Wednesday, May 6, 2020

458. Rediscovered Interviews (2)

After his first career as a lithographer, Shannon had emerged as a painter, mainly of idyllic scenes and portraits. In 1908 he enjoyed a certain fame, at least enough for the magazine The Tatler to interview him. The society magazine was founded in 1901 by Clement Shorter, and the interview appeared in the issue of 6 May 1908 under the title: 'Beautiful Women I Have Painted. An Interview with Mr. Charles Shannon'. 

Charles Shannon, 'The Marble Torso' (Self-Portrait) (1907)
[whereabouts unknown]
The article was illustrated with six portraits, the first a self-portrait called 'The Marble Torso' (1907), the other paintings were portraits of women: Mrs. Mildmay (and child), Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Mrs. Chaloner Dowdall, Miss Lillah McCarthy, and Miss Kathleen Bruce.

It is not a question and answer account; Shannon's comments have been incorporated into the (unsigned) article.

From his earliest years Mr. Shannon wished to devote himself to art. He followed out his earliest ambitions directly he left school, but after some few years' work reluctantly gave up painting for the simple reason that he did not think he could make a livelihood as an artist. For seven years the young artist tried his hand at engraving and sundry kindred occupations and then once more resolved to follow the profession for which he knew Nature had intended him. He painted "The Wounded Amazon," which gained the gold medal at Munich, and almost at the same time a portrait of a young girl in boy's clothes which at once attracted favourable attention. This latter portrait was purchased some years later by Mr. Clausen for the Melbourne Gallery. It is ten years since Mr. Shannon painted these pictures, and since then his career has been one of continued success.

Mr. Shannon's methods as a portrait-painter are rather different from the generality of modern painters. "I have never been able to understand," said Mr. Shannon, "why a prolonged number of sittings should be regarded as a necessity to the production of a successful portrait. Of course there may be exceptional cases where difficulties arise which will delay the development of the portrait, but as a general rule a dozen sittings at the outside should be sufficient. I never start on the canvas to begin with. I make a study of my sitter first, perhaps several, until I have a general notion of how I am going to treat the picture. Then I think out the design and general colour scheme. When I have quite settled these points in my mind I begin on the canvas."

Mr. Shannon is quite at variance with the modern idea that everything must be sacrificed to obtaining realism. "To my mind," said Mr. Shannon, "realism has been carried too far; a portrait must of course be a good likeness, but it should also be a picture. If you lose sight of the pictorial side of a portrait altogether and think only of producing a commonplace resemblance the artist's work comes perilously close to that of a photographer and the picture has no future. We are all familiar with the phrase, 'a characteristic portrait.' Of course a portrait should be characteristic, but it seems to me bad art to sacrifice all that makes a picture beautiful to obtain unnecessary emphasis."

Mr. Shannon is a very rapid worker. His portrait of Mrs. Granville Barker (Miss Lillah McCarthy), a characteristic example of his work, was done in half-a-dozen sittings, and that of Mrs. Patrick Campbell in three. "Prolonged sittings." said Mr. Shannon, "are, I think, the result of an artist losing freshness of impression and grip. When a man gets into this mood there is no knowing how long he may take to finish a portrait. At every step in its development he will see something to alter or to rearrange, and so the work may drag through fifty, or for that matter 500, sittings or until old age overtakes both artists and sitter."

Mr. Shannon thinks that modern dress in both men and women lends itself quite readily to pictorial treatment in a portrait. "Even in men's clothes," said Mr. Shannon, "there is quite enough beauty to satisfy the artist. Personally I think the present type of evening dress is almost perfect, and has been greatly improved by the tendency of wearing a soft shirt, which has lessened the 'shiny' effect that is always objectionable, like that of a silk hat." The cut of the clothes has the beauty of economy which characterises the building of a yacht.

Charles Shannon, 'Lady with a Cyclamen
(The Honourable Mrs. H. Chaloner Dowdall, 1876-1939)
[Walker Art Gallery]
"It is the fate of every artists to see some of his portraits obtain much greater popularity than others, and it does not always follow that what the artists considers to be his best work obtains this popularity. I really cannot arrive at a satisfactory explanation of  the question 'What makes a portrait popular?'" said Mr. Shannon. "A portrait may be greatly admired when exhibited in a studio and fail to attract much attention in an exhibition, and vice versâ. Personally when a portrait pleases a sitter I am satisfied, but that is, of course, a different thing from pleasing the popular taste in an exhibition."

Mr. Shannon's chief recreation is the theatre, and he spends his holidays always in Italy. His hobby, which he shares with his friend, Mr. Charles Ricketts, is collecting pictures and Tanagra statuettes. The two have pursued this hobby for the past ten years with results which it would take many pages of The Tatler to describe at all fully. There are original drawings, ancient and modern, by artists such as Durer, Rembrandt, Vandyck, Watteau, Rossetti, Corot, Millet, and Puvis de Chavannes. Some of their almost priceless treasures belonged to Sir John Millais and Lord Leighton. It is no exaggeration to say that the collector who gathered such a set of drawings together in a lifetime might well feel proud though he might not feel satisfied - your true collector never is. Mr. Shannon has no story to tell of any unexpected bargain or rare find, for all of their treasures were purchased from people who were familiar enough with their value. Curiously enough one of the greatest treasures, a drawing by Rossetti which Mr. Shannon purchased from a dealer, was sold by an individual who years later sat to Mr. Shannon an was much surprised to see the picture among the artist's collection.

[Note: the name of Puvis de Chavannes was incorrectly given as Puvis de Chavonnes.]