Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92)
This portrait has survived in excellent condition, allowing us to fully-absorb the painterly effect as originally intended by Reynolds...
This handsome portrait, painted with Sir Joshua Reynolds’s full bravura, can be dated to 1777 and is a startling reminder of his unparalleled abilities during the height of his career.
It is a sad truth that many works by Reynolds have been irreversibly damaged by restorers, unaware of the artist’s unusual (and at times unstable) approach to mixing paint. The present work, mercifully, has survived in excellent condition, and recent analysis indicates past conservation was restricted to the head only, leaving the more vulnerable areas protected by old varnish layers. As a result, we are able to fully-absorb the painterly effect as originally intended by Reynolds, with the deep, saturated colouring of the red jacket appearing almost luminescent against the sky backdrop. The head too is remarkably fresh, with strong characterisation in the facial features, and a sense of movement achieved through just a few genius strokes of dry paint within the curls of the hair.
A quick glance at the sweeping, self-assured brushstrokes scattered around the portrait confirms this work was conceived during a period of supreme confidence. Indeed, the same year this was painted Reynolds undertook a number of his best known works, including the portraits of Lady Elizabeth Delmé and her children [National Gallery Of Art, Washington]; Diana Sackville [Huntington Art Collections, California] and Mrs Francis Mathew [Museum of Fine Arts, Houston].
Although the whereabouts of this painting was until recently unknown, Reynolds’s ledger from 1777 lists a number of appointments with Sheldon between 28th January and 16th April, with a final payment of 35 gns (the price of a bust-length portrait) also made in April. The portrait presumably remained in the possession of the subject until his death in 1822, when the bulk of his estate was left to his second wife and a number of his paintings were sent to auction. By 1845 the portrait was in the possession of the notable English painter Sir George Hayter, who sent it to auction with a few other paintings from his collection - presumably in an attempt to recoup money incurred painting his monumental work The House of Commons (painted between 1833-1943), which had not found a buyer. The painting was acquired from Hayter’s sale by a man named ‘Wood’, and it then disappeared until 2017 when it was re-discovered by Philip Mould & Co in America.
Ralph Sheldon was an archetypal eighteenth-century English gentleman. Descended from the seventeenth-century antiquary of the same name, Ralph was the eldest son of William Sheldon of Weston, Warwickshire and Margaret Frances Disney, daughter of James Rooke of Bigsweir House, Monmouthshire. He was educated at St Gregory’s in Douai, Northern France, then went on to become a colonel with the Oxford Loyal Volunteers infantry and later lieutenant colonel in the 3rd Warwickshire Militia, both of which were part-time home defence organisations instated by Parliament to protect against a French invasion during the Napoleonic Wars.
In 1789 Ralph was elected to the corporation of Wilton and later, on 24th May 1804, after abandoning his Catholic faith, was elected as Member of Parliament for Wilton on the interest of his relative George Herbert, 11th Earl of Pembroke. He is noted in the Parliamentary archives as a supporter of William Pitt the Younger’s second administration, although as an MP was clearly somewhat shy, making only one recorded speech, in June 1819, during his time as a member of the committee on the Abuse of Charitable Foundations.
In 1812 Ralph’s first wife Jane, daughter of Admiral Francis Holbourne and Frances Ball, passed away. They had married in 1780 and together had one son, Edward, and two daughters. In 1818, aged 76, Ralph married a second time and in 1822, ‘mindful of his mortality’, bequeathed his entire estate, including personal wealth sworn under £1,000, to his second wife whom he named as ‘Rebecca’. She would later die at her London home in Fludyer Street, in February 1823. Sheldon was eventually buried in the family vault at St. Leonard’s Church, Beoley, Worcestershire as was stipulated in his will. His grandson Henry James, 1823-1901, was the last of the line.
 See David Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, 2000, p.412, no.1161, where appointments are stated as 28th January (at midday), 30th January (at eleven), 3rd and 5th February (both midday), 8th February (eleven thirty), 12th and 13th February (both midday), 17th March (at one), 22nd, 25th and April 16th (all at eleven), with a cancellation on 19th March (at one).
 Christie’s, London, 22 March 1823, lots 100 (by Richard Brompton) and 104 (by William Dobson)