Portrait of Thomas Moore
by Sir Martin Archer Shee RA (1769-1850)
Two Irishmen, both born in Dublin in the second half of the 18th century, and who both subsequently emigrated to London to become renowned as men of many talents. They befriended and supported one another, but Thomas Moore, the poet, musician and writer, is better known than the artist, writer and scholar, Martin Archer Shee.
The Shees were of ancient Irish ancestry, originally based in Mayo and later in Kilkenny. Little is known of Shee’s immediate family, except that his father was a Dublin merchant, with headquarters at Usher’s Quay.
Martin was left an orphan at a very young age. He was given a home by an aunt, his mother’s sister, who lived near Bray in Co Wicklow. Gifted artistically he was allowed to enrol in the Royal Dublin Society’s Drawing and Painting School when he was only 12 years old. Here he won several medals and prizes, including a silver palette for drawing from life.
Still in his teens, he established himself as a portrait painter from a studio in Dame Street, Dublin. However, on a friend’s recommendation he went to London. He was only 19. At first, things were difficult, but support came from his compatriots, notably Edmund Burke, who introduced him to one of England’s leading painters, Joshua Reynolds. Reynolds advised him to attend the Royal Academy Schools for further study. Acting on this advice he spent the next five years developing his technique and style, to become one of the best portrait painters among his peers, and received numerous outstanding commissions. Throughout these years he maintained a keen interest in cultural matters in Ireland. He married an Irish girl, Mary Power, from Youghal, Co Cork. He was elected a full member of the Royal Academy in 1800. When he was made President of this Academy, some thirty years later, following the death of Thomas Laurence, he wrote: “I feel gratified that the Academy has thought me not unworthy or incapable of following in his track.” In that same year he received a knighthood.
This portrait of his friend Thomas Moore was painted in 1817, when Shee was at the height of his artistic achievements. According to the experts it is a copy of an earlier work, and not as well finished as the original. Nevertheless, it is a vigorous and sensitive portrait. The poet-musician is seated at a cloth-covered table on which, significantly, are blank sheets of white paper. Moore seeks inspiration for those opening lines, as he stares into the middle distance, fingering his monocle. His dress is typical of the gentlemen of his day: a white cravat over a winged collar, tucked into a cream coloured waistcoat and a dark brown jacket. The head and hands are strongly modelled. The elaborate drape at the left gives a glow to the warm tonal colour scheme, very much in tune with the sitter’s personality and his romantic musical melodies, known to all as Moore’s Melodies.
No the heart that has truly loved never forgets But as truly loves on to the close. As the sunflower turns on her God when he sets The same look which she turned when he rose Moore’s Melodies
Sr Maureen’s Selection of Irish Art takes us on a cultural journey as Dominican Sister Maureen MacMahon shares her reflections on the creative works of 42 Irish men and women worth knowing.