James Jebusa Shannon (1862-1923)
The scene adheres closely to what is known about the house on Holland Park Road in which the couple had settled. Their daughter Kitty later recalled how ‘the garden was a charming sight – a long whitewashed wall with a herbaceous border of hollyhocks, delphiniums, roses; many flowering creepers against the walls’...
In this spirited work by James Shannon, we see the garden of the artist in full flower and painted in a kaleidoscopic range of colours. The intimacy of the composition gives strong cause to suppose that the figure in the foreground might be the artist’s wife Florence, née Cartwright, who was a devoted gardener and frequently posed as a model for the artist...
The scene adheres closely to what is known about the house on Holland Park Road in which the couple had settled. Their daughter Kitty later recalled how ‘the garden was a charming sight – a long whitewashed wall with a herbaceous border of hollyhocks, delphiniums, roses; many flowering creepers against the walls’. Commanding the viewer’s attention is the fountain that is placed at the heart of the composition. Shannon painted this subject on at least one other occasion; however, this work is by far the more daring, with the artist demonstrating the full force of his talent in the dazzling array of painterly effects.
The range of the colours employed and the bravura of Shannon’s colouristic effects (see, for instance, the miniature rainbow as the sun hits the crest of the fountain) reveal his debt to the impressionists of the previous generation. Shannon was, however, no imitator. We see him here at his most modern, but the artist had a talent that allowed him to work in a number of different modes according to the purpose of the work at hand. He had the credentials and ability to act as a society portraitist, even securing a commission to paint no less a figure than Queen Victoria herself. He could, as one biographer has written, ‘straddle the line between the naturalistic and the highly aestheticized’. Shannon himself exploited his ability to work in such radically different styles simultaneously, exhibiting his more conservative works at the Royal Academy and bold, avant garde works such as this at progressive institutions such as the New English Art Club, which he had helped to found.
Highly acclaimed in his day, he was – as one contemporary American publication termed it – ‘to Whistler and Sargent what Reynolds was to Rembrandt’. Like Reynolds, the author writes, ‘his work is supremely instinct with the sentiment of beauty – a rare quality in these days of conscious and blatant technique’. An artist of the first rank and significance who could count among his friends and patrons Oscar Wilde, the Rockefellers and even Queen Victoria herself, his name was frequently uttered in the same breath as that of Whistler or Sargent.
Although he made his career in England, it was not the country of his birth. One of seven children, he had born in New York to Irish parents and only came to England aged sixteen to attend the National Art Training School in South Kensington (later the Royal College of Art).
There he was taught by Sir Edward John Poynter, a future president of the Royal Academy. However, in keeping with the janus-face that he was later to adopt, Shannon soon came under the influence of French artist Jules-Bastien Lepage, who was able to introduce the young man to the most cutting-edge artistic trends from Paris.
It did not take long for Shannon to be noticed, and in 1880 a portrait was commissioned by the queen of her woman to the bedchamber. Few artists can lay claim to having received their first commission from a reigning monarch and when the work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1881 it was a roaring success, with Shannon exhibiting at every succeeding Summer Exhibition until his death in 1923. Immediately following this success he became one of the most sought-after portrait artists working in Victorian London. Soon, demand for his work was such that he began having to turn clients away, telling them that they would need to wait a year or more before he could have time to take sittings. Nevertheless, Shannon’s reputation both as an artist and as an excellent host meant that sitters were happy to wait to have their likenesses taken. For the artist, however, his output as a portraitist provided little stimulation and it was works such as these – where he was able, unfettered, to observe and experiment – that he saw as his true strengths as a painter. To support similar forward-looking artists, Shannon was a serial founder of clubs and institutions that sought to promote new developments in the arts, helping, as has already been seen, to establish the New English Art Club, but also the Society of Portrait Painters and the Chelsea Arts Club.
A riding accident sustained around 1911 meant that in his later years he was in increasingly bad health and challenged by a deteriorating paralysis. But the society that he had painted remembered the artist at the end of his life and in 1922 – the year before his death in a Kensington nursing home – he received his knighthood.
 Kitty Shannon, For My Children (London: Hutchinson & Co.,1933), 66
 Barbara Dayer Gallati, Seeking Beauty paintings by James Jebusa Shannon, (New York: Debra Force, 2014), 24
 J. Creelman, ‘An American Painter of the English Court,’ Munsey’s Magazine vol. 14 (Nov 1895) pp. 129-130.