Richard Evans was born in Shrewsbury. The year is usually given as c. 1783, but census returns indicate a slightly later date, of 1786/7 While young he became a friend of the Birmingham -born artist David Cox. N. Neal Solly, Cox's biographer records that when Evans was in need of money, Cox would lend him pen-and-ink landscapes to to copy and sell, Evans being less competent in the genre. When Cox moved to London in 1804, Evans and Charles Barber, the son of Cox's teacher, the Birmingham drawing-master Joseph Barber, both followed him south and took lodgings nearby (whether separately or together isn't clear), and all three would go out sketching together.
Evans became the pupil, and later assistant of Sir Thomas Lawrence, the leading portrait painter of the time. He was employed painting draperies and backgrounds for Lawrence's works, and making duplicates, especially of royal subjects. The National Portrait Gallery has Evans' copy of Lawrence's own self-portrait. After Lawrence's death in 1830, his executors paid Evans to fnish some of the many unfinished works left in his studio.
Thomas Campbell, who was at once stage considering a biography of Lawrence said that no-one knew more about Lawrence than Evans, due to his exceptional memory, and his having lived in his master's house for six years. Evans promised to help Campbell with his book when time allowed, but when Campbell asked for assistance again, after a long delay, he found out that Evans had already told his stock of anecdotes to his friend Watts, editor of the "Annual Obituary" to use in his publication. Campbell shelved his plan for lack of fresh material.
In 1814, Evans took advantage of the cessation of hostilities with France, to visit Paris, where he copied paintings in the Louvre. . Then, in 1816, in a rather surprising episode, he went to Haiti. A revolutionary general, the former slave Henri-Cristophe, had declared himself King of Haiti, although he in fact only ruled the northern part, the rest being under the control of his former ally, Alexandre Petion. The King created a system of nobility, and set up a number of educational institutions, including an academy of painting and drawing at his palace of Sans Souci of which Evans was to become head. Evans' involvement came about through Prince Saunders (Prince being his given name, and not a title), a black American activist and educationalist, who, while on a visit to Britain, had been persuaded to take an interest in Haiti by the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce. An engraving of Saunders by Charles Turner (dated August 1816), after a painting by Evans, was used as the frontispiece for his "Haitian papers".
The arrangements for Evans' employment in the Caribbean seem to have been a little vague. On July 10th, 1816, Joseph Farington recorded in his diary a conversation with the sculptor John Charles Felix Rossi, whom Saunders had also invited to Haiti, in his case to make sculpture for the king's building projects.
Rossi called. He informed me that Evans, a young artist, & several other persons conversant in Arts & Sciences, met together at Mr. Wilberforce's on a day in the last week, and Prince Sanders, the Black Man who lately came from Hayti was of the party. The proposal of Sanders which had been made to the above persons for them to go to Hayti was the matter for consideration & it then appeared that Sanders was not adequately commissioned by Christophe the King of Hayti to engage them, & the conversation with recommendation to Sanders to return to Hayti for more authority to act in engaging persons to go to Hayti. — Sanders being rather pressed to answer questions which He was not prepared to answer, proposed to adjourn with Mr. Wilberforce only, to another [room] where He would hare something to say to Him.
This Mr. Wilberforce declined, saying that whatever communication He had with Him on the subject must be before the gentlemen present. — Rossi, now sd. that He saw no engagement cd. at present be made with Sanders, and further He had been told that the duration of Christophe's government is considered to be very uncertain. That the Government of France for the purpose of employing troops who wish to be so, proposes to send a considerable force to St. Domingo to support Petion against Christophe & in case of success to appoint Petion, who now favour the French, to be Governor of that Island.
Despite the level of uncertainty, Evans left for Haiti in the company of Saunders and three other specialists he had engaged in England, an agriculturalist and two schoolmasters, arriving on the on 21 September. He painted portraits of the Haitian royal family: his first version of his portrait of the king (now in Puerto Rico) was sent as a gift to William Wilberforce and another was sent to the Russian Tsar. In 1818 Evans' pictures of King Henry Christophe and his son Prince Victor Henry were shown at the Royal Academy. The reactionary "New Monthly Magazine" praised the works, albeit in unpleasant terms, saying they were "uncommonly good pictures, and prove that it is not impossible to attach pomp and dignity even unto a negro: they really look very king-like personages".
Presumably Evans returned to England no later than 1820, when Henry Christophe, facing military defeat at the hands of Petion, committed suicide. He was probably back well before that as he showed three portraits with no obvious Haitian connections at the Academy, two of unnamed subjects and one of Thomas Campbell. In 1821 Evans went to Rome in order to make copies, or organise and oversee the copying by Italian specialists, of Raphael's arabesque decorations in the Vatican loggia. They were commissioned by John Nash, to ornament his gallery in Regent Street. After Nash's death the copies were sold to the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert) which eventually burnt them in a fit of spring-cleaning in 1960.
In June the next year he set off for Italy again, this time in the company of his friend William Etty, another former pupil of Lawrence. Etty at least had only intended to spend about six months abroad, but the trip turned out much longer.The two men travelled overland via Paris arriving in Rome on 10 August. After a fortnight, Etty moved on to Naples, leaving Evans in Rome, and returned a month later. Etty wrote in a letter that "an arrangement has been made that would preclude my staying with him...but I must ever feel much obliged to him. He has gone about with me, and shown me things I should not otherwise have seen". Evans based himself in Rome, where he became a member of an academy set up by British artists, with Lawrence's backing but also visited Milan. while Etty spent seven months in Venice. Evans and Etty were reunited in Florence in the summer of 1823 and after spending two months in Venice finally left for England in October.
While in Rome he experimented fresco-painting, and, on leaving the city gave a panel depicting "Ganymede Feeding the Eagle" to the servant who cleaned his studio. The painting found its way into the possesion of Capranesi, a Roman art dealer, who sold it to Sir Matthew Ridley in 1836, claiming that it had been taken from an ancient tomb in the Via Appia. In 1865, Ridley gave it to the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert) where Evans, to his surprise, found it on displayed as a genuine antique example. He convinced the appropriate authorities that it was his work, and the label was replaced. Two other frescos, given by Ridley to the British Museum may also be by Evans.
He continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy until 1845, mostly showing portraits. In 1825 he contributed a "Portrait of an Hindoo" and a double portrait of " Eustratius Rallis and Stamos Nakos, young Greeks now educating at Hazlewood School". In April of that year he wrote Lawrence what, from the summary published on the Academy website, seems to have been a rather intemperate letter, railing against the conduct of the British artists in Rome, and voicing the suspicion that Lawrence has turned against him. I don't know if Evans carried on working as Lawrence's assistant after his return from Italy. In 1830 though, after Lawrence's death, he was paid by his executors to complete some the many commisssioned works left unfinished in his studio.
In 1834 he showed a portrait of Harriet Martineau ( now in the National Portrait Gallery) at the Royal Academy. It didn't please its subject at all. She wrote in her autobiography:
I have mentioned Evans’s portrait of me,—of which Sir A. Calcott said to me, “What are your friends about to allow that atrocity to hang there?” We could not help it. Mr. Evans was introduced to me by a mutual acquaintance, on the ground that he was painting portraits for a forthcoming work, and wanted mine. I could not have refused without downright surliness; but it appeared afterwards that the artist had other views. I sat to him as often as he wished, though I heartily disliked the attitude, which was one in which I certainly was never seen. The worst misfortune, however, was that he went on painting and painting at the portrait, long after I had ceased to sit,—the result of which was that the picture came out the “atrocity” that Calcott called it. The artist hawked it about for sale, some years after; and I hope nobody bought it; for my family would be sorry that it should be taken for a representation of me.Evans carried on showing at the Academy until 1843, mostly portraits, but a couple of mythological subjects crept in, and he also showed six subject pictures at the British Institution between 1831 and 1856. In the mid-1840s he moved to Southampton, where he continued to paint until his death, at the age of 87, in November 1871.