Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Kitty Shannon (1887-1974), c.1905 

James Jebusa Shannon (1862-1923)

Kitty Shannon (1887-1974), c.1905, James Jebusa Shannon
Oil and Canvas
20th Century
72 1/2 x 40 in (184.2 x 101.7cm)
The artist’s family; Thence by descent
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This dynamic portrait-sketch, re-revealed after a century of obscurity, depicts Kitty, the artist’s daughter, who was a frequent source of inspiration for her father’s paintings. Until recently it remained in family possession and appears to be included it in the background of Shannon’s self-portrait, c.1919, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London [NPG 4412].

The merits of this extraordinarily expressive painting were entirely unrecognised when it emerged from family ownership in 2016. A century of grime and discoloured varnish were subsequently removed and the warped canvas was re-lined.

Several portraits of Kitty as a child have emerged on the art market in recent years and full-length portraits titled Miss Kitty and Magnolia, depicting Shannon’s daughter at the ages of ten and twelve, are in the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, respectively. Kitty also modelled for Black and Silver (1910), a ‘Diploma Work’ which was presented by Shannon to the Royal Academy on his election as a member.

The present work was almost certainly painted in 1905 when Kitty was eighteen, and she is probably portrayed wearing her ‘coming-out dress’, which she fondly described in her 1933 autobiography:

‘My coming-out dress was of misty white spotted gauze, very full skirt down to the ground with four frills, six inches wide, of cobwebby lace. It was extremely low and right off the shoulders, but had full sleeves down to the elbow. Bare arms would have been out of the question.’

Young women who had finished their education and were free to marry would ‘come-out’ into fashionable society at the age of eighteen. Although Shannon has not completed the floor-length dress in this portrait and has only sketched-in Kitty’s legs, the low cut, off-the-shoulder outfit described by Kitty is certainly reminiscent of the style of dress seen in this work.

Although Shannon has left Kitty’s arms and hands unfinished, it is possible that she is holding a model ship at shoulder height – four small sails have been marked out in rapid brushstrokes of white paint. There are three finished portraits by Shannon of women holding a model silver ship: Flora and the Silver Ship depicting Shannon’s niece Flora Cartwright, The Silver Ship and Kitty and the Silver Ship. This decorative silver model was undoubtedly owned by the artist’s family and would have traditionally been a centrepiece for a dining table. Kitty is photographed alongside it in her 1933 autobiography and frequently used it as a prop in her own paintings. Barbara Dayler Gallati suggested that the inclusion of the ship in Kitty and the Silver Ship could represent Shannon’s farewell to his daughter’s childhood, as she becomes a woman.

Kitty Shannon, born Katherine Majorie Shannon, was the only child of James Jebusa Shannon and his wife Florence Mary Cartwright. Kitty became an illustrator and married Walter Keigwin, whom she nicknamed Tina, in December 1912. The couple spent two years in Australia after their marriage.

James Jebusa Shannon was born in Auburn in New York to Irish parents and was one of seven children. After moving to Ontario at the age of eight, he then relocated to England in 1878 at the age of sixteen to attend the National Art Training School in South Kensington, later called the Royal College of Art. There he was taught by Sir Edward John Poynter. Following his training he intended to return to Ontario, however, he stayed in England for the rest of his life.

In 1880 he won a gold medal for figure drawing and was commissioned by Queen Victoria to paint Horatia Stopford, appointed woman of the bedchamber three years earlier, for fifteen guineas. This portrait was exhibited at the Queen’s request at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1881. Queen Victoria then commissioned a second version of this portrait and paid Shannon forty-two guineas to complete it. Shannon exhibited at the Royal Academy every year until his death in 1923. He lived and worked in Merton Villas Studios in Manresa Road in Chelsea from 1885, where he became acquainted with and influenced by Henry Herbert La Thangue. Shannon exhibited his more traditional paintings at the Royal Academy and his experimental portraits at the New English Art Club, the Grosvenor Gallery and the Society of British Artists.

In the late 1880s he met his long-term patron Violet Manners, marchioness of Granby, later duchess of Rutland. Shannon’s popularity with the social elite at this time reached its peak and he was able to buy a studio and a house on the fashionable Holland Park Road. He would often have three or four sittings a day with clients, producing eight to ten finished portraits a year. Demand for his work was so high that he began turning clients away, telling them to wait a year or two before their portrait could be painted.

Shannon married Florence Mary Cartwright in 1886 and together the couple had one daughter, Katherine Marjorie, known to her friends and family as Kitty. Florence had been a student at the South Kensington School of Needlework and Kitty went on to become an illustrator. Both
Shannon’s wife and daughter, as can be seen by the present portrait, frequently posed for the artist as models.

Shannon was a founding member of the New English Art Club and was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1897 and a Royal Academician in 1909. For three winters from 1904 Shannon visited family in the United States, painted several commissions, predominantly in New York, and shared a studio with the artist Frank Millet in 1905. At this time he was charging a phenomenal seven-thousand-five-hundred dollars for a full-length portrait. Shannon was a founder of the Society of Portrait Painters and was president from 1910 to 1923. He was a founder of the Chelsea Arts Club and was knighted in 1922.

Following a riding accident, thought to have taken place in 1914, Shannon suffered from deteriorating paralysis. He spent a lot of his time resting on a farm in Kent and, although he continued to paint until his death, he died at the age of sixty-one at a nursing home on Cromwell Road in Kensington.

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