Sir James Jebusa Shannon RA, RBA, RHA (British, 1862-1923)
Off to school signed 'J.J.Shannon' (upper left) and dated 1890 (upper right) oil on canvas 44 x 35.5cm (17 5/16 x 14in).
James Jebusa Shannon, we are told, was good with children. He was adept at holding their attention and firing their imagination. A contemporary recalled that he would recite "Brer Rabbit" or engage in impromptu Red Indian theatricals to amuse a sitter's offspring, while the serious business of portrait painting was in progress.1 One can imagine some similar performance lay behind the present lot, sometimes known as The White Hat.
Such horseplay may well have been a safety valve because Shannon's career had begun in 1881 with instant success. Commissioned to paint the portrait of the Hon. Horatia Stopford, one of Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting (Royal Collection, Osborne House), he was launched as a young artist of great promise. 'Fortune smiled upon him', according to Christian Brinton, and by the end of the decade, when he secured a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, his work was critically acclaimed.2 Living in Elm Place, Chelsea and occupying one of a group of studios in Manresa Road, the young Irish-American artist was sufficiently well-established in 1886 to marry Florence Cartwright, a former student from the Government Art Training School, where he himself had studied. Their only child, Katherine Marjorie Shannon, known as Kitty, was born in February 1887.3
Shannon's early influences, derived from Jules Bastien-Lepage and James NcNeill Whistler and clearly evident in Estelle, 1886 (sold Bonhams London, 13 July 2011, lot 175), typified his generation.4 He may for instance, have seen Bastien-Lepage's La Petite Coquette (Allant à l'école) when it was shown at the United Arts Gallery, and recalled the innocence and charm of the little schoolgirl.
In Manresa Road during the winter of 1886-7, he was in the melting pot for radicalism. Here the famous meetings to discuss the ideas of Henry Herbert La Thangue concerning the establishment of an alternative to the Royal Academy were held. All participants were 'democrats', founders of the New English Art Club and advocates of the latest techniques of plein-air Naturalism. In Shannon's case this meant 'the clever and evidently dexterous brushwork which he learnt originally from La Thangue'.5 However by 1890, Shannon was no longer a proselyte of the so-called 'Square Brush School', and was exhibiting at the fashionable New Gallery, established by Charles E Hallé and Joseph Comyns Carr as a the breakaway from the Grosvenor Gallery.6 Still an Academy outsider, he was at the same time, attending meetings in Stuart Wortley's studio to plan the launch of what later became the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.7
Shannon's political positioning brought a wide range of clients which included portraits of the Tower family, 1888-90, and the children of the Marquess of Granby, 1893. The first of these shows an elfin child dramatically swathed in white furs, while the latter is a tour-de-force surpassing Van Dyck's celebrated Children of Charles I, 1637 (Royal Collection). However, the special quality of Portrait of a Young Girl returns us to Bastien-Lepage's beguiling petite écolière and perhaps to the recent re-working of the theme by George Clausen.8
Following the Education Acts of the 1870s Shannon would have seen children going to school carrying the slate-boards widely used in Victorian schools. We tentatively suggest that the edge of one of these is just visible under the girl's left arm.9
Such was his dexterity by this point that obvious influences had fallen away and Shannon's 'mastery over materials and grasp of executive difficulties' was, according to Alfred Lys Baldry, unequaled.10 Nowhere is this better seen than in swift oil sketches such as the present lot, in which a child looks out at the viewer. Rosy cheeks and red lips suggest that she has come in from the cold. Her tumbling auburn hair is held in check by a cap. The spectres of Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney and Hoppner were raised - those were painters, Brinton reminds us, who 'loved to transfer upon canvas ... the arch allure of English womanhood and the wild-rose bloom of the English girl'.11 What emerged in Shannon's work from 1890 onwards was a modern re-visioning of this great age - a 'cult of beauty', no less.
1G P Jacomb Hood, MVO, With Brush and Pencil, 1925 (John Murray), p. 68. 2Christian Brinton, 'A Painter of Fair Women', Munsey's Magazine, vol xxxv, May 1906, p. 141. 3Throughout his career, Kitty sat regularly for her father, however, if we accept the dating of the present canvas, it seems unlikely that this is she. 4C Lewis Hind, 'The Work of JJ Shannon', The Studio, vol VIII, 1896, p. 67-8. 5Morley Roberts, 'A Colony of Artists', The Scottish Art Review, vol II, 1889, p. 73. 6See for instance MH Spielmann, 'Current Art: The New Gallery', The Magazine of Art, 1890, p. 307. 7Kenneth McConkey, 'The Early Years of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters', in The Royal Society of Portrait Painters Centenary Exhibition, 1991, p. 9. Shannon was the society's third President in 1910. 8Shannon purchased Sheepfold in Sunlight by Clausen on 8 October 1890. Clausen's A Schoolgirl, 1889, (Private Collection) was shown at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, where he, like Shannon, was awarded a gold medal. 9It is possible that the girl in the present picture was educated privately by a governess, or attended one of more up-market 'dame' schools, springing up in London's new suburbs. 10Alfred Lys Baldry, 'JJ Shannon, Painter', The Magazine of Art, 1897, p. 1 11Brinton, 1906, p. 141; see also Lewis Hind, 'The Work of JJ Shannon', The Studio, vol VIII, 1896, p. 68; Frank Rinder, 'JJ Shannon, ARA', The Art Journal, 1901, pp. 41-5.
We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.