of Artists. The King answered, that it was his pleasure that it should be exhibited, but it most certainly should be at his own Royal Academy Exhibition. At these words poor Kirby appeared to be like one thunder-struck, and just ready to drop on the floor; it was the first confirmation he had received of the report, which before he had considered as unfounded, and did not believe. It has been said, and supposed by many, that this circumstance so much affected his mind, that he actually died soon after, of the extreme mortification it gave him.
Poor Kirby. He did survive the mortification for five years, though.
To brush up on your history of Regulus, click here.