Charles Shirreff

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Known For:Portrait miniatures

Charles Shirreff (sometimes referred to as Sherriff) was born in Leith, the northern district of Edinburgh, in 1750 to a wealthy businessman, Alexander Shirreff and his wife. He moved to London in 1768, receiving an education from Thomas Branwood and having mastered sign language due to hearing disabilities, joined the Royal Academy Schools on 9th August 1769.

As a young and largely anonymous artist in London, Shirreff wisely befriended Caleb Whitefoord, a Scottish merchant, diplomat, and political satirist who was well connected and moved in circles of London’s most wealthy and cultured elite. His associations with Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Dance and Richard Cosway proved highly advantageous to the hitherto unknown Shirreff. Despite his relative anonymity, the young Shirreff swiftly proved his artistic worth, exhibiting oil paintings, pastels and pencil drawings at the Academy in 1771 and at the Free Society from 1770 until 1773.

Documents regarding Shirreff’s exhibits at the Royal Academy and Free Society suggest that he may well have been a pupil of Thomas Burgess, an artist who is known to have taught other pastellists including Martha Isaacs. Following in the footsteps of many artists of the period, Shirreff petitioned the East India Company to travel to Bengal in India, finally being granted permission in 1795. Prior to his departure later that year, Shirreff spent time working in Brighthelmstone (now Brighton), Cambridge and Bath. Colonel Gordon Skelly [Philip Mould & Company], is a fine example of his technique in watercolour on ivory and was painted sometime before he left for India in 1795. Many miniaturists of the period were attracted abroad in search of greater fame and working opportunities presented by the affluent expatriates living in the capital cities of the British Raj, namely Calcutta, Madras and Bombay.

Although Shirreff lost his hearing at a young age, and subsequently chose not to communicate verbally, he realised an impressively long and profitable career. We can ascertain from his application to work in India that he had lost his hearing at the age of just four, but had subsequently learnt to communicate via sign language.[1] He remained in India for a number of years, settling in Calcutta in 1804, before finally returning to London sometime in 1809 and eventually retired to Bath where his date of death is still contested.

[1] B. Long, ‘Charles Shirriff the deaf-mute’, Connoisseur, XCI, (1933), pp.83ff.