He was born in Dublin, of an old Catholic Irish family, and his father, a merchant, regarded the profession of a painter as an unsuitable occupation for a descendant of the Shees. Martin Shee nevertheless studied art in the Dublin Society, and came to London. There, in 1788, he was introduced by William Burke to Joshua Reynolds, on whose advice he studied in the schools of the Royal Academy. In 1789 he exhibited his first two pictures, the "Head of an Old Man" and "Portrait of a Gentleman." Over the next ten years he steadily increased in practice. He was chosen an associate of the Royal Academy in 1798, in 1789 he married, and in 1800 he was elected a Royal Academician. He moved to George Romney's former house in Cavendish Square, and set up as his successor.
Shee continued to paint with great readiness of hand and fertility of invention, although his portraits were eclipsed by more than one of his contemporaries, and especially by Thomas Lawrence. The earlier portraits of the artist are carefully finished, easy in action, with good drawing and excellent discrimination of character. They show an undue tendency to redness in the flesh painting--a defect which is still more apparent in his later works, ‘in which the handling is less "square," crisp and forcible. In addition to his portraits he executed various subjects and historical works, such as Lavinia, Belisarius, his diploma picture "Prospero and Miranda", and the "Daughter of Jephthah."
In 1805 he published a poem consisting of Rhymes on Art, and a second part followed in 1809. Lord Byron spoke well of it in his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. Shee published another small volume of verse in 1814, entitled The Commemoration of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and other Poems, but this was less successful. He also produced a tragedy, Alasco, set in Poland. The play was accepted at Covent Garden, but was refused a licence, on the grounds that it contained treasonable allusions, and Shee angrily resolved to make his appeal to the public. He carried out his threat in 1824, but Alasco was still on the list of unacted dramas in 1911.
On the death of Lawrence in 1830, Shee was chosen president of the Royal Academy, and shortly afterwards he received a knighthood. In his examination before the parliamentary committee of 1836 concerning the functions of the Academy, he ably defended its rights. He continued to paint till 1845. Illness made him retire to Brighton, and he was deputised for by J.M.W. Turner, who had appointed him a trustee of the projected Turner almshouse. His descendant Mary Archer-Shee supports the campaign for the fulfilment of Turner's wishes for his bequests. Shee had three sons, who became successful barristers. A descendant of one of the sons was George Archer-Shee, the central figure in a play written by Terence Rattigan. Martin Archer Shee was buried in the western extension to St Nicholas Churchyard in Brighton where his headstone remains, although now laid flat and moved to the perimeter of the site.
Martin Archer Shee, The Life of Sir Martin Archer Shee, 2 vols 1860. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, 1911.