Self-portrait, c. 1916.
he portraitist James Jebusa Shannon (1862-1923) has been rather neglected in our own times — but he was very much part of the art world during the later Victorian and Edwardian period, and especially of the artistic community in the Holland Park area of Kensington. Indeed, he lived next door to Leighton House, the home of Lord Leighton himself. Nor was he simply a member of this prestigious circle; he was hugely popular within it, as indeed he was with the general public at that time.
Shannon came from quite a different background from his neighbours: he was born in New York, the son of Irish immigrants. But his career developed in London. Having shown early promise as an artist, and after art training in Ontario, he came to England in 1878 at the age of 16, to study at the South Kensington School of Art. Here he was fortunate enough to become a pupil of Edward Poynter, who encouraged the young man and promoted his career. In 1880 Shannon won a gold medal for figure painting and his portrait of Horatia Stopford, one of the Queen’s maids of honour, was exhibited to acclaim at the Royal Academy in 1881.
After this success Shannon decided to settle permanently in England and took a studio in Manresa Road, Chelsea, alongside several other up-and-coming artists who together founded the New English Art Club in 1886. More success followed: in 1888 he was taken up by Violet Manners, Marchioness of Granby, who commissioned several portraits of herself and her children, as well as recommending him to her friends among the influential set known as The Souls. In 1891 he became a founder member of the Society of Portrait Painters and it was at this point, in 1892, that he claimed his place at the centre of the Holland Park Circle by acquiring the plot of land in Holland Park Road right next to the studio house that Lord Leighton had built nearly thirty years before. Here he lived with his wife, working hard as numerous commissions flowed in, as well as entertaining generously: "Like Leighton, Prinsep and Fildes, Shannon was a consummate host; his sociable personality undoubtedly led to lucrative portrait commissions" (Dakers 228). His friends considered him to be the life and soul of any party.
Partial view of the Shannons' house on Holland Park Road (Leighton's house is just behind the large trees on the left). Source: Shannon, facing p. 96.
The architect of Shannon’s house, W.E.F Brown, provided a spacious and luxurious building in two parts, one a lofty studio, the other purely domestic, in a Dutch revival style.
The house when finished was beautiful and amusing. It was a long red-brick one (my father had all the bricks made especially for him, the right colour and very small), set back so that it had a garden in front as well as at the back. It had two front doors, one for my mother and one for my father; they were very modern, those two! One day there were some friends to tea with us in the garden who were looking at and admiring the house. They suddenly said: "What a pity you have to share this garden with the people next door. Who lives there? And my father said: "It’s not so bad. That is my wife’s house!'"
What an atmosphere it had, as one went from one lovely room to another, the whole length of the house from the old pickled oak drawing-room, the dining-room, also panelled and painted a wonderful dark blue which, when the sun slanted in through the open window, lit up into a burning blue; the ceiling wood and beamed, and painted dark blue; old Dutch furniture and old blue delft china; an old Dutch ship hanging from the ceiling; bright flowers in the window, through which one seemed to see a forest as one looked over the gardens of Leighton and Prinsep.... Then up the oak staircase to my father’s studio. What a room! Enormous and lofty, with his pictures, old furniture and tapestry. The restfulness of it! I simply can’t deseribe it. It seemed to me the centre of the Universe.
From my bedroom window I looked on Lord Leighton’s garden. As I was going to bed I used to see him having his after-dinner coffee. He was a magnificent-looking man with the most beautiful head.... [Shannon 65-66]
The house was constructed at the back of the plot and is today very difficult to see, as it hides behind big trees and a high garden wall. Perhaps this is one reason why Shannon’s presence here has has been underplayed.
But his work has now (at last) begun to attract more interest. He remained a portraitist: like Watts and other artists who attempted to break away from portraiture, he found such work essential to pay the ever mounting bills. After all, portrait commissions could hardly be refused in favour of working on pieces which might not sell. By staying in this line, like his better- known contemporary John Singer Sargent, he became a favourite portrait artist of the English moneyed classes. He also travelled to America several times to work in Boston, Newport or New York. Many of his portraits - some of ladies in swirling satin garments emulating Sargent’s style, others in a more impressionistic manner - remain with the families which commissioned them so his museum presence is not large.
In 1897 James Jebusa Shannon was made ARA, becoming a full RA in 1909; in 1910 he served as the President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. By this date the status of Victorian art had begun to wane and from 1918 Shannon’s health also declined. He was knighted in 1922 but died just over a year later.
Dakers, Caroline. The Holland Park Circle: Artists and Victorian Society. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999.
Gallati, Barbara Dayer. Seeking Beauty: Paintings by James Jebusa Shannon New York: Debra Force Fine Art, 2014.
Shannon, Kitty. For my children. London: Hutchinson, 1933.
Created 16 December 2021