Samuel Shelley (1750-1808)
This engaging portrait of a young officer is by Samuel Shelley, a highly successful eighteenth-century artist, who was self-taught in the practise of miniature painting.
Shelley was born in London and lived for the duration of his working life in the capital, following a relatively conventional route into his chosen profession. After winning the much coveted premium prize awarded annually by the Society of Arts at the age of fourteen, he entered into the Royal Academy Schools on 21st March 1774. He exhibited at the RA between 1774 and 1804 and was greatly influenced by the work of Joshua Reynolds, president of the academy from 1768 until 1792.
Shelley not only pursued portraiture but produced ambitious history and subject paintings in miniature; for example the richly-coloured Macbeth Saluted by the Witches in the Victoria and Albert Museum [FA.673]. He was employed by the court of George III and Queen Charlotte, although not in a formal capacity, and was considered one of the most fashionable miniaturists of his day.
Understandably, Shelley became frustrated with the Royal Academy’s increasingly elitist attitude towards watercolourists, leading him, along with eight other artists, to found the Society of Painters in Water Colours in 1804. This new society meant that watercolours were separated from the brightly-coloured, large oil paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy, allowing them to be appreciated for their distinctive medium in their own space. Shelley was treasurer of the society for two years until December 1806 and was an important voice in the history of watercolour painting in the eighteenth century. Both Edward Nash and Alexander Robertson were his pupils and Shelley’s work exists in a number of national collections including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Collection and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
Although the sitter of this portrait miniature has not been identified, his expressive face and meticulous detail suggests an excellent character study of the individual by Shelley.
We are grateful to Christopher Bryant for his assistance when cataloguing this work.