Sir Martin Archer Shee, P.R.A.
1769 – 1850
A young lady, thought to be Princess Victoria, later Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901)
Painted circa 1833
Oil on unlined canvas: 20 x 16 ½ in. (51 x 42 cm.)
with The Knoedler Gallery, New York, 1924;
Sold Sotheby’s, 14 April 2011, lot 248, for £15,000;
Private collection, England;
with The Weiss Gallery.
Inscribed (verso): ‘Portrait of H.M. The Queen/ 1833./ Sir Martin Archer Shee./ P.R.A.’
This beautiful sketch is in an excellent state of preservation; the paint, so freely applied, skates over the surface with a bravura movement and impressive economy of brushwork. Its spontaneity likely reflects the fact that it probably would have been a preparatory study for an as-yet unknown larger painting. The portrait can be attributed with confidence to Sir Martin Archer Shee, since the fluidity of handling, the choice of sky-blue for its background, and confident rendering of the sitter’s features and indeed her flesh tones, are all hallmarks of the artist’s work. We are grateful to Martin Beisly and Patrick Bourne, leading authorities on British Victorian Art, for their confirmation of the attribution.
Along with Sir Thomas Lawrence, Shee was one of the leading portrait painters in early-nineteenth century Britain. Since the inscription describes the sitter as ‘H.M. The Queen/ 1833’, when by this date Shee was already President of the Royal Academy, it would have had to have been annotated after Victoria’s coronation in 1837. Shee’s first official portrait of Victoria as Queen was in 1842, which remains in the collection of the Royal Academy in London.
Born in 1769, the younger surviving son of a Dublin merchant, during the 1780s, Shee studied under Francis Robert West at the drawing academy of the Royal Dublin Society, where he won most of the prizes available, and was awarded a silver palette. By the age of fifteen he had already set up successfully as a portrait painter in pastel, and by 1786 he was painting life-size portraits in oil and enjoying fashionable patronage.
Shee was encouraged by fellow artist Gilbert Stuart to move to London in 1788, and in the spring of 1789 he had two portraits accepted for the Royal Academy exhibition. By this date he had become friends with the young artist Thomas Lawrence, whom he was eventually to succeed as president of the Royal Academy. In November of 1790 he entered the Royal Academy Schools and shortly after moved into an apartment in Jermyn Street previously occupied by Lawrence. Shee was tireless in his pursuit of artists’ rights at the Royal Academy. As a result he gained, and retained, the trust of his fellow academicians. Upon Lawrence's death in 1830, he was elected president, by eighteen votes to six for Beechey, and was knighted in the same year. ‘We expect much from Shee's self-devotion and chivalrous sense of honour’, wrote Constable in a letter to a friend.
 Victoria was fourteen in 1833, and already ‘heiress presumptive’, living a cosseted existence with precious expectations. She was the daughter of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, the fourth son of King George III and she inherited the throne at the age of 18 in 1837, after her father's three elder brothers had all died without surviving legitimate issue.
 (Whitley, 2.185).
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