Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of Angelica Schuyler Church (1756-1814), wearing a white dress with blue trim and lace collar, a blue hat with bow decorated with a white feather, her hair worn with hanging ringlets 

Samuel Shelley (1750-1808)

Portrait miniature of Angelica Schuyler Church (1756-1814), wearing a white dress with blue trim and lace collar, a blue hat with bow decorated with a white feather, her hair worn with hanging ringlets, Samuel Shelley
Watercolour on ivory
18th Century
Oval, 1 7/8in, (48mm) high
Edward Grosvenor Paine by whom sold; Christie’s, London, 28 October 1980, lot 103; Private collection, France.
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This glamorous portrait miniature by Samuel Shelley is thought to depict the vivacious and quick-witted Angelica Schuyler Church, an unrivalled member of the social elite in Paris, London and New York during the eighteenth century. Although the identity of this sitter cannot be confirmed, her likeness is remarkably similar to John Trumbull’s portrait of Angelica and her son Philip, c.1785, in a private collection.

Angelica Schuyler Church was the eldest daughter of General Philip Schuyler, of the Continental Army, and his wife Catharine Van Rensselaer Schuyler. The family descended from Kiliaen van Rensselaer, one of the founders of New Netherland. Angelica’s sister Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton was the co-founder and later director of the first private orphanage in New York City. Elizabeth married Alexander Hamilton, the famous Founding Father of the United States, in 1780. It has been suggested that Angelica Schuyler Church may have had an affair with her sister’s husband, although there is little evidence for this.

Angelica eloped with the British MP John Barker Church in 1777 at the age of twenty-one, believing that her father would not consent to the marriage. Church is thought to have speculated and gambled himself into bankruptcy in August 1774 and, to escape his creditors, fled to America where he made his fortune supplying the French and American armies during the Revolutionary War.

In 1783 Angelica and her family left America for Europe, her husband had been appointed as US envoy to the French government for two years and she did not return to America until 1797. In France, Angelica became well-acquainted with Benjamin Franklin who was then US ambassador to France. After he was replaced, Angelica also formed a close friendship with his successor Thomas Jefferson and was friends with the Marquis de Lafayette, a key figure in the American Revolutionary War.

Following this period in France, Angelica and her family visited New York in 1785 before relocating to London where she became an integral member of fashionable society, befriending members of the royal family, Charles James Fox, the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Maria Cosway, wife of the miniaturist Richard Cosway. As the daughter of Philip Schuyler, the highly regarded Revolutionary War general, Angelica was invited to attend President Washington’s inauguration in 1789.

Angelica’s husband John Barker Church helped finance the United States during its struggle for independence. Although the country could not return this money, Church was granted 100,000 acres of land in New York, along the Genesee River. His son Philip assessed the land and built the town of Angelica, named after his mother. Angelica Schuyler Church died on 13th March 1814 at the age of fifty-eight and was buried in Trinity Church Cemetery in New York.

At his best, as seen here, Shelley was capable of producing a high level of romanticism in his portraits, bestowing, through a slight twist of head or pensive gaze, a distinct level of engagement on his subjects. 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.

The sitter in this work was clearly au fait with the latest fashions, and subsequently great emphasis has been placed on the curls of her hair and cut of her dress by the artist. An inscription on the reverse of this work gives Shelley’s address as Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, where he worked during the peak of his career between 1784 and 1794. Angelica Schuyler Church was also in London during this period.

Samuel Shelley was a highly successful artist who worked in a number of mediums, although is perhaps best known for these instantly recognisable portrait miniatures of society beauties. 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 there 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.

We would like to thank Susan Holloway Scott for her assistance in cataloguing this work.
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