Wednesday, November 30, 2022

591. The Irish Side of Charles Shannon

This week's blog is written by John Aplin, who, with a little help from me, is editing Charles Ricketts's letters for publication. It is his fifth blog post for 'Charles Ricketts & Charles Shannon'.

Rare Book & Collectors Sale.
Dublin, Fonsie Mealy's, 6-7 December 2022

The Irish Side of Charles Shannon

Lot 599 in a forthcoming two-day sale mounted by the Dublin Auctioneers Fonsie Mealy's (6-7 December 2022) features the only known example of Shannon's work in costume design. I shall turn to the details of the auction lot in a moment, but in broader terms it is especially interesting for revealing Shannon's willingness to acknowledge an Irish heritage, where usually he seems to have been very comfortable in the fact that his immediate family upbringing was solidly English.


But what he may have regarded as the thinness of his Irish blood certainly did not inhibit him from showing his work in exhibitions with an Irish theme. He featured prominently, for example, in the June 1904 exhibition at the London Guildhall of 'pictures of artists of Irish nationality', which The Times heralded with an article which manages to pinpoint the ambiguous position of some of its contributors – perhaps not least that of Shannon himself.

The Guildhall exhibition certainly shows that a number of very clever artists of Irish birth or descent have existed in the past and exist to-day; the worst is that the world, which knows them very well, does not know them as Irishmen. They may have been born in Dublin or Limerick, or, as is the case with some of them, in London or New York; but if they have worked in London, exhibited constantly in London, and been elected into the Royal Academy we have somehow come to regard them as Englishmen.
[The Times, 30 May 1904]

Many of the pictures displayed had initially been intended for a projected American exhibition of Irish works in St Louis, which in the end did not go ahead, and in trying to assemble a sufficiently extensive representation of his own work Shannon revealed his hand (and a vein of cynicism) when writing to the collector Laurence Hodson.

I want to ask you a further favour on my own behalf. To begin with you must now view me as an Irishman (pure but not simple). I have been asked to contribute largely to the Irish Section of the St Louis Exhibition & I propose to embrace Ireland & send if possible 15 of my most important pictures. If I could get enough pictures they would give me a room to myself but unfortunately I haven’t done enough. [….] It will be well hung on a wall of my own choosing & all my works will be placed together. I hope to send
'Lady with Chinese Fan'
'Woodland Venus'
Own portrait in Striped Shirt
'Shell gatherers'
'The Bunch of Grapes'
Two small Toilet pieces
Miss Pickford Waller
Circular portrait recently at New Gallery
Forbes Portrait
'Salt Water'
Ricketts portrait
'Mother & child'
'Toilet' at International
Souvenir of Van Dyck
Hugh Lane the man who is getting it up is tremendously enthusiastic & swears that he wants some that can't be sold so that they may not all remain in America (I'm not Irish enough to believe this), but it never does to damp people's energy. 
[C.S. Shannon to Laurence Hodson, 9 or 10 February 1904, Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, University of Delaware]

Charles Ricketts shared with the columnist of The Times a scepticism as to what qualified as being Irish, especially perhaps in the case of Shannon, whose character and personality seemed in so many ways quintessentially and uncomplicatedly English.

[T]here is a good chance of Shannon showing 20 pictures at the Guildhall most of them in a row. This is owing to his bogus nationality, he has become Irish for the nonce, that is if the show comes off. I am furious with my parents for their oversight in not gifting me with at least one drop of Irish hot. I should have made a splendid Irishman with very long coat tails.
[Charles Ricketts to Thomas Sturge Moore, about 27 March 1904, BL Add MS 58086, ff 64-5].


But the forthcoming Dublin auction features a commission offered to Shannon on the basis of his Irish credentials. With the formation of the Irish Free State in December 1922, it became necessary to establish a functioning judiciary. This work was overseen by Hugh Kennedy, Chief Justice of Ireland from 1924 until 1936. He put in hand the commissioning of a range of judicial robes for the various Courts of Justice, and approached Shannon to undertake the designs.

The current auction lot of a family archive of 'documents, letters, drawings and photographs' includes a number of Shannon's designs, described as 'three mounted drawings of designs for robes, each on card circa 37cms x 27cms, two designs for headgear, 27cms x 19cms, and one monochrome drawing of robes, probably a preliminary sketch'. 

Charles Shannon, design for robe, c.1922-5
[Rare Book & Collectors Sale.
Dublin, Fonsie Mealy's, 6-7 December 2022]

That Shannon undertook this work was already known from an exchange of letters between himself and Kennedy at University College Dublin [Hugh Kennedy Papers P4/1165-7], but until now the survival of at least some of the designs themselves was unknown. The illustration in the auction catalogue shows two of the robe designs (one in colour) and a design for a cap, and the auctioneers describe the drawings as being 'in immaculate condition, as fresh as the day they were painted'.

It was the poet W.B. Yeats, a friend of Ricketts and Shannon and with an impeccable Irish pedigree, who recommended that Kennedy should ask Shannon to take on the project. The first of Shannon's surviving letters to Kennedy shows that he treated the commission seriously from the outset, had started researching an area unfamiliar to him, and was wanting to use traditional Irish materials.

Dear Chief Justice
W B Yeats told me when I last saw him that you contemplated a visit to London & that you would take the opportunity of seeing me concerning the designing of Robes for the Courts of Justice. I should be most pleased to see you & discuss the matter but I think it is only right to tell you as I told Yeats at the outset that I could not possibly hope to do the work by the Autumn. I explained to Yeats that I was going to Italy to keep a long standing engagement, in fact that I proposed to visit a number of towns in Italy & that I could not be back till about the first week in November. I have done all I can in the way of looking up things that may bear on the designing of the Robes, but it is quite impossible to make the actual drawings until I have every possible [piece of] information as to what is required. [….] I have discussed the matter unofficially with Yeats & explained the difficulty of constructing an entirely new series of Robes that would be a complete change in tradition which means that I have nothing solid to work upon. I have got one or two books which may be useful & I have friends in the British Museum & the South Kensington Art Library who may be useful (so far they have been able to show me very little of any great use). I also explained to Yeats that I must have some kind of Robe made or hired & that I ought to see beforehand specimens of the materials that Ireland can supply. Yeats has handed over to me your letters to him bearing on these matters so that I know already something of your views.
Believe me yrs sincerely
Charles Shannon
[Charles Shannon to Hugh Kennedy, 14 September 1924, University College Dublin, P4/1165 (30)]

Kennedy sent Shannon three examples of Irish poplin, and after his return from Italy Shannon began to work on preliminary designs.

Charles Shannon, design for robe, c.1922-5
[Rare Book & Collectors Sale.
Dublin, Fonsie Mealy's, 6-7 December 2022]

I have made several drawings of robes all very rough purposely in execution. I propose to send you about six which I think the best. I think they may convey something of the general appearance that I wish to give. There is nothing at all final about them but I think they look dignified. I have not attempted to allot them to any particular Courts though the red one I imagine would do for the Criminal Court. I should like to hear your opinion on these, that is if they are not too rough to convey anything to you at all. I would not suggest showing them to anybody in this rough form. If you approve of the general lines of these I will carry them out clearly. The colouring I have put on is merely to help to convey the density & variety of the material. In two instances I have given trains. This of course gives dignity but it may be impossible for ordinary use. Ricketts seems to think that trains could be attached for state functions. What form do you suggest the Insignia should take? Is it to be on a chain hung round the neck? This always looks impressive. I will send these sketches on in a few days.
[Charles Shannon to Hugh Kennedy, 14 December 1924, University College Dublin, P4/1165 (44)]

The six drawings were sent to Kennedy a week later, together with a set of detailed notes on each one, explaining Shannon’s intentions, such as these for the first and third sketches:

No 1
I originally designed this for the Judge presiding in Criminal cases, the other Judges to be perhaps without Ermine cape & in another colour possibly but I am not sure that it is not the most imposing & ought to be for the Chief Justice, possibly in red when you are presiding on a case of criminal appeal & some other colour for other cases.

No 3
As an alternative No 3 design in red could be used for criminal cases in the High Court with ermine lining to the sleeves. The black undergarment would be a kind of cassock or else a kind of false lining projecting from under the robe & buttoning down the front. This is done in most cases to hide the trousers which otherwise always show & look out of place.
It is not necessary to have a train but of course it adds greatly to the splendour. 
I suggest some sort of badge for Insignia hung over the cape with black silk or velvet this would be cheaper & as effective as a chain. I attach great importance to the intense black being used, it gives great quality to all other colours used, especially deep rich colours. I attach much importance to Ermine or sham ermine which is quite cheap & exactly the same in effect – It is also traditional everywhere. 
[Charles Shannon to Hugh Kennedy, 22 December 1924, University College Dublin, P4/1165 (46)]

'Wolsey Pure Wool Underwear'
The Graphic, 27 October 1917, p. 525

Kennedy would reply and give his detailed reactions to each of the drawings, praising their appositeness and colour schemes. His observations were eminently practical, such as noting that in Shannon's design No 1 the large sleeve was likely to cause problems for judges when seated and writing, and that something less fulsome would be better. His principal reservation concerned Shannon's design for the judicial cap, which he believed might not meet the approval of some of the more elderly judges. He suggested instead that Shannon might consider something more like the cap in a familiar advertisement of the time for Wolsey woollen underwear, in which an impression of Cardinal Wolsey with cardinal's cap is featured. In case Shannon did not know the advertisement, Kennedy sent one as an enclosure! He also pointed out that, by tradition, the rankings of judges was reflected in the number of colours incorporated within their robes, with the Chief Justice having as many as six or seven colours, and the President of the High Court five. And he also suggested that a recent reproduction of the Irish Book of Kells might offer ideas about traditional colour schemes.

'Wolsey Wisdom'
The Bystander, 10 December 1924

Shannon worked on revised designs and sent these on 28 January 1925, again with detailed notes. He had also given some thoughts about the design for a badge of office.

Concerning the number of colours to be used for the different grades would it not be possible to restrict them to 1 2 3 4. The linings would supply opportunities for adding to the number required. One has to remember that it is an easy matter to produce a number of colours where brocades & patterns generally are used but when one is dealing with plain material as we must it would tend to make the colour schemes of the robes 'mixed up' & this would lead to a great loss in breadth of effect. I am wondering if it would not be much more effective to have a badge of some sort attached to a broad ribbon. It always looks extremely well when it hangs over a flat surface like a cape the buckle used as such would be almost invisible I imagine & if a collar was used at the lip of the cape interfere with the fall of the tabs or lace. When Ireland becomes wealthy as I am told she will a very expensive gold chain could take the place of the black ribbon though I doubt if it would look really more 'telling'. I have looked through the Book of Kells but frankly I cannot see that it really suggests much in the way of colours certainly it would be very useful in the way of metal designing for badges & ornaments generally. The red Criminal Court robe with full sleeves would have to be pleated at the back of the shoulder as in a university gown. I take it there would be no objection to this, this is the only way to give sufficient bulk to the folds.
Re The Book of Kells. To return to the matter of the badge of office I feel that a beautiful disc could be made by founding it on the circle given at the foot of St Matthew (Bk of Kells) on the right hand side possibly the shamrock could be combined with it though I know nothing of the date of the shamrock as a national symbol. It is one of the most decorative of all leaves for ornamental purposes. 
[Charles Shannon to Hugh Kennedy, 28 January 1925, University College Dublin, P4/1166 (18-22)]

It seems that when wider consultation of judges and courts took place, a consensus view became difficult to achieve, and it was not until the following year that Kennedy was able to tell Shannon that the design for the robe for District Justices had been approved and manufactured, and worn for the first time on 12 March. But he had to confess that neither of Shannon's two designs for a cap had been favoured, one by a female Irish designer being chosen instead. Shannon took no offence.

Charles Shannon, design for cap, c.1922-5
[Rare Book & Collectors Sale.
Dublin, Fonsie Mealy's, 6-7 December 2022]

I am very glad to know that some of the designs have been started & are actually in use. Yeats wrote me about the same time that I received your letter & enclosed some press cuttings. I think the dress looks very well & I agree with you that the cap chosen suits the dress it is worn with. I can sympathise with you in the matter of the difficulties you have had to encounter. I am glad that a start has been made. This may lead to the speeding up of the rest. I have not forgotten that I have one or two books you kindly lent me when I was making the designs. 
[Charles Shannon to Hugh Kennedy, 3 April 1926, University College Dublin, P4/1167 (50)]

Whilst his Irish roots made him eligible for the commission, it is curious nonetheless that Shannon agreed to undertake it, for I am not aware that he had any previous experience in costume design. As he himself was quick to admit when setting out on the task, an opportunity had been missed. 

I am very busy doing the Judges Robes for the Irish Free State but it ought to have been Ricketts'[s] job. 
[Charles Shannon to Emily Bottomley, 14 December 1924, BL Add MS 88957/1/82 f 30

But as Ricketts admitted, much to his chagrin, he lacked the necessary 'one drop of Irish hot'.