Mary Florence Cartwright (sometimes recorded as Florence Mary and known as Florence), was reportedly a student at the South Kensington School of Needlework when she met the young up-and-coming artist James Jebusa Shannon in 1884. Struck by her beauty, Shannon frequently portrayed her in portraits and genre subjects throughout his career, among them, Mother and Child and On the Dunes (both Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC). Until now the date for their marriage has been given as 1886, but it has recently come to light that although their daughter was born in 1887, the couple wed in May 1890. This sign of their early bohemian lifestyle was understandably suppressed as Shannon’s career as a portrait specialist progressed, and it may account for the fact that Florence Shannon was said to have eschewed society, rarely going out in public unless in the company of her husband or close friends.
The present work was likely painted in the large and elaborate studio attached to the Holland Park Road home that Shannon acquired in 1892. The chair on which Florence Shannon is seated features in other studio productions (for example, Lady Hastings, National Trust, Seaton Delaval, Northumberland). Here she appears to be in her forties, a woman whose beauty has finely mellowed with time. Far from being a mere prop, the guitar she plays was very much a part of the Shannon family life. Their daughter Kitty remembered summer nights at their Holland Park home: “The evenings were so still and hot in those days that the flames of the candles in three-branched silver candlesticks did not flicker but shed a soft light on the dinner-table and our faces. How lovely it was -- and my father’s friends with their enthralling conversation. After dinner they would sit and smoke and listen to my mother sing to the guitar. She had a lovely voice and she would sing little old Spanish songs . . .” (Kitty Shannon, For My Children, London, 1933, p. 107.)
Florence Shannon became Lady Shannon with her husband’s knighthood in 1922. Following his death in 1923, she and her close friend Henriette Lewis-Hind (the former wife of the American artist George Hitchcock) actively promoted Shannon’s art in the United States.