Shaw, James (1736-aft.1787)

Shaw, James (1736-aft.1787)

British artist James Shaw worked during the 18th century, producing suave and sophisticated portrait paintings for a hungry client base.

Born in Sedgley in Staffordshire, it is unclear how Shaw’s interest in art was fostered. Nonetheless, by 1769 Shaw had moved to London, where he would enter the Royal Academy Schools for his artistic training. Shaw was part of the first generation of artists to do so, the Royal Academy having only been founded a year before, in 1768. He was one of only 77 students, suggesting much about his promise.

Shaw was tutored at the Royal Academy by artist Edward Penny (1714-1791). One of the founders of the Academy, Penny was predominantly a portrait painter. Perhaps his influence inspired Shaw to follow the same artistic route, for when he began to exhibit at the Academy in 1776, Shaw exclusively showed portraits.

Shaw’s works are incredibly sophisticated and demonstrate the rewards of his teachings at the Royal Academy. His subjects are captured with an elegant likeness. There is also much to suggest the influence of another Academy founder, and its president, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792).

Reynolds encouraged the Academy students to base their style upon the precedent of the old masters without falling into caricature. ‘Possess yourself with their spirit,’ Reynolds would enthuse. Indeed, there is certainly something of the old masters in Shaw’s works. His dramatic contrast between the dark backgrounds which swathe his figures and the pale glow to their skin is luminous.

The delicate realism which emphasises individuality yet encapsulates it within a refined style is masterful.

There was a great demand for portraits from the 18th-century nobility and upper classes. Popular, too, were wax portraits. Carved delicately from wax, these portraits stood out in bas-relief from a flat surface, depicting the model in a classical, cultivated style. Shaw also produced a number of these works, exhibiting them at the Royal Academy. These say much about an artist keen to expand his abilities.

Unfortunately, there is very little else known about James Shaw. After his final exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1787, he vanished from the historical record. It seems strange that an artist part of the first generation of Academy pupils should disappear so readily.

Fortunately, a number of his works were conserved at The Wodehouse, a country home in his birth county of Staffordshire. Shaw’s brother, the Reverend Thomas Shaw-Hellier (1732-1812), would inherit The Wodehouse through his friendship with Samuel Hellier (1699-1751). He treasured a number of his brother's works, and the family would ensure they saw exhibition long after Shaw’s death. Shaw’s self-portrait was exhibited at the Wolverhampton Art and Industrial Exhibition, held in 1902.


Born in Sedgley, Dudley, Britain.


Began studying at the Royal Academy Schools.


Exhibited at the Royal Academy.


Exhibited at the Royal Academy.


Exhibited at the Royal Academy.


Exhibited at the Royal Academy.




Work exhibited at the Wolverhampton Art and Industrial Exhibition.

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