Wednesday, June 8, 2022

566. Charles Shannon's Portrait of Ronald Firbank

One of my favourite writers, Ronald Firbank (1886-1926), who died before he turned forty, was the subject of portraits by a number of famous modern artists in the early twentieth century. One of the first, if not the first, was Charles Shannon who made a pastel of him in 1909. 

It was first published on the dust jacket of Firbank's last novel, which appeared posthumously due to delays in publication. Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli appeared in June 1926 - the year of publication was corrected in ink on the dust jacket.

Charles Shannon, pastel portrait of Ronald Firbank (1909),
published on the dust jacket of Ronald Firbank,
Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (1926)

This undated portrait is signed with the initials 'CS'. The current whereabouts of the original portrait are unknown.

No letters or accounts of the meeting between artist and sitter have survived, and we must make do with second or third-hand testimony.

Oscar Wilde's son, Vyvyan Holland, came of age in November 1907 and Robert Ross organised a dinner -party for him. Among the twelve guests were Ronald Firbank, Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon. It was probably the first time Shannon and Firbank had met; the former came from the artistic circles around Ross, the latter from Holland's Cambridge student life.(1)

Firbank was, as Miriam Benkovitz wrote, 'very much concerned with his appearance', and in an attempt to preserve his youth, he had his portrait captured by a series of artists while he was not yet too old.(2) The author Jocelyn Brooke observed:

It is a curious fact that the numerous extant portraits of Firbank bear almost no resemblance to each other, seeming indeed, to depict a series of entirely disparate persons. During his life he was drawn or painted by Charles Shannon, Augustus John, Wyndham Lewis, Alvara Guevara and probably (for he was fond of sitting for his portrait) by other artists as well; yet it remains extraordinarily difficult to form an exact mental picture of his features. 

Even the three portraits Augustus John did of Firbank might just as well have been portraits of three different people: they look like a businessman, or a witty theatre-goer, or an intimate, somewhat sad friend. Shannon's portrait is that of a cautious and gentle observer.

Brooke continues:

His profile was delicately formed and angular, with a finely-arched nose, a full-lipped mouth and a rather weak chin; his eyes were greyish-blue tending to blue, his hair dark and inclined to to be tousled, his complexion fresh, with a rosy tint about the lips and cheekbones which perhaps owed more to Art than to Nature.(3)

Firbank was tall, slender, 'inclined to droop', and in society he behaved extremely shy. Augustus John remembered:

[...] he sent his taxi-man in to prepare the way, himself sitting in the taxi with averted face, the very picture of exquisite confusion. [...] When the strain of confronting me became unbearable, he would seek refuge in the lavatory, there to wash his hands. This manoeuvre occurred several times at each sitting.(4)

Did Firbank present himself in the same way to Shannon's studio in 1909 - if it was indeed 1909? Did he behave in the same awkward manner, or was he less nervous in the company of the quiet and silent painter?

Ifan Kyrle Fletcher reported that Firbank 'entertained very exquisitely' in his room that was 'decorated with masses of white flowers':

Often, on these occasions, Firbank talked little, but, if he had recently been to London, he would be full of news of pictures by Shannon and Ricketts, concerts of the music of Granados and Debussy, new French books and plays.(5)

It is not known whether Firbank acquired paintings, drawings or lithographs by Shannon or Ricketts. What is known is that, after his portrait was drawn, he sent Shannon copies of his books, at least of Vainglory (1915) and Inclinations (1916).

Because another illustration was not available for his last book, he illustrated the dust jacket with Shannon's then fifteen-year-old portrait, and for the frontispiece he selected one of the old portraits by Augustus John. In her biography, Benkovitz commented: 'Death haunted neither portrait; in them Firbank had his youth again.'(6)

Around 1929, a fellow Firbank student, A.C. Landsberg, recalled Shannon's portrait:

I have lately returned from Paris where I looked for a photograph I had of a portrait-drawing in pastels of Firbank, done towards the end of his time at Cambridge by Charles Shannon. Possibly Charles Ricketts may have a copy of it - (he also knew him, by the way).(7)

Shannon's portrait of Firbank probably belonged to the author, but where it has gone is a mystery.

Vyvyan Holland, Son of Oscar Wilde. London, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954, pp. 188-189.
Miriam Benkovitz, Ronald Firbank. A Biography. New York: Alfred A, Knopf, 1969, pp. 112-113. 
Jocelyn Brooke, Ronald Firbank. London, Arthur Barker Ltd., 1951, p. 34.
Quoted by Osbert Sitwell in Ifan Kyrle Fletcher, Ronald Firbank. A Memoir. London, Duckworth, 1930, p. 132.
Ifan Kyrle Fletcher, Ronald Firbank. A Memoir. London, Duckworth, 1930, pp. 30-31. 
Benkovitz (see note 2), p. 275.
'A.C. Landsberg', in Ronald Firbank. Memoirs and Critiques, ed. by Mervyn Horder. London, Duckworth, 1977, p. 93.