Shee, Sir Martin Archer (1769–1850), portrait painter, poet, and novelist, was born 20 December 1769 in Dublin, the youngest of four children of Martin Shee, merchant, and Mary Shee (née Archer), both of Dublin. His mother died during his early infancy, and he was raised with his siblings by his maternal aunt. His grandfather, George Shee of Castlebar, Co. Mayo, claimed lineal descent from Princess O'Shee of Kerry and Tipperary. Shee demonstrated drawing talents from an early age, and with the reluctant support of his family enrolled as a pupil in the drawing academy of the Dublin Society in 1781. Emerging as a talented portrait painter, after leaving the school he resolved to demonstrate his independence by supporting himself through this profession. He worked in crayons before adopting oils, and by the age of 17 was popular among fashionable society and received regular commissions. In 1788, several years after his father's death, his aspirations for greater scope and opportunity led him to London, where, except for a position with the publisher Macklin, making small copies of pictures for the engravers, he found little employment. Edmund Burke (qv) introduced him to Sir Joshua Reynolds who advised him to enter the schools of the Royal Academy (RA), and used his influence to secure a place for him in 1790. Though Shee was sceptical about the need to engage in further training, his career advanced as a result, and in the years that followed increasing numbers of his works were exhibited at the RA.
Elected an associate of the RA in 1798 and a full academician in 1800, Shee was elected president of the academy in 1830, and knighted in the same year. He never fulfilled the promise of his early work, which is generally regarded as his best. As he was a man of wide-ranging talents who never confined himself to the role of artist, the advancements in his career are attributable less to the merit of his art than to the multiplicity of his aptitudes. Lord Byron in English bards and Scotch reviewers (1809) refers to Shee's poetical works Rhymes on art (1805) and Elements of art (1809), and comments on his multiple talents: ‘And here let Shee and genius find a place / Whose pen and pencil yield an equal grace.’ Prominent as an art critic and writer, Shee also maintained a lifelong interest in the stage. Noted for his diplomacy and oratorical flair, he deftly defended the interests of the academy when it came under attack in both parliament and the press. In addition to a third volume of verse, The commemoration of Reynolds,. . .and other poems (1814), he wrote three novels: Oldcourt (1829), Cecil Hyde (1834), and Harry Calverley (1835). His play Alasco, a tragedy about a Polish uprising against a tyrannical regime, was accepted by Covent Garden in 1823, but was considered inflammatory and revolutionary by the lord chancellor and was heavily censored. After a failed appeal, Shee withdrew the play and published it in 1824. Affiliated to many societies and institutions, he was made an honorary member of the RHA in 1826 in recognition of his advocacy of its royal charter of incorporation.
Shee married (December 1796) Mary Power, eldest daughter of James Power of Youghal, Co. Cork; they had three sons and three daughters. Suffering declining health, he tendered his resignation of the RA presidency in 1845 at the age of 76, but at the request of its members and associates continued to hold the office until his death. He died on 19 August 1850 in Brighton, where he is buried. The life of Sir Martin Archer Shee, by his eldest son, also Martin Archer Shee (1804–98), was published in 1860.