Charles Shirreff, a deaf artist, painted this miniature of a Subaltern Officer in the Navy. This miniature Portrait of a Young Naval Subaltern (c. 1800), watercolour on ivory, was acquired from a Sotheby’s (Paris) auction in 2015 and our bid was successful, thanks to both a private donation and a 60% grant from the Art Council’s Art Acquisitions Fund. Geoffrey Eagling, the BDHS reasurer, was sent over on the Eurostar to Paris to collect it!
Who was he?
Charles was the son of Alexander Shirreff, a wealthy wine merchant of South Leith, Scotland. At the age of three or four Charles became deaf. In 1760 his father approached Thomas Braidwood, owner of a school of mathematics, seeking an education for the boy, then ten years old, in the hope that he could be taught to write. Charles has a special niche in Deaf history as the first ever pupil to be educated in a proper British school for the deaf, run by Thomas Braidwood as Braidwood’s Academy in Edinburgh. It was later to be known as Braidwood’s Academy for the Deaf and Dumb.
In 1769 Charles left the Academy aged 18 to go to the Royal Academy School of Art in London, graduating in 1772 with a silver medal. He took up a career as a miniaturist. He successfully exhibited at the Free Society of Artists and built up a clientele that was mainly theatrical, and forming a strong friendship with David Garrick, the famous actor. He also made an advantageous association with the portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds.
He had a successful career as a miniature painter in London and then in Bath. His father had been financially ruined in the Crisis of 1772 by the failure of a banking house. Shireff had to support his family before applying to go to Madras in India in 1778. He stated in his application to the East India Company that he had no speech but was able to make himself understood by signs. He requested that his father and sister accompany him to act as his interpreters but his plan to visit India was abandoned so it was not until 1795 that he renewed his application and was successful. He went to India and painted in Madras for some years. His most productive period was probably in India where he painted hundreds of miniatures of British officers and their wives. He then moved to Calcutta where he worked on his Illustrations of Signs. He announced it was nearly completed and would be available to subscribers but this work has never been traced. It is presumed lost in passage from India. In 1809 he returned from India and on 11th January 1810 married Mary Ann Brown, a sister of a fellow artist, at St George’s, Hanover Square, London. The couple lived in Fitzroy Square, London, and later in Connaught Square. They retired to Bath where he died in 1829. (His death is assumed to be in 1829 as his will was proved in court on 5th November 1829)