Shee was born in Dublin, the son of a merchant. He received a classical education there but, showing an interest in the fine arts, was allowed to enter the drawing academy of the Royal Dublin Society. In 1788 Gilbert Stuart, the American painter, persuaded him to move to London where, after some early struggles, he was accepted as a student at the Royal Academy Schools in 1790. Ten years later he was elected Academician. Shee’s progress as a portrait painter was steady, aided by industriousness and an educated background. During the early part of his career he was overshadowed by Lawrence, whose panache he was unable to emulate. His later work, executed after Lawrence’s death and less influenced by him, was condemned by Benjamin Robert Haydon as ‘the tip-toe school.’ On Lawrence’s death in 1830, Shee was elected President of the Royal Academy, as much on account of his character as on his abilities as a painter. Throughout his life he maintained a keen interest in the stage.