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William Allen: America's first patron of the arts

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Feb 03 2012 05:15:38 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 06 2012 04:58:52 PM CST

The art world may owe a debt of gratitude to the man who founded Allentown back in the 1700s.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Chances are William Allen, when he founded what became Allentown 250 years ago this spring, didn’t think the city would ever have an art museum. Such institutions barely existed even in the cultural capitals of Europe. And those that did were open only to the titled and the wealthy. 

But Allen would undoubtedly have been pleased to know that today the city that bears his name has an art museum with two paintings by Benjamin West (1738-1820), the first significant American painter. Hailed in his day as “the best known artist in the English speaking world,” West in 1763 called Allen “the principal of my patrons.”

Acquired in 2002 the paintings “The Return of the Prodigal Son” painted in 1772, and “A Portrait of Thomas Wyld” from1771, are placed side by side. Recently they were the subject of a lecture by J. Brooks Joyner, the museum’s executive director. It was one in a series of noon time talks that Joyner will be giving this year.

How did William Allen, a merchant and land speculator, end up being West’s patron?  Part of it had to do with his education. In the 1720s Allen attended Cambridge University. Here, from the sons of the English gentry, he learned that being a gentleman required at least a passing knowledge of art, particularly portrait painting. And why shouldn’t America and Pennsylvania have their own talented artists?

Thanks to a series of surviving letters of both West and Allen, the story of how they came together can be understood. When West came to the attention of Allen, West was largely untrained but clearly had talent. Among those who had helped the teenage painter find his way was Moravian painter John Valentine Haidt of Bethlehem. Another was John Wollaston, an English portrait painter, who passed through Philadelphia in 1758. Apparently it was at this time that Provost William Smith, an Anglican priest and head of the College of Philadelphia, predecessor to the University of Pennsylvania, introduced West to wealthy Philadelphians, Allen among them. 

In October, 1759, Allen received a letter from some English merchants in Leghorn, Italy. They informed him that a nice profit could be made by sending a boatload of sugar to Italy whose supply had been cut off by the naval battles that were a part of what is known in America as the French and Indian War.

Allen replied that although he had “for near the past ten years declined all trade,” he and some Philadelphia merchant friends agreed to risk it despite the war. Their ship, a privateer, the Betty Sally, which, “carries 12 carriage guns and 20 men” would include three passengers, Allen’s oldest son John Allen, “having an Inclination to see the World…proposes to stay a few months in Italy,” would be traveling with his friend, Joseph Shippen.

With them would be “Mr. West, a young ingenious painter of this City, who is desirous to improve himself in that Science, by visiting Florence and Rome.” He requested that the English merchants credit West with 100 pounds that Allen would remit to his London bankers, David Barclay & Son, distant ancestors of today’s Barclay’s Bank.

How the artist, who in 1759 was struggling without success to make a career painting portraits in New York, got on the voyage of the Betty Sally is unknown. Biographers assume Smith mentioned West’s struggles to Allen who allowed him to travel with his son and Shippen.

Sea voyages in the 18th century were chancy things, even in peacetime. A storm tossed wave could, with one sweep, swamp a ship, plunging her and all aboard to the ocean’s bottom. When winds ceased to blow a vessel could be stranded with passengers eating up precious supplies of food and water. And strong winds could rip sails to flapping shreds of canvas.

Despite some delay in mid-May at the Strait of Gibraltar, on June 14, 1760 the Betty Sally arrived in Leghorn. William Allen did not learn of this until a letter from his London bankers mailed on July 8 arrived in August. Apparently West had already begun his study of Italian art.

A year later, August 19, 1761, Allen sent a letter to Barclay’s approving an advance of 60 pounds to West and 100 pounds more from himself and Governor James Hamilton his brother-in-law for whom Hamilton Street is named. “From all accounts,” Allen wrote “he (West) is like to turn out a very extraordinary person in the painting Way; and it is a pity such a Genius should be cramped for want of a little Cash.”

How Allen knew of West’s increasing talents is unknown. Perhaps the artist was already sending back copies he was making of Old Master paintings for Allen and Hamilton’s picture collections. Copies of works by Titian and other masterpieces are among the works mentioned. The artist notes that Hamilton had some of them hanging in public buildings in Philadelphia. What happened to these paintings following the Revolution, when Allen lost his fortune and his property was confiscated by the state of Pennsylvania, remains unknown. 

West’s time in Italy was not always pleasant. An illness struck him that incapacitated the artist for several months. But Allen and Hamilton continued to support West in spite of his illness. In 1763 West traveled to England where he thanked Allen, who was touring Great Britain with his family.

The Death of General Wolfe (new garments) West’s skills quickly gained him a following in England. And his historic paintings showing heroic figures from current events like the French and Indian War in contemporary dress, no togas or knightly armor, caused a sensation that led to the patronage of King George III and the presidency of the Royal Academy. William Allen, still loyal to his king, died in 1780 and was buried in an unmarked grave near his country home in Germantown. But Benjamin West was his legacy.