Sir Martin Archer Shee

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Shee, Sir Martin Archer, President of the Royal Academy, F.R.S., was born in Dublin, 20th December 1769. His mother died a few months after his birth; his father became blind, and was consequently reduced in circumstances, and had to retire to a cottage near the Dargle, where many of young Shee's early years were spent. He evinced a taste for drawing, was admitted to the schools of the Royal Dublin Society, and before long was enabled to support himself in Dublin by painting portraits. In 1788, after his father's death, he removed to London, where he studied with the utmost diligence, Edmund Burke's personal introduction to Sir Joshua Reynolds procuring for him admission to the schools of the Royal Academy. His first picture was exhibited in 1789; in 1798 he was elected an Associate, and in 1800 a Member of the Academy. His reputation as a fashionable portrait painter soon became widely extended. He married, and established himself in a fine mansion.

On the death of Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1830, he was elected President of the Academy, and he was knighted in the same year. He was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and other honours were showered upon him, to which Catholics in England were little accustomed. Ottley, in his Dictionary of Painters, observes: "It would be a mistake to attribute Sir Martin Shee's success in his profession, and above all the high official position to which he was elected, to his merit as an artist. The latter, at least, maybe more truly assigned as a tribute to his literary attainments .. and to his courteous manners, combined with certain gifts in diplomacy, which qualified him in an eminent degree to act as the champion [of the Royal Academy]. If he did not achieve anything great as a painter, he was always ready, to use his own words, 'to break a lance with the vandalism of the day.'" He wrote several poetical pieces of minor merit, and two novels, Harry Calverley, and Old Court, in which were embodied many of his early reminiscences of the neighbourhood of Bray.

Lord Holland said of his inaugural address as President of the Academy: "I never heard a better speech." "And I," added Lord Grey, "never heard so good a one." Sir Martin was instrumental in procuring the charter for the Royal Hibernian Academy. As might be supposed, he was on intimate terms with many of the great men of the time — Grattan and Curran, as well as Englishmen and foreigners of wider fame. A Civil List pension of £200 a year was conferred upon him shortly before his death, which took place at Brighton, 19th August 1850, in his 81st year. He was buried in Brighton Cemetery. Two of his paintings, "The Infant Bacchus," and a portrait of Morton, the dramatist, are hung in the National Gallery in London. He had six children, all of whom survived him.


16. Authors, Dictionary of British and American: S. Austin Allibone. 3 vols. Philadelphia, 1859-'71.

277a. Painters and Engravers, Dictionary of Recent and Living: Henry Ottley. London, 1875.

302. Shee, Sir Martin Archer, Life: Martin A. Shee. 2 vols. London, 1860.

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