The Sheepshanks Collection

John Sheepshanks, William Mulready, oil painting, 1832, Museum no. FA.152[O]

'John Sheepshanks', oil painting by William Mulready, 1832, Museum no. FA.152[O]

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.

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.

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