Reily, James (c.1735–p.1780), miniature-painter, was born in Dublin into modest family circumstances; it is possible his father was a painter. He was educated at the Blue Coat School, Oxmantown, Dublin (1745–8), and attended drawing classes at Robert West's (qv) private academy, where an apprenticeship was arranged for him with the distinguished artist Samuel Dixon (qv). Reily showed great promise, and when the Dublin Society took over West's academy (1746) they paid for his lessons and awarded him a prize of £1. 10s. for his drawing in February 1753. He lived in Dixon's house on Capel St., Dublin, with two other young apprentices. They were treated well and lived in comfortable surroundings, and a regular visitor, John O'Keeffe (qv), described in his memoirs the cheerful, lively atmosphere in the busy studio. Dixon made sets of watercolour paintings of exotic birds and flowers in basso-rilievo, and it was the young trainee's job to hand-colour them. Each had their own distinctive style, and recognising this Dixon allowed them to sign their names to their work.
Reily eventually set up his own practice as a miniature-portrait painter, at first from an address in Capel St. and later from 17 Grafton St., Dublin. He exhibited with the Society of Artists in Ireland (1765–73), showing mostly miniatures, but on occasion he was more ambitious and exhibited history paintings in oils: for example, ‘Coriolanus leaving his family when proscribed from Rome’ (1766) and ‘The death of Virginia’ (1767). These did not meet with great public success, but perhaps he enjoyed the contrast in scale, material, and subject matter to his regular miniature work in watercolour. He excelled at his portrait miniatures and captured the expression and character of his sitters. There is a signed portrait of Robert Berry (1763) in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the NGI has a signed ‘Portrait of a lady in a pink dress’ (1764) with a ‘lock of her hair’ on verso. Many other portraits can be attributed to him on stylistic grounds, as not all are signed.
He married (1760) June Blackney of Co. Meath before he moved to Grafton St., and lived and worked there until his death sometime in 1780. It is not known if he had any children, but the practice did not continue after his death.