West won fame and rank in large measure due to this painting but his unconcealed pride also earned him more than a few detractors. One of them, the painter James Northcote (1746-1831), who held the expatriate American in particularly low esteem, said that one could not be with West for five minutes before he mentioned his Wolfe. He further stated that West conceitedly believed that “Wolfe owed all his fame to the picture,” and that “it was he who had immortalized Wolfe, not Wolfe who had immortalized him.” Perhaps he was partly justified in believing this as his grand history painting showing the English martyr’s last gasp on September 13, 1759, at the instant of his victory over the French at Quebec received wide accolade before, during, and after its public exhibition at the Royal Academy, London in 1771. West considered his painting of Wolfe a “revolution in art,” and credited himself with inaugurating a contemporary form of classicism in which the protagonists in a modern historical event were clad in modern dress. However, the success of his composition owed more to the immense popularity of Wolfe as a national hero than to the innovative character and artistic merit of the painting.
West painted a number of replicas of The Death of General Wolfe, the first of which was commissioned by George III, but an even more lucrative venture was an engraving of the painting to be issued in what was at the time the enormous number of twelve hundred impressions. A partnership agreement to this effect was signed on November 17, 1772, by the engraver William Woollett and the publishers and printsellers John Boydell and William Ryland to produce the print in co-operation with West. A month later the partners advertised for subscriptions to the print at one guinea, promising to publish it on March 4, 1773, but it actually not appearing until January 1, 1776.
Publication was delayed for several reasons. Woollett was a notoriously meticulous and slow engraver, and West, rightly thinking that the reproduction would increase his reputation and wealth, was just as fastidious in correcting the seven proofs of the print. However the partners could not have foreseen two other delays in their publication schedule. The first of these occurred when the printing plate was damaged after only a few proof sheets were pulled, the plate finally being repaired by late November 1775. Printing was halted a second time after only a few impressions by Woollett’s appointment on November 27 as Engraver in Ordinary to His Majesty King George III. This title was potentially advantageous to the sale of the print, especially when combined with West’s position as Historical Painter to His Majesty, so the lettering on the plate was recut to include the parallel titles. The print was at last delivered to its patient subscribers in 1776 and was offered at a premium to those who had lacked the foresight to reserve a copy. It was an instant success with the initial edition of twelve hundred selling out immediately. More were printed then and later as a result of this popularity.