Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) 

James Nixon (1741-1812)

Portrait miniature of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816), James Nixon
Watercolour on ivory
18th Century
Oval, 65mm. (2 9/16 in.)
Mrs. S. Boyd Collection; Private Collection
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This miniature is a variation taken from Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of Richard Brinsley Sheridan of 1788-9 which is now part of the Parliamentary Art Collection in London. The present miniature is a head and shoulders portrait, whereas Reynolds' painting depicts Sheridan standing at the table of the House of Commons debating the Regency Bill. Nixon is known to have much admired Reynolds’ work, and he painted a portrait of Reynolds himself, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1779

James Nixon was an extremely talented miniaturist, who began his career exhibiting with the Incorporated Society of Artists in 1765 and was active until 1807. Despite this, his portrait miniatures are far rarer than his contemporaries and he was not financially successful. His work shows an innate understanding of some of the great oil painters of the day, in particular Sir Joshua Reynolds. This ‘grand’ style of painting in miniature earned him commissions from many important sitters, including Joseph Farington, the Duchess of Rutland and the Duchess of Devonshire. Nixon was appointed limner to the Prince Regent, and in 1792, miniature painter to the Duchess of York.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan was a playwright and politician, born in Dublin, the third child of Thomas Sheridan an actor and orthoepist, and Frances Sheridan a novelist and playwright. After moving to London in 1759, he never again returned to Ireland.

Sheridan married the soprano Elizabeth Ann Linley, known as Eliza, in 1771 whilst en route to a convent in France where he was supposed to be escorting her. Neither of their fathers approved of the match and fought to keep the couple apart when they returned to England, but they managed to see each other in secret and were married again in England in 1773. The couple settled in London, but money was scarce. Sheridan had given up his studies in law at Middle Temple and Eliza had given up

singing as Sheridan felt it was unbecoming for his wife to sing in public. Sheridan began to write plays, and his comedy The Rivals, a play set in Bath, was a great success. With his father-in-law and a fashionable society doctor, Sheridan purchased a controlling share of the Drury Lane Theatre where various comedies, including his own, were shown.

By this time, the Sheridan’s' status in society had grown immensely, and after befriending Charles James Fox, a man whose ideas about political reform he admired, he became a member of the Literary Club, and later of the infamous Brooks. Sheridan set about obtaining a seat in parliament, which he achieved in 1780 when he was elected to Stafford. He became the under-secretary to Fox's Secretary of State for the Northern Department in 1782. His speeches gained a reputation for their eloquence and wit. He became increasingly interested in Irish political affairs, and left the running of the theatre largely to his father in law. A close friendship grew between Sheridan and the Prince of Wales, to whom he gave much advice regarding his secret marriage to Mrs Fitzherbert.

Sheridan's personal life became much complicated with numerous affairs, and Eliza was distraught when he had a passionate affair with the Duchess of Devonshire's sister, Lady Harriet Duncannon. Eliza was finally persuaded to forgive her husband, but she began an affair of her own with Lord Edward Fitzgerald in 1791. She became pregnant with his child and had a daughter Mary in spring 1792. However the pregnancy caused her long suffered tuberculosis to reoccur and she died in June 1792. Fitzgerald and Sheridan remained on friendly terms and the child was raised as a Sheridan until her death in 1793. Sheridan remarried in 1795, to Hester Jane Ogle, the nineteen year old daughter of the Dean of Winchester. Their son Charles was born in 1796, and they moved to Poledsen Lacey, a manor house in Surrey. Sheridan's carelessness with money continued and his finances became more complicated.

In 1804 the Prince of Wales appointed him receiver-general of the duchy of Cornwall, and Sheridan once again became a close advisor to the prince. His personal life was no less complicated than it always had been, as he still had an obsession with Harriet Bessborough who had meanwhile taken another lover. His second wife had begun an affair with Lord Grey, and Sheridan's drinking and melancholia had become much worse, often affecting his speeches in parliament.

Sheridan was made a member of the Privy Council, but shortly afterwards, lost his seat at parliament. In 1807 he accepted the seat for Ilchester, a gift from the Prince, and he continued to argue his views on Irish affairs forcefully. Sadly the Drury Lane Theatre burned down in 1807, which was a terrible blow to Sheridan. The theatre was rebuilt, but Sheridan was excluded from a share in the new management when it opened in 1811. He gave up his Ilchester seat and stood for his old Stafford seat, which he did not regain, in 1812. The Prince paid for a Wotton Bassett seat for him, but Sheridan did not take it. In 1813, he was imprisoned for debt, and once released he set about selling many possessions to raise funds, but he was imprisoned again in 1815. On his release from prison he became ill and he eventually died on 7th July 1816. He was buried in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey. Sheridan is regarded by many as one of England's great comedy writers and his plays remain popular today.

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