Seeking Beauty: Paintings by James Jebusa Shannon
by Barbara Dayer Gallati
Additional images from the exhibition with accompanying essays
(above: James Jebusa Shannon (1862-1923), Florence Shannon, circa 1905, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 inches. Image courtesy of Debra Force Fine Art)
Shannon's wife, the former Florence Mary Cartwright (b.? - January 3, 1948) is shown against a profusion of lilacs, a motif that infuses the image with the romantic sensibility that is said to have endured throughout their marriage. The two met around 1884, when the young Englishwoman was attending the South Kensington School of Needlework and they married in 1886. Their only child Kitty was born February 3, 1887. The present work is assigned a circa 1905 date based on comparison with Shannon's In the Dunes (circa 1905, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC), in which Florence Shannon is shown from roughly the same angle that accentuates the distinctive line of her jaw.
Although Florence Shannon frequently modelled for the painter, she eschewed the social whirl attached to her husband's profession as a portrait specialist. Instead, she was content to remain at home and, once the family moved into their Holland Park Road property, she devoted much of her time to gardening. In this light, the floral foil for this bust-length portrait of Florence Shannon is entirely appropriate and, as Kitty Shannon recalled:
The garden was a charming sight -- a long whitewashed wall with a herbaceous border of hollyhocks, delphiniums, roses; many flowering creepers against the walls; a brick path and then another wide border of flowers. . . . I'm sure my mother talked to her flowers to make them grow. She got the most wonderful results in her London garden.
When Shannon was knighted in 1922, Florence Shannon became Lady Shannon. Following her husband's death, she and her close friend Henriette Lewis-Hind (the former wife of the American artist George Hitchcock) actively promoted Shannon's art in the United States, mounting a memorial exhibition that toured to museums in Buffalo, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Brooklyn.
1 Kitty Shannon, For My Children (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1933), 66.
(above: James Jebusa Shannon (1862-1923), A Sketch on the River, circa 1896, oil on canvas, 17 x 27 inches, signed lower right: 'J. J. Shannon'. Image courtesy of Debra Force Fine Art)
This atmospheric depiction of two female boaters in a punt is unique within Shannon's oeuvre. The spare composition and uncharacteristically smooth brushwork signal that this placid river scene is a visual souvenir of the Shannon family's holiday stays along the River Thames. In For My Children, a volume chronicling her childhood, Kitty Shannon vividly described their days on the water saying, "[W]e were great river people and often spent the week-ends on the river." Their love of boating also included two summers spent on rented houseboats at Wargrave and Henley, respectively. Kitty elaborated about Henley and their side-trips to more distant spots along the Thames:
In those days Henley was marvellous. Along the whole length of the course house-boats with masses of flowers were moored, and at night all were lit up with Japanese lanthorns [sic] and fairy lights; and on them all were the famous beauties, stage stars. In fact, it was the thing to do. Naturally my father's house-boat was very popular, and besides our invited guests, 'Boat Crashers' from the course came on board until there were so many the house-boat began to lean over and my father realized that it was on the point of turning turtle, so he had to shout to the 'Boat Crashers' to get off at once. Every Sunday in the summer we took the train to Taplow, where we got a punt and my father would punt up the Cleveland Reach where we used to see Lord Desborough, then Harry Grenfell, a champion punter. 
Shannon's imagery bespeaks the quiet isolation associated with their Taplow excursions, which were highlighted by visits to Grenfell's Taplow Court, a favorite gathering place for members of the Souls, whose undisputed leader was the artist's principal patron, the Duchess of Rutland. The white dog sitting at the prow of the punt (possibly Kitty's terrier Lulu) injects a personal note to this otherwise anonymous scene. Although it was designated as a sketch, the painting verges on a formal abstraction (likely inspired by James McNeill Whistler's marine subjects) that is eminently appealing to the modern eye.
1 Kitty Shannon, For My Children (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1933), 95.
2 Ibid., 96.
3 The group known as the Souls included members of English high society
who prized intellect and art. See Jane Abdy and Charlotte Gere, The Souls
(London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1984).
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