Born in Whitechapel, London, Shelley began to exhibit in 1773. His ambitions extended beyond portrait miniature painting to imaginative figure subjects. His feeling that the latter works were not sufficiently appreciated by the Royal Academy led him to become one of the founders of the Old Water-Colour Society in 1804. In his day he was considered a near rival to Richard Cosway (see 62.49
) for miniature portraits.The Miniature:
Shelley filled many sketchbooks with designs for historical and literary subjects of this kind, and a study of The Hours
in pen and brown ink is in The Met (30.124
). At the top the artist inscribed the drawing “past,” “present,” and “to come”; at the upper right he wrote a page number that reads either 103 or 107; and at the lower right he commented "either in oil or / compn. to Diana in min.t.” He apparently contemplated making either an oil painting or a miniature and if the latter, with a companion piece representing Diana.
Shelley first used the subject in a miniature shown at the Royal Academy in 1788 as number 285, The Hours (after Gray)
. It seems likely that this exhibit should be identified with an oval miniature belonging from 1899 to Henry Walters and now in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (38.75; 4 1/8 x 3 3/8 in. [106 x 85 mm]). The design was engraved by Nutter (in the same format, but more tightly cropped) as the frontispiece to Thomas Gray’s "Ode to Spring" in Charles Taylor's The Cabinet of Genius
(London, 1788). The rubric beneath reads “The HOURS. Fair Venus' Train.”
Shelley returned to the theme in 1801, showing the present miniature at the Royal Academy as number 793. He titled it The Horae, Eunomia, Dice and Irene; or the past, the present, and the coming hour
. Its companion piece was number 804—The Parcae; or, the Fates drawing the thread of human life
—whose present whereabouts is unknown. Shelley's work, particularly the present miniature, played a significant role in the development of the style of Edward Greene Malbone (1777–1807), the distinguished American miniature painter. In 1801 he wrote to Charles Fraser of Charleston, South Carolina, from London that he thought Cosway and Shelley the best English miniaturists to copy and continued, "I am painting one now which I shall bring with me. It is ‘The Hours: the past, present, and the coming’.” The American artist's enlarged copy (6 5/8 x 5 5/8 in. [168 x 142 mm]), signed and dated Edwd G. Malbone / August 1801
, has belonged since 1854 to the Providence Athenæum, Rhode Island. When in the Huntington collection, Shelley's miniature was thought to be a copy of Malbone's rather than the reverse.
The back of the original gilt bronze and red enamel frame is glazed to reveal the artist's inscription in ink on parchment: [D]esigned & Painted by / Samuel Shelley / N° 6 George Stree[t] / Hanover Squ[are]
[2016; adapted from Reynolds and Baetjer 1996]