Shelley was a native of London and followed a relatively conventional route into his chosen career, and, after winning the much-coveted premium prize awarded annually by the Society of Arts at the age of fourteen, entered the Royal Academy Schools on 21st March 1774. After studying at the R.A. schools (and exhibiting 1774-1804), he became an important voice in the history of watercolour painting in the eighteenth century. A founder member of the first watercolour society in 1805, he believed that watercolours should be given their own forum and exhibition space in order to be properly appreciated. Before the formation of such a society, watercolours could only be shown next to oils at the conventional exhibition spaces of the Society of Artists or Royal Academy. This new separation from brightly coloured, large oil paintings allowed watercolours to be viewed among paintings in the same media and heralded a new admiration of such work. Shelley’s desire to compete with oil paintings...

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Shelley was a native of London and followed a relatively conventional route into his chosen career, and, after winning the much-coveted premium prize awarded annually by the Society of Arts at the age of fourteen, entered the Royal Academy Schools on 21st March 1774. After studying at the R.A. schools (and exhibiting 1774-1804), he became an important voice in the history of watercolour painting in the eighteenth century. A founder member of the first watercolour society in 1805, he believed that watercolours should be given their own forum and exhibition space in order to be properly appreciated. Before the formation of such a society, watercolours could only be shown next to oils at the conventional exhibition spaces of the Society of Artists or Royal Academy. This new separation from brightly coloured, large oil paintings allowed watercolours to be viewed among paintings in the same media and heralded a new admiration of such work. Shelley’s desire to compete with oil paintings also led him to produce small watercolour subject pictures to exhibit alongside the portrait miniatures he painted all his life.

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.

As seen here, Shelley was capable of producing a high level of romanticism in his portraits, bestowing, through the pensive gaze and elegantly constructed composition, a distinct level of engagement on his subjects. The low-cut dress and rather extravagant hair of this sitter place out sitter at the height of late eighteenth century fashion. By the late eighteenth century, British portraiture had already experienced an overhaul by the likes of Sir Joshua Reynolds, champion of the Grand Style, and it was now the turn of these later artists, working in both large and miniature scale, to further this development. Different artists appealed to different groups of patrons, and whereas a wealthy merchant-class conservative gentleman may have sat to someone like John Smart, a young, glamourous political hostess may have chosen to be imbued with the swaggerish qualities dispensed by an artist like George Engleheart or Samuel Shelley.

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500 Years of British Art