West, Robert (d. 1770), painter, draughtsman, and art teacher, was born in Waterford city, the son of an alderman. Little is known about his early years, except that he studied in Paris (c.1735) under François Boucher and Carle Vanloo, and supposedly earned the first medal of the French Academy. An oil painting of this period, ‘Thomas Smith and his family’, held in Upton house, Northampton, bears his signature. On his return to Ireland, West established a school of drawing in George's Lane (now South Great George's St.), Dublin (late 1730s). Largely through the influence of Samuel Madden (qv), he was engaged by the Dublin Society to instruct twelve boys in his school (c.1744). In 1746 the Dublin Society began to subsidise West's school, and premiums were offered to students of the school by Madden; two of West's students, George Barret (qv) and James Forrester, won awards in 1747. In 1750 West's school moved to Shaw's Ct., off Dame St., and was formally taken over by the Dublin Society. Retained as salaried headmaster of the society's drawing school, West instructed one of the school's two divisions, the figure school; his assistant, James Mannin (qv), taught ornament and landscape.
Anticipating the Royal Academy school in London by a quarter century, the Dublin Society schools emphasised sound training in drawing as the basis of a career in either a craft or fine art. Annual exhibitions of students' work were held in the house of lords. Lord Charlemont (qv) sent a gift of casts from Rome to the figure school in 1751. West taught in the French rococo style, and excelled at teaching drawing of the human figure in chalk and crayon. A major influence on Dublin pastellists, he made a chalk portrait of one of his students, the future dramatist John O'Keeffe (qv), in the style of Guido Reni, a work that was still in use for copying in the drawing schools in 1811. In 1758 another student, Matthew William Peters (qv), made a beautiful chalk drawing, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London, depicting himself being drawn by West. A staircase decoration by West, showing three-dimensional figures of birds, was placed in 20 Lower Dominick St. in 1758. West was presented with a silver medal for his excellent teaching methods in 1761, when premiums were awarded to twenty of his students.
West and his wife Mary had two sons. When he became mentally ill in 1763, Jacob Ennis (qv), a former pupil, replaced him as master and as teacher in the figure school. On Ennis's death in 1770 West was re-appointed master, but a short while later he died in early November 1770 at Lurgan St., Dublin. A few days later his elder son, Francis Robert West (qv), was elected master of the Dublin Society drawing schools. The instructor of many of the prominent artists of the period, Robert West was known as the ‘foster father’ of the arts in Ireland. An article in the Citizen in 1841 adjudged that ‘there are extant among his productions some chalk studies from the life which may be truly described as masterpieces of drawing, execution, and taste in that department of pencil’.