This is a rare miniature portrait of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). He was one of the major English Romantic poets and is critically regarded as among the finest lyric poets in the English language. Shelley was famous for his association with John Keats and Lord Byron. The novelist Mary Shelley was his second wife.
The miniature is in a contemporary frame which is inscribed "Percy B Shelley 1792-1822". The writing style appears to be consistent with a date of around 1825.
The miniature was acquired via a dealer who had purchased it as part of a New York collection including quality miniatures by artists such as George Engleheart. The owner of the collection had previously contacted me about a possible sale of the collection, but I advised it was too large and valuable for me to be able to contemplate making an offer. I therefore recommended a dealer who could handle the total collection.
Following this the dealer split up and sold the collection, with this miniature offered on eBay, where it was acquired for this Artists and Ancestors collection. The previous owner advised that the miniature had been acquired from a New York dealer around 1970.
I concede that I am unable to categorically state it is an original portrait of Shelley. There are very few known portraits of Percy Shelley, with many examples based upon the oil portrait showing below. I have been unable to find another portrait of Shelley in the same pose as in this miniature.
That suggests it is either genuine, an artist's impression, or a portrait of another man housed in a case inscribed to Shelley. It seems unlikely that an artist would create an impression so different to the known portraits of Shelley. It also seems unlikely that a case such as this would be made and inscribed without including a portrait of Shelley. The artist is not recognisable as one of the more important artists of the early 19C, so there is little help from that aspect.
Adding to speculation is that Shelley was from a wealthy family and the commissioning of miniature portraits of family members by wealthy families was the norm in the early 19C. Hence, it is to be expected that there would have been at least one miniature portrait of Shelley as a young man.
The tousled hair fits with known portraits of Shelley, as does the nose and mouth. The sitter has blue or grey eyes, which fits with the oil portrait of Shelley when viewed closely. The age of the sitter in this portrait is to be that of a man aged 16 to 20, wearing clothes with high collars, which dates it to around 1810. It therefore appears to be a formal portrait of a young man, painted for family use, in the case of Shelley before he adopted an "open shirt" look.
Thus, the portrait is displayed as likely a genuine miniature of Percy Shelley, with comments welcomed from Shelley scholars. 1382
Other portraits in this collection connected to Percy Shelley include Hellen Shelley (sometimes Helen Shelley) View and Lord Byron View
The artist for this miniature is unknown, but the portrait is identified as Helen Shelley (1755-1839) who married Robert Parker (b.1754, wed 1782, buried at Bath 1837) of Bath. That Helen Shelley was sister of Sir Timothy Shelley, the father of Percy Bysshe Shelley and thus she was aunt to the famous poet.
However, her youth, the empire line dress, and her hair in the portrait are wrong for that Helen Shelley, as they date closer to 1820. Thus it is likely she is instead Hellen Shelley (1799-10 May 1885), sister of Percy Bysshe Shelley, as she appears aged about 20 in the portrait.
A likeness endorsing the miniature as being of the later Hellen Shelley is apparent in this miniature portrait on card, in the Bodleian Library, of sisters Hellen Shelley (1799-1885), on the left, and Margaret Shelley (1801-1887) which was painted by Sir William Charles Ross. From their hairstyles and dresses, it dates to the 1850's, and the nose, mouth, and complexion of Hellen are similar in those depicted in the miniature. Given their ages by 1850, Ross has flattered them a little.
Thomas Jefferson Hog refers to the miniature in a letter he wrote to Lady Shelley on 12 December 1857 after meeting Hellen and Margaret Shelley:
There is some thing weird about them; as there ought to be. So tall, so thin, so straight; such little round hands, such little faces, small features, & large, wild, staring eyes, like Bysshe; at once young & old, but rather young, than old! They are fit sisters for a poet & a necromancer. – The miniature is like & unlike; to common apprehensions it is like, but it does not make them look sufficiently like Enchantresses; they do not look in the portrait, as if they were able to turn you into a milk-white kid, & Percy into a statue of black marble, w.ch no doubt, they c.d do easily if they pleased.
In the 1860s, the then, Sir Percy Shelley, took a photograph of Lady Shelley and Hellen and Margaret Shelley sitting together at Boscombe. On the back of the photograph he wrote: ‘Miss Shelley (Hellen) very fair, blue eyes, and tall, very slim. Miss Margaret Shelley, deep blue eyes, dark hair, and shorter than her sister,’
It is not uncommon for family members to confuse verbally passed down family history and mix the generations when later adding a written note to a family portrait, especially where a name is repeated. The mistake can arise one or more generations either earlier or later, than depicted in a given portrait, with the error becoming apparent during research which shows the hair or costume do not fit a nominated sitter.
For example, it may be known in 1840 that a young man in a painting depicts William Bloggs (1820-1890), son of William Bloggs (1795-1860) and grandson of William Bloggs (1770-1850). But by, say 1910, the verbally passed on relationships can become mixed and the family records the sitter as the wrong William Bloggs.
In this instance, it appears the family knew it was a Helen Shelley, but later noted the wrong generation on the reverse, showing her as Helen Shelley, sister of Sir Timothy Shelley, instead as Hellen Shelley, sister of Percy Shelley.
Also connected to the Shelley family is this rare miniature portrait, one of several Byron portraits in the collection. It is painted in enamels. On the reverse it is inscribed "Byron after T Phillips R.A. Aug 1849 Painted by Henry P Bone Enamel Painter to Her Majesty H.R.H Prince Albert & etc, & etc."
As a result of fresh research it has been possible to show Byron was related by marriage to Sir Anthony Carlisle. The stepmother of Carlisle's wife Martha, Anne Trevanion, being widow of Byron's great uncle, William Trevanion. This relationship had not previously been noted by Byron scholars.
It is an important relationship, although only a minor aspect in a comprehensive case demonstrating that Carlisle's research into reviving the recently deceased was inspiration for Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein, in her famous novel Frankenstein.