Portrait of Richard Brinsley Sheridan by Joshua Reynolds, 1788‒89


Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751‒1816) was very famous in his day, first as a dramatist and theatre manager, and then as a Whig politician – both roles exploiting his eloquence and love of an audience. This portrait by Joshua Reynolds depicts Sheridan at the peak of his political career, after his legendary speeches condemning British abuse of power in India. He wears the traditional costume for Whig party members – a buff waistcoat and blue coat with fashionably large buttons.

Sheridan’s five-and-a-half hour speech

On 7 February 1787, Sheridan addressed the House of Commons for a total of five-and-a-half hours. He denounced Warren Hastings ‒ the former governor-general of Bengal ‒ for acting like a highwayman in seizing land and treasure from the Begums (high-ranking women) of Oudh. Though some people lampooned him for his ‘long-winded’ speech, it was widely applauded as the best parliamentary performance ever seen. His fellow politician Charles James Fox said that by comparison, everything he’d ever heard or read ‘vanished like vapour before the sun’.[1]

A motion to impeach Hastings was passed in May 1787, and Sheridan gave another marathon speech at the trial in June 1788, collapsing dramatically as he finished. This portrait was started days later, and completed in spring 1789. Many people praised it, but Sheridan hated the way it exposed his ruddy complexion.

[1] The Speeches of the Right Honourable Charles James Fox in the House of Commons (London, 1815), Vol. 3, p. 306.

Full title:
Richard Brinsley Sheridan MP 1751-1816, Oil Painting By Sir Joshua Reynolds
1788-89, London
Painting / Image
Sir Joshua Reynolds
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© Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 5415 www.parliament.uk/art

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