Wednesday, October 14, 2020

481. A Birthday Gift from Charles Shannon & A Further Present (1)

This blog about a birthday present from Charles Shannon to Gordon Bottomley contains unpublished letters from both of them, and is contributed to 'Charles Ricketts & Charles Shannon' by John Aplin (see also his earlier blogs no. 450 and No. 476).

A Birthday Gift from Charles Shannon

Gordon Bottomley (1874-1948), the Yorkshire-born poet who led attempts to revive English poetic drama in the first half of the twentieth century, considered that one of the greatest privileges of his life was to gain the friendship of both Charles Shannon and Charles Ricketts. He was familiar with their work well before they first met, partly through reproductions in magazines and periodicals, and also through The Pageant and The Dial, back numbers of which he hunted down and bought when he could afford them. 

Their auspicious first meeting occurred in June 1904, when Bottomley's always delicate health held up sufficiently for him to spend several weeks on a visit to London. His third collection of poetry, The Gate of Smaragdus (1904) had recently appeared. It was one of the last books taken on by Ernest Oldmeadow's ill-fated Unicorn Press, which ran into financial difficulties, whereupon Bottomley persuaded Elkin Mathews to act as his publisher, their bookplate being added to copies to supersede the printed 'at the sign of the Unicorn' title page.

Gordon Bottomley, The Gate of Smaragdus (1904)

Gordon Bottomley, The Gate of Smaragdus (1904)

Bottomley had inscribed and sent a copy of The Gate of Smaragdus to Ricketts and Shannon (two of his poems being inspired by Shannon's 'The White Watch' lithograph), as he would recall in an unpublished autobiographical chronology which he wrote towards the end of his life.

I had sent out sundry copies for my own personal reasons, and the first of these was to Ricketts, as in confession of a debt, and his friend Shannon on account of several of the poems being in celebration of one of his designs. Perhaps the actual inscription was to Shannon; but a repercussion to Ricketts was hoped for equally. An invitation to visit them followed, and the chief significance to me of that Spring in London lay in an afternoon and another evening spent in their treasure-house in the top flat of a tall block of studios opposite the side entrance to Holland Park Tube Station. Those who frequented it most called it the Palace. For nearly twenty years it was the first place to which my thoughts turned whenever there was any question of London – and my feet whenever I arrived in London: and there I found more understanding talk and wisdom about the study and practice of the arts than anywhere else throughout my life.
On that June afternoon [in 1907] a short, delicately made man answered the door-bell. I asked for Shannon: he replied 'I am sorry he is out – and I am about to join him: can I tell him your name?' When I gave it he flashed on me a look of kindly amusement and said 'Do come in. Your book interested us. I'm Ricketts.' For an hour and a half I listened to more brilliant talk than I had ever heard before, talk about poets, painters, music. He said suddenly 'Look at the time: I must go, Shannon will be annoyed. You must come again. You should be more in London, now you can do it: you have been too much alone. Let me go down with you.'
Friday was their evening for friends: when I attended on the Friday of a few weeks later I was quickly followed by Yeats and Florence Farr, the actress who was helping him in his experiments with the speaking of verse. Presently we discovered that all of us had been present that afternoon at what we supposed was to be the only performance of Maeterlinck's 'Pelléas et Melisande' by Sarah Bernhardt and Mrs Patrick Campbell – I standing in the pit, Yeats and his friend in the gallery, the others elsewhere. The occasion was memorable, but out of all the eager talk about it I can only remember Yeats saying 'An old woman has had to play Pelléas before I knew what a child he was.' The old woman was a revelation to me: that was the only time I ever heard her, and I still feel she was supreme over all I have known in the theatre: the golden voice was that of youth while she was Pelléas; her diction was better than music; her movements were more than beautiful, they were beauty itself.
[British Library Add MS 88957/3/1.]

For Bottomley, this was a transformative encounter, resulting in a correspondence which endured until Ricketts's death in 1931, by which time, of course, Shannon had already sustained the incapacitating injury which ended all opportunities for further letter-writing.

Over the years, Bottomley and his wife Emily would accumulate a discriminating art collection, in which works by the two men featured strongly. After their deaths, with the exception of just one or two paintings, the entire collection was presented to Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle. One of Shannon's paintings came to Bottomley by chance, as a surprise gift from the artist himself. In 1924, Bottomley reached the age of 50, and happened to receive a letter from Shannon on his birthday, 20 February, Shannon being unaware of the significance of the date. With the letter came a copy of the recently printed volume by Eric B. George, Charles Shannon (London: Ernest Benn, 1924), a volume in the
Contemporary British Artists series, which included thirty-five illustrations as well as a short introductory essay on Shannon's work. Bottomley was delighted not only with the book, but by its chance arrival on his birthday.

22nd. February 1924.

My dear Shannon,
You did not know you were sending me a present on my fiftieth birthday, did you? But you were, and there wasn't anything on that day that made me as happy as your book did: I had been disliking the idea of being fifty, and not finding any compensatory advantages in it, and it was so comforting and happyfying to forget all about it in this new and satisfying-as-ever purview of your work – and in the recollection of all the passion and ardour and vivid enhancement of life that you had stirred in me by these emanations of you in the thirty years that have gone since I put boyhood behind me.

I was happy too in the thought that you who have done them all are my friend and that you care about my play [Gruach] and have praised it. And it is splendid to have such an array of your fine things all in one cover: I cursed at intervals throughout the day because my adored Music Room, and the touchingly beautiful portrait of old Mrs. Dowdall aren't there – but I couldn't curse too much, for I was so grateful to find the Black Shirt and the Inverness Coat, which I had long wanted to have; and also the Golden Age, the Education of Bacchus, the Winter Night, the lovely lovely Vintage (which I didn’t know as a picture), the Incoming Tide, the Pursuit (which I brought away in my eyes from my last visit to you) and the drawings.

I am dejected you didn't write my name in the book: but I can ask you to do it when I come, can't I?

I like the man's eulogy: he says some of the right things. But he doesn't put in enough facts about the splendours and treasures you have made. […]
Your grateful and affectionate Gordon Bottomley.
[British Library Add MS 88957/1/82.]

The triggered from Shannon a gesture of exceptional generosity.

March 17. 1924

My dear Bottomley
I was very much touched by your cry from the heart concerning the absence of the 'Music Room' or 'The Three Sisters' [this is the picture's alternative title] whichever you wish. I do hope when it arrives it will not disappoint you. It is now well on its way as a fiftieth birthday present. I know you will care for it and get it a piece of glass. I removed the glass as I thought it too dangerous for travelling. It has been out of view for years & it will greatly like to be cherished & taken into favour again. All pictures love admiration. It acts better than any varnish. It may look dark at first but so does twilight till you get accustomed to it & twilight is the subject of it.

With kindest regards & fifty more returns of the day, which I am sure you will see if you desire it. […]
Believe me
Yrs always
Charles Shannon. 

Ricketts has about finished St Joan. I hope it may last long enough for you to see. I think his part will be very good, perhaps he hasn't told you he is doing the Shaw play for London.
[British Library Add MS 88957/1/82]

Charles Shannon, 'The Music Room' (1904)
[Collection Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle]

Of course, Bottomley was overwhelmed by the gift, but certainly not at a loss for words.

22nd. March 1924.

My dear Shannon,
Your card and your superb generosity left me wordless: such delight of astonishment cannot come to anyone often in a life-time, nor such a noble sympathy in a gift. I have always cherished the "Music Room" in my heart and been faithful to it; but I thought some millionaire had it long ago and it was lost to me for ever, and I am so grateful to the millionaires for not taking it and to you for keeping it out of their sight.

You know I love it and shall always cherish it and care for it: and you know I thank you with my whole being and with all the power I have for caring for beauty and the works of beauty. You have reconciled me to being fifty, which I had been finding unbearable. And Thank You also for wishing me fifty more birthdays: I should like to have them […] I should like to be 1742, for when I reached 1664 my plays would really begin to be pretty good. Up to now words do not serve me well enough: and to-day they will not serve me at all, when I want to tell you how proud I am that you have thought of me in this way, and how much more it means to me than public recognition and success to be so counted among your friends. I can only say I am grateful.
I had been hoping to tell you of the picture's safe arrival in this letter; but Carnforth is a tiresome place, and the railway people here are dilatory. It may come through during the week-end; but if you don't hear from me as to its turning up in a day or two, I shall beg you to send me particulars of how it was sent so that I can stir somebody at Carnforth. But I will not worry you or myself immediately, for if you despatched it by goods train it will not arrive quickly.

Your card brought so many things to my mind – the day we first saw it at Van Wisselingh's with the "Sea-Nymph" and Ricketts'[s] "Tobit" and "Vineyard" and a Legros woodland; and my hopelessness as I asked Van Wisselingh how much it was, and my greater hopelessness when he told me.

And then a day next year, and one of the first times of my going to the Palace. You were out with a bicycle, and when I arrived I found Ricketts with Hugh Lane and his sister. During tea Hugh Lane said "When is Shannon going to paint another picture as fine as The Bath of Venus?" Now I had never heard of Hugh Lane before, and didn't know who he was or that he had organised the exhibition of Irish Art at the Guildhall that Spring: so I jumped in with both feet and said in a rush and with nice youthful excitement "O, but he has! It is called 'The Music Room', and it is an exquisite masterpiece and quite as fine as the other one: it is at The Guildhall just now, but stupidly hung so that its delicacy can’t be properly seen; but you ought to go and see it." Then Hugh Lane talked of something else until tea was over; and then Ricketts took us to see the Tanagras in the satinwood cabinet, after which Hugh Lane and his sister went away. And then you came in, and Ricketts said "Lane has been saying foolish things about you; but Bottomley put him right and spoke very properly about the infamous way he has hung 'The Music Room' at the Guildhall."

And among my dismay I began to take comfort in the idea that perhaps my feet weren't in it after all.

So the dear picture always was a little mine in my heart and the nature of things, wasn't it?

P.S. I met Lane again a day or two afterward at The Guildhall: but he did not remember me.

I am so happy you approve of glass on pictures; for I am always uncomfortable for their surfaces to be bare. We will see to it at once when the picture arrives.

And we agree enthusiastically that pictures love admiration. It does help them to look their best, and they mellow under it.

I can't tell whether to be glad or not that Ricketts is doing Shaw's play or not. On the whole I think I'm happy about it, for I wanted to see a medieval play done by Ricketts; but I am jealous too. One of my griefs always is that I have never seen any of Ricketts'[s] stage-work – and it is for me as much as for anybody in the world: but I WILL see "St. Joan" unless I am paralysed. Believe me your affectionate and grateful
Gordon Bottomley.
[British Library Add MS 88957/1/82.]

A few days later, he was able to announce the safe arrival of the painting.

The Sheiling Silverdale nr. Carnforth.
27th. March 1924.

O My Dear Shannon,
It is quite true. All you wrote to me really has happened, in spite of the initial improbability of anybody in this world having such good fortune as mine. I rejoice to tell you that It has arrived safely: It came yesterday afternoon, and I prowled round and round It until I fell into bed quite spent.

It is just as heavenly fair as it always was: It felt a little disconsolate at the indignities of the journey, but a change passed through it soon after it was disentangled from the packing case, and it had not been long in the dark wainscoted warm room before it began to revive visibly. It was glowing and looking content and at home before bed-time, and I really believe It is going to be happy and even radiant here. I believe It will feel still more comfortable and entirely at ease as soon as It gets Its glass.

The first impression of twenty one years ago has always remained with me – strengthened perhaps by the photograph and half-tones – of something silvery grey. But here among brown wood It looks warm and rich and luscious and fundamentally made of colour – as if the years had mellowed and ripened It. And always it goes straight to my heart as it did at first, and I don't think anything is ever going to make me happier than the still almost incredible delight of living with it and having it with me as long as I am conscious of this world and its loveliness.

We shall want you to see it here someday.

Believe me your affectionate and grateful
[British Library Add MS 88957/1/82.]

Gordon and Emily Bottomley took an intense on-going pleasure in the many art works carefully chosen and hung in their Silverdale house, which visitors rightly regarded as their simple shrine to beauty. The special circumstances of acquisition relating to each work contributed to the almost tangible sense of wholesome contentment which came from being in the presence of beautiful things. One of the last things Bottomley undertook before his death in 1948 was a hand-written descriptive catalogue of the works hanging on the walls of the The Sheiling (now at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle), and the page devoted to 'The Music Room', which hung in his drawing room, gives an important account of the painting’s provenance, Bottomley’s first encounter with it, and evidence of his remarkably accurate visual memory.

Gordon Bottomley,
'An Account of Paintings and some other works of art, at The Sheiling, Silverdale, Carnforth,
in the possession of Emily and Gordon Bottomley: as at the New Year, 1947'
[Collection Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle]

Gift of the Artist
The Music Room.
Oil-painting: C.H. Shannon R.A. (1902-3.)

Van Wisselingh’s Gallery: 1903. (Brook Street: Hanover Square.)
The final, definitive version of this subject.

This was the first picture I set eyes on, the first morning I was ever in London (aet. 29.). It hung in the centre of the main wall of the far room. In the centre was Whistler's half-length portrait of a school-girl holding a violin. On the right, balancing in size and tone C.H. Shannon's The Fisherman and The Mermaid (which went into the Pickford Waller collection.)

The present picture was afterward so much exhibited on the Continent that the frame was worn out, and the picture laid aside. Shannon knew of my early admiration of the picture, and presented it to me on my fiftieth birthday. G.B.

He afterward painted a small replica in oils, in full colour, about the size of our pastel, to be given to Mrs. Patrick Campbell when she was sitting to him for her round portrait, standing by a piano. When Shannon told me this, he added "But she misbehaved"…

On the previous page of this catalogue, Bottomley provides a description of 'our pastel', another version of 'The Music Room', which also came from Shannon.

The Music Room.
C.H. Shannon R.A: Pastel.

The First treatment in colour of the lithograph design called The Sisters: and evidently the basis of the large and important oil version of this subject on this wall also. Note: the mouse in the lithograph disappears in both the later designs.

                                                                                            John Aplin

[To be continued.]