John Sheepshanks (1787–1863) was born in Leeds, the son of a wealthy cloth manufacturer. He was a partner in the family business until he was about 40, when he retired and moved to London in order to indulge his love of collecting.
One of his great early enthusiasms was for copies of old masters, but the foundation of the National Gallery in 1824 probably convinced him that there was little more he could contribute in that field. He then concentrated on modern British art, specialising in work by Landseer, Collins, Leslie, Callcott and Mulready, among others. He formed strong friendships with some of these artists, dining and drinking with them. As well as buying their paintings from salerooms and from the Royal Academy summer exhibitions, he also commissioned works directly from the artists.
In 1857 Sheepshanks founded the paintings collection of the V&A with a gift of 233 paintings and a similar number of drawings to found a 'National Gallery of British Art'. Sheepshanks made his gift ‘in the hope that other proprietors of pictures and other works of art may be induced to further the same objects’, and indeed his generosity inspired others to give or bequeath pictures.
His gift included major works by Turner and Constable, and substantial groups of pictures by a number of important Victorian artists. He preferred the 'open and airy situation' of South Kensington to the polluted atmosphere of central London, and believed in the importance of making art accessible to the public. The first of his galleries opened in 1857 and is the earliest surviving part of the V&A. The building was extended with further top-lit galleries in 1858-65.
'Life-Boat and Manby Apparatus Going Off To A Stranded Vessel', oil painting by Joseph Mallord William Turner, about 1831. Museum no. FA.211. Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857
The Manby apparatus was a lifesaving device of a rope fired from a mortar. It was invented by Captain George Manby after a shipwreck in 1807 at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in the year that this work was exhibited.
'Disappointed Love', oil painting on panel by Francis Danby, Great Britain. Museum no. FA.65 Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857
This painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy 1821. It was the first painting Danby exhibited and it became one of his best known works. It depicts a heartbroken young woman in the pose traditionally associated with the state of melancholy. A bonnet, shawl and miniature portrait of her lover lie beside her, while a torn-up letter floats away on the pond.
'The Sonnet', oil painting on panel by William Mulready, Great Britain, 1839. Museum no. FA.146. Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857
This was one of the artist's most popular works. A critic observed: 'The youth is fiddling with his shoe-tie, but casting a upwards sly look, to ascertain what effect his lines produce upon the merry maid who reads them...placing her hand before her lips to suppress her laughter'.
'Ophelia Weaving her Garlands', oil on canvas by Richard Redgrave, Great Britain, 1842. Museum no. FA.171. Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857
The depiction of Shakespeare's tragic heroine Ophelia was praised for its psychological insight. It was exhibited beside lines adapted from Hamlet:
'There is a willow grows ascaunt the brook
That shews his hoar leaves in the glossy stream
There with fantastic garland did she make
Of crow-flowers ,nettles, daisies, and long purples.'
'A Jack in Office', oil on panel by Edwin Henry Landseer, probably Great Britain, about 1833. Museum no. FA.94 Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857
The title is a slang expression for a pompous government official. It is a pun on the principal character: a Jack Russell terrier. A critic described how 'the well-fed and much caressed dog…keeps others from testing the food of which it has had too much'.
'The Refusal', oil on panel by David Wilkie, Great Britain, 1814. Museum no. FA.226 Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857
Wilkie took his subject from Robert Burns's song 'Duncan Gray' (1798). In the story, proud Maggie first refuses Duncan's proposal of marriage, but later changes her mind. Wilkie's friend, the painter William Mulready, was the model for Duncan.
'Autolycus', oil on canvas by Charles Robert Leslie, probably Great Britain, about 1836. Museum number. FA.115 Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857
Autolycus was a thief disguised as a pedlar who appears in Shakespeare's play A Winter's Tale. He is shown here selling cheap goods and sensational printed ballads to gullible country folk. Leslie based the background sky and the ash tree at the right on studies supplied by a friend, the landscape painterJohn Constable (1776-1837).
'A Village Choir', oil on panel by Thomas Webster, Great Britain, 1847. Museum no. FA.222 Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857
This work illustrates Washington Irving's 'Christmas Day', from The Sketch Book (1820). His essay was a comical and sentimental account of an old-fashioned village choir and its musicians. The painting was probably Webster's most famous work and was much admired. A critic praised its 'truth and diversity of character'.
'Blackheath Park', oil on panel by William Mulready, Blackheath, London, England, 1852. Museum no. FA.137 Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857
John Sheepshanks was a good friend and patron of Mulready. This Painting shows the view across the park from the gate of Sheepshanks's house at Blackheath, South London. A critic described the picture as 'a refreshing green bit of nature'.
'My Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman', oil on canvas by Charles Robert Leslie, Great Britain, 1831. Museum no. FA.113 Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857
This painting depicts an incident from Laurence Sterne's novel 'Tristram Shandy' (1765). It shows the Widow Wadman trying to stir the affections of Captain Shandy. He peers into her face as she holds a handkerchief to her eye, pretending she has something in it. It was one of Leslie's most popular compositions.
'Portrait of John Sheepshanks at his residence in Old Bond Street', oil on panel by William Mulready, probably Great Britain, 1832-34. Museum no. FA.142 Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857
Mulready shows the collector in the drawing room of his house at 172 New Bond Street, London. He is surrounded by books and portfolios, while the housekeeper brings in his letters and morning tea. Sheepshanks's important collection of Netherlandish prints and drawings was sold to the British Museum in 1836
Information in the V&A Archive
MA/2/S10: Nominal file – Sheepshanks Collection
MA/49/2/1: Press cuttings
ED 84/36: Precis of the Board Minutes of the Department of Science and Art, 8 July 1863 to 31 December 1877
Henry Cole: diaries: typed transcripts, 1822-1882
Abstract of Art Museum Register of Pictures, 1857-1875
List of the Fine Art Numbers
Other archival sources
See the National Register of Archives
Selected printed works
List of the bequests and donations to the South Kensington Museum, now called The Victoria and Albert Museum: completed, to 31st December 1900. London: Printed by HMSO, 1901. NAL pressmark: VA.1901.0001
Reynolds, Richard. On the gift of the Sheepshanks collection: with a view to the formation of a national gallery of British art. London: Chapman and Hall, 1857. NAL pressmark: VA.1857.Box.0001
Inventory of the pictures, drawings, etchings &c. in the British fine art collections deposited in the new gallery at Cromwell Gardens, South Kensington: being for the most part the gift of John Sheepshanks Esq. London: HMSO, 1857. NAL pressmark: VA.1857 Box.0003
[Deed of gift of the Sheepshanks collection]. London: HMSO, 1857. NAL pressmark: NC.99.2121
Layard, G. S. ‘Sheepshanks, John (1787–1863),’ rev. Sharon E. Fermor. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. NAL pressmark: 920.041 DIC
To locate material in the National Art Library, please search the Library Catalogue.