Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sheepshanks, John

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SHEEPSHANKS, JOHN (1787–1863), art amateur and public benefactor, was born in 1787 at Leeds, of which city his father, Joseph Sheepshanks, was a wealthy cloth-manufacturer. His mother was Ann Wilson of a Westmoreland family. Richard Sheepshanks [q. v.], the well-known astronomer, was his younger brother. Until middle age he was a partner in his father's firm of York & Sheepshanks.

While engaged in business he developed a taste for picture collecting, at first acquiring copies of the Italian masters, but he soon resolved to form a representative collection of modern pictures by British artists. At the time there were practically only two others collecting on similar lines, John Julius Angerstein [q. v.] and Robert Vernon [q. v.] In 1857 Sheepshanks made over his collection to the nation as a free gift. It consisted of 233 pictures in oil, besides 289 drawings and sketches, many of the latter being developments at various stages up to elaborate completion of the painter's early ideas. Among artists represented are Turner, Stothard, Landseer, Linnell, Mulready, Constable, Leslie, Roberts, Stanfield, Wilkie, Creswick, Bonnington, Crome, and Nasmyth. The deed of gift was framed with a view to rendering the pictures a source of education to the rising generation of artists, and, with this end in view, they were housed in the South Kensington Museum, where they are accessible to students and the public. In a truly altruistic spirit he stated that it was not his desire that his collection should ‘be kept apart or bear his name as such;’ and there is a notable proviso that ‘so soon as arrangements can be properly made,’ the collection shall be open on Sunday afternoons. This provision was first carried out in 1896.

On retiring from business Sheepshanks settled in London, moving to Hastings about 1833, and then to Blackheath, where he devoted himself to horticulture, becoming a fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society. Later he built himself a house in Rutland Gate, in which the last years of his life were spent. He was of a retiring and unostentatious disposition, but his house was the resort of men famous in art and literature. He died unmarried on 5 Oct. 1863. His portrait was painted four times: by Jackson, as a young man; by A. Geddes, now at Winsley Hurst, near Ripley, Yorkshire; and twice by W. Mulready, R.A. One of Mulready's portraits is at South Kensington, and the other in the possession of a nephew, the Rev. Thomas Sheepshanks of Harrogate.

[Official catalogues of National Gallery of Art at South Kensington; Art Journal, 1863 p. 241, 1857 p. 239; thanks are also due to the Rev. Thomas Sheepshanks.]

G. S. L.