Kean, Michael (1761–1823), miniaturist and owner of the Derby porcelain factory, was born in Dublin and educated at the Dublin Society's drawing school, established in 1746 to give instruction concentrating on figure- or life-drawing, drawing from the antique, and ornament-drawing or design. The emphasis was on providing skills for use in manufacturing industry, and this would prove useful throughout Kean's career. He entered the school on 7 February 1771, where he was a pupil of Francis Robert West (qv). After leaving, Kean set out to become a sculptor and was apprenticed to the distinguished Irish sculptor Edward Smyth (qv). On 2 December 1779 Kean was awarded the Dublin Society's silver medal for his drawings of sculpture. But he abandoned sculpture for miniature portraiture, and during this early part of his career, both in Dublin and later in London, he earned his living as a miniature-portrait painter working in watercolour on ivory, and also did some portraits in pastel. Signed work by Kean is rare, and his reputation as a miniaturist rests on a small number of signed miniatures such as ‘A portrait of an unknown man’ (V & A).
Kean settled in London, where he entered the Royal Academy schools (29 October 1784). He exhibited work at the Royal Academy each year from 1786 to 1790 and also at the free Society of Artists exhibitions. His background as a miniaturist and his education at the Dublin Society drawing schools would have equipped him to work as a decorator of porcelain, and he may have worked at the Derby porcelain factory. In 1795 he entered into a partnership with William Duesbury, jr, owner of the porcelain factory at Nottingham Rd, Derby, who died shortly afterwards. In 1796 Kean took over the management of the factory; in 1798 he married Duesbury's widow Elizabeth (née Edwards), daughter of a Derby solicitor. They had one son, who became a captain in the Royal Navy. Kean built a new factory at Calver's Close, east of the old works, and expanded the range of ornamental ware produced. The Derby factory specialised in soft-paste tableware and decorative figure pieces. During Kean's period of ownership its standard of porcelain decoration was very good, and his artistic input increased its reputation. However, he was a hot-tempered man: he separated from his wife and quarrelled with her and his stepchildren over the running of the business, which resulted in a series of lawsuits. In 1811 he withdrew from the business, which was taken over by his clerk Robert Bloor. The disputes continued and Kean returned to London, where he died in November 1823.