Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Shee, Martin Archer

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SHEE, Sir MARTIN ARCHER (1769–1850), portrait-painter and president of the Royal Academy, born in Dublin on 20 Dec. 1769, was the younger surviving son of Martin Shee, a merchant in Dublin, and Mary, daughter of John Archer of Dublin, his wife. His grandfather, George Shee of Castlebar, co. Mayo, belonged to an old Irish catholic family claiming to be the same stock as the family of O'Shea. Shee lost his mother in his early infancy, and, as his father (who died in 1783) was afflicted by blindness, he was brought up chiefly by his maternal aunt, Mrs. McEvoy (afterwards Mrs. Dillon). He received a classical education in Dublin; but, displaying a strong inclination to drawing, he was allowed to enter as a pupil in the drawing academy of the Royal Dublin Society, under Robert Lucius West, where his rapid progress insured him permission to adopt painting as a profession. On leaving West's school he set up for himself as a portrait-painter, beginning in crayons, and afterwards in oils, and obtained some employment in fashionable circles at Dublin. He also had a predilection for the stage, which he maintained throughout life. In 1788 he was induced by Gilbert Charles Stuart [q. v.], the American portrait-painter, to go and seek his fortune in London, where he arrived on 29 June of that year. Though furnished with recommendations to Burke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Opie, and other notable people, Shee met with little success in London, and was reduced to making engravers' copies for Macklin the publisher. On the advent, however, in London of his cousin, Sir George Shee, a rich Indian nabob, and also with the assistance of Alexander Pope [q. v.], the actor, Shee obtained a second and more successful introduction to Burke, which led to another interview with Reynolds, and to Shee being entered as a student in the Royal Academy in March 1790. From this time his career was one of steady progress in his art, that of portrait-painting, to which he almost entirely devoted himself. The quality of his work was quickly recognised, and he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy on 3 Nov. 1798, and a full academician on 10 Feb. 1800. His sitters were drawn from the royal family and every rank of society, and his education and literary accomplishments obtained him an entry into the most select circles of culture and fashion. In 1802 he visited Paris, where his knowledge of the French language was of great use to him. In 1805 Shee published a poem entitled ‘Rhymes on Art, or the Remonstrance of a Painter,’ which reached three editions, and in 1809 a sequel to it, entitled ‘Elements in Art,’ a poem in six cantos, in which his very conservative views upon painting are set forth. In 1807 he was largely concerned in the foundation of the British Institution. Among his acquaintances was Lord Byron, who in his ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers’ paid a tribute (perhaps in a satirical vein) to Shee in the lines:

    And here let Shee and genius find a place,
    Whose pen and pencil yield an equal grace;
    To guide whose hand, the sister arts combine,
    And trace the poet's, as the painter's line;—
    Whose magic touch can bid the canvas glow,
    And pour the easy rhyme's harmonious flow,
    While honours, doubly merited, attend
    The poet's rival, but the painter's friend.

During the first half of his life Shee's fame was overshadowed by that of his more brilliant rival, Sir Thomas Lawrence, P.R.A. Although Shee's numerous portraits lack the grace and vigour of Lawrence's, they are often more solidly painted and more estimable as works of art, being impressive rather than interesting. On the death of Lawrence in 1830, the coveted post of painter-in-ordinary to the crown was conferred upon Sir David Wilkie, but Shee was elected by a large majority of votes to be president of the Royal Academy, for which, besides his sound qualities as a painter, his dignified demeanour and his social and literary gifts rendered him well fitted. He received the honour of knighthood shortly after. During his tenure of office the academy was removed from the apartments which had been granted to it by the king in Somerset House to what proved to be a temporary residence in Trafalgar Square. Frequent attacks of a very violent nature were made during this time in the press and in parliament upon the Royal Academy and its administration, throughout which Shee acted with great dignity and determination as defender and spokesman in support of the academy and its privileges. Although Shee cannot be said to have assisted the progress of art, the Royal Academy owes to him a great debt for his conduct as president, both in internal as well as external affairs. Among other services to the academy Shee introduced the practice of giving a written discourse to the students at the biennial distribution of medals, and of inviting distinguished guests to attend this ceremony. When, at the age of seventy-six, in 1845 he resigned the presidential chair, a unanimous address was presented to him by the academicians and associates to continue in office, which he felt unable to refuse. He continued therefore to hold the office until his death at Brighton on 19 Aug. 1850. A public funeral in St. Paul's Cathedral was desired by the royal academicians, but at Shee's own request he was buried in the cemetery at Brighton. Shee married, on 19 Dec. 1796, at Paddington church, Mary (d. 1846) eldest daughter of James Power of Youghal, by whom he left three sons and three daughters. The eldest son, Martin Archer Shee, died at Brighton in his 94th year on 13 Sept. 1898. Shee's wife received, on 30 Sept. 1845, a civil list pension of 200l., which was settled jointly on her death on her three daughters.

In addition to the poem mentioned above Shee published ‘Commemoration of Reynolds, and other Poems’ (1814) and two novels—‘Oldcourt’ (1829) and ‘Cecil Hyde’ (1834). In 1823 Shee completed a tragedy entitled ‘Alasco,’ based on the partition of Poland, which was accepted by Charles Kemble and put in rehearsal at Covent Garden Theatre; but, to everybody's surprise, the play was prohibited in the following year by the examiner of plays, George Colman the younger [q. v.] The inoffensive play was published in 1824.

Among the learned and cultured societies of which Shee was a member were the Royal Society and the Society of Dilettanti. He was elected a member of the latter on 4 July 1830, when he succeeded Sir Thomas Lawrence as painter to the society. In that capacity he painted the portrait of John B. Sawrey Morritt [q. v.], in his robes as archmaster of the ceremonies to the society, which may be regarded as one of his best works. In the National Gallery there is a portrait by Shee of William Thomas Lewes the comedian as the Marquis in the ‘Midnight Hour,’ painted in 1791; and in the National Portrait Gallery portraits of Lord-chief-justice Denman, Thomas Morton the dramatist, General Sir Thomas Picton, and Lieutenant-general William Popham.

[Life of Sir Martin Archer Shee, by his son; Sandby's Hist. Roy. Acad.; Redgrave's Dict.]

L. C.