Sir James Jebusa Shannon, RA, RBA, RHA (British, 1862-1923)
Estelle signed vertically 'J.J.SHANNON' (upper left), dated '86' and inscribed vertically 'ESTELLE' (upper right) oil on canvas 36.5 x 43cm (14 3/8 x 16 15/16in).
Placed in front of pale diaphanous curtains, Estelle, a thin-faced girl stares directly at the viewer. A skylight casts soft shadows around her dark eyes and aquiline nose; the crisp line of her chin almost masked by a high collar and white chiffon bow. These details are important as they transcend what may otherwise have been a simple exercise in face painting. This young woman with her 'aesthetic' hairstyle, could have stepped out of one of George Du Maurier's humorous drawings for The Punch Almanack, were it not for her pensive look.
James Jebusa Shannon's previously untraced Estelle provides a cogent reminder of the origins of a painter whose first success occurred when his head study of one of Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting, the Hon Horatia Stopford, (Royal Collection, Osborne House) was shown at the Royal Academy of 1881. The effect of this patronage on a young artist who had just completed his training, was to project him straight into portraiture, when the first step on the accepted career path might normally have led to eye-stopping subject pictures. Although he secured a number of commissions - notably the portrait of Janet Monach Patey, 1884 (Tate Britain) - it was in 1886 that his second breakthrough occurred with Miss Annie Beebe, a picture rejected by the Royal Academy, but shown to great acclaim at the Grosvenor Gallery (fig 1).1
Fig 1 Miss Annie Beebe, 1886, Private Collection
Thereafter Shannon was regarded as one of the most important young painters of his generation, following in the footsteps of Jules Bastien-Lepage, whose Sarah Bernhardt (fig 2) he must have studied at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1880.2
Fig 2 Jules Bastien-Lepage, Sarah Bernhardt, 1879, Private Collection
Although like Henry Herbert La Thangue (see lot 174), Shannon adopted the characteristic 'square brush' handling of Lepage's British followers, he was not a slavish imitator. As Lewis Hind noted,
'He does not, like Bastien-Lepage, obtain fine textures and the velvet softness of women's skin with small brushes. No, his is the vigorous and swift technique of the square brush laid on with unerring precision. He is a graceful and rapid worker, with a remarkable power of suggesting a likeness, and he has been known to produce an excellent half-length at a single sitting.'3
With La Thangue, Frank Brangwyn, William Llewellyn and others, Shannon rented a studio in Wentworth Studios, Manresa Road, then 'a colony of artists' based in what was a cul-de-sac running north from King's Road, Chelsea. The cradle of radicalism, this group of studios hosted the Royal Academy reformers who met in the wake of the first New English Art Club exhibition at which Shannon showed in 1886. It was thought at the time that Shannon was a La Thangue follower. Three years later, Morley Roberts, observed with hindsight that,
'... his present quiet method has been arrived at through the clever and evidently dexterous brushwork which he learnt originally from La Thangue.'4
While La Thangue's methods may have been the most extreme, the practice of painting across the form with large square-shaped brushes was common at the time and like John Singer Sargent, Shannon modified the manner, paying more attention to finish in important areas such as the faces of his sitters as the present picture indicates.
The printed inscription identifying Estelle also typifies Shannon's work of the mid-eighties and is seen in Margaret 1886 (fig 3).5 An artistic embellishment it accentuates the picture plane, frames the head, and plays to the strong decorative and heraldic sense that was one of Lepage's legacies.6
However, in one important respect, Estelle exceeds expectation - it anticipates by ten years, the sequence of semi-symbolist portraits Shannon painted of his most important patron, Violet, Duchess of Rutland.7 After 1889 he virtually became court painter to the Rutlands, painting Violet on many occasions, her husband, and a large group portrait of their three children, splendidly echoing Van Dyck. By the mid-nineties, painter and patron conceived an extraordinary sequence of mystico-religious works among which sits the hieratic Violet, Duchess of Rutland (fig 4). Here the sibylline stare of 'Egeria' the persona she adopted for her aesthete friends, the 'Souls' - entraps the viewer and in Violet Rutland, Estelle's passionate gaze is re-lived and its significance, unlined.
1 Sold Sotheby's New York, 17 October 1991 (catalogue entry by Barbara Dayer Gallati). Sir Coutts Lindsay, proprietor of the Grosvenor Gallery was evidently so impressed by the picture that he invited the artist to exhibit it. 2 The striking similarity between Estelle and the Bastien-Lepage portrait extends not only to the scarf and hairstyle, but also to its general conception as a 'harmony in white', pulling Whistler into the comparison. 3 Lewis Hind, The Work of JJ Shannon, The Studio, vol VIII, July 1896, p. 67. 4 Morley Roberts, A Colony of Artists, The Scottish Art Review, vol II, 1889, p. 73. Shannon apparently owned a small head study by La Thangue. 5 Margaret was sold Heritage Auctions, Texas , 8 May 2008, as Baby in a ruffled dress. 6 We may also note the original 'Watts' frame which confirms the painter's 'aesthetic' pretensions. 7 Jane Abdy and Charlotte Gere, The Souls, 1984 (Sidgwick and Jackson), pp. 46-53. Violet Rutland was in fact the cousin of Coutts Lindsay, (see 1).