Until he settled in London in 1876, Frederic Shields was a Manchester-based artist and illustrator whose artistic direction had been determined when he saw the work of the Pre-Raphaelites at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition in 1857. He became a close friend of Rossetti and Madox Brown, and the former particularly influenced his later style. However, the religiosity of much of his work places him in some ways nearer to Holman Hunt.
Modern taste tends to prefer his early watercolours, which often betray a tender social conscience, and the illustrations which, like so many artists of the period, he made in the 1860s. His designs for Defoe's History of the Plague (1863) and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1864) are undoubtedly his masterpieces in this field. Less attractive are his later religious works, in which a somewhat fanatical temperament is uneasily expressed in terms of a style based on Rossetti and Blake. Few tears have been shed over the wartime destruction of the cycle of murals in the Chapel of the Ascension, Bayswater, to which he devoted the last twenty years of his life.
The name of the sitter given on the back of this drawing is not easily diciphered, but is probably Lena V. Perse. No such name is listed in the index of Ernestine Mills's Life and Letters of Frederic Shields (1912), and although the drawing is known to have been in both Shields's retrospective exhibition at Manchester in 1907 and his memorial exhibition at the Alpine Club Gallery, London, 1911, the catalogue entries which probably refer to the drawing do not identify the sitter. Indeed, it is not even clear which of the 1911 exhibits is our drawing. The exhibition contained several chalk studies of girls' heads, all priced at 2 guineas.
Whoever the sitter, the drawing is an unusually sympathetic work by Shields, betraying none of his didactic sentiment or stylistic mannerisms. The model clearly appealed to the artist, and he has drawn her with refreshing spontaneity. We know that, for all his rather crabbed and prickly personality, Shields did respond intensely to female beauty. In 1874, at the age of forty, he married a very pretty but totally uneducated girl of sixteen, and proceeded, in true Victorian fashion, to try and turn her into a young lady. Indeed, not content with one Eliza Doolittle on his hands, he adopted her younger sister, Jessie, who was to marry the Rev. B. Scott in 1893. According to Ernestine Mills, Jessie, like her sister, was 'a very lovely girl' whose early death was 'a terrible grief' to Shields. Like Lena Perse, she sat to him for her portrait, which was included in the Memorial Exhibition (no. 35).
According to the entry which probably relates to our drawing in the catalogue of the 1907 exhibition, the drawing is not a portrait study as such but a study 'for a picture'. If this is the case, the picture has not been identified.