Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) is recorded as sitting to the artist in June and December 1788 and March and April 1789, by when sitter and artist were already well acquainted, as the artist's pocket books make clear. This portrait is believed to be that which the artist exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1789, where it received wide acclaim. The Public Advertiser commented 'His portrait of Sheridan is by far the best' while Horace Walpole wrote 'Praise cannot overstate the merits of this portrait. It is not a canvas and colour, it is animated nature'.
Sheridan, who was born in Dublin in 1751, was already a celebrated dramatist and a popular politician when he sat to Reynolds. As a dramatic writer he had no equal among his contemporaries. Comedies such as The Rivals and The Duenna, first performed at Covent Garden in 1775, had established him as a favourite among theatre-goers as well an outstanding commercial success. It was at the Drury Lane Theatre, however, that he achieved his greatest successes after acquiring Garrick's shareholding, together with two partners, and succeeding him as manager. There, endurable and popular works such as The School for Scandal and The Critic sealed his reputation.
Not content to devote himself solely to a life in the theatre, Sheridan also embarked upon a parliamentary career. He represented Stafford from 1780, and soon gained a reputation as one of the most able orators in the House of Commons. In 1782 he served as Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs in Lord Rockingham's administration. He was Secretary of the Treasury in the coalition ministry headed by the Duke of Portland in 1783, and at the time he sat to Reynolds was deeply involved in the proceedings to impeach Warren Hastings which were to last until 1794. In the latter part of his parliamentary career he was particularly vocal in his support for the Spanish revolt against Napoleonic France, in his opposition to the union between Great Britain and Ireland, and in his support for the liberty of the press. The success of his parliamentary career was, however, accompanied by financial calamity when the Drury Lane theatre - which, partly at his own expense, had been rebuilt at great cost in the early 1790s - was burnt to the ground on 24 February 1809. Between then and his death in 1816 he was perpetually short of money and often at the whim of his creditors.
Reynolds also portrayed Sheridan's wife, Elizabeth Anne (1754-92), the daughter of Thomas Linley, whom Sheridan married in 1773. She came from a famous musical family and Gainsborough had already painted a portrait of her with her sister, Mrs Tickell, as well as portraits of other members of of her family, when the family were living in Bath, now at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (see R. Beresford,Dulwich Picture Gallery, Complete illustrated Catalogue, London, 1998, pp.107-110, nos.140, 316, 320 and 331). Gainsborough's celebrated whole-length of Mrs Sheridan is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Reynolds exhibited his portrait of her, as Saint Cecilia, now at Waddesdon Manor, at the Royal Academy in 1775 (for a copy of which see lot no......). .
Price Blackwood, 4th Baron Dufferin and Claneboye, married in 1825 Helena Selina, daughter of Thomas Sheridan, the sitter's eldest son.
We are grateful to Dr. David Mannings for his help in compiling this catalogue entry.