The son of Irish parents James Jebusa Shannon was born in Auburn, New York. Aged sixteen he camed to London in 1878 and studied at the Government Art Training School, South Kensington. He made his debut at the Royal Academy aged 19 when he exhibited a portrait of the Hon. Horatia Stopford in 1881, and Mrs Henry Bourke in 1882, both portraits of Ladies in Waiting having been commissioned by Queen Victoria. Although he received his art education in England, Shannon was touched by the current fashion for square-brush handling which emanated from the Paris ateliers. By the mid-1890s he was considered 'as virtually court painter for Violet, Duchess of Rutland' (Kenneth McConkey, Edward Portraits, Woodbridge, 1987, p. 119). She was an amateur artist remarkable for her precocious talent and was exhibiting professionally by the age of twenty-two at the Grosvenor Gallery, newly opened by her cousin Sir Coutts Lindsay. She was one of the most brilliant members of the aristocratic and aesthetic circle known as 'The Souls' and her outstanding beauty inspired several of the leading artists of the day including Jacques Emile Blanche and George Frederic Watts, although Shannon was her favourite.
George Moore acknowledged him as 'the man born to paint English duchesses' despite considering him socially ambitious and it is said that wives lingered in front of his work and demanded of their husbands 'Why can't you afford to let me be painted by Mr Shannon?'. He was a founder member of the New English Art Club in 1886 and exhibited there under Whistler's regime but resigned in 1892. During the 1890s his style broadened under the influence of Sargent, so much so that he was even considered by some as his rival. Shannon was awarded medals for portraiture in Paris, Berlin and Vienna, and his paintings The Flower Girl and Phil May were purchased by the Chantrey Bequest for the Tate Gallery in 1901. In 1901 he became the President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and he became a full Academician in 1909 He was knighted in 1922.
It is likely that The Silver Ship dates from the 1890s as during that decade there were a number of small-scale fashion revivals including the leg-of-mutton sleeve which became increasingly voluminous in the mid-1890s. These 'balloon' sleeves, very much in evidence here, were often worn off-the-shoulder and terminated in deep forearm cuffs of the sort which had been popular in the reign of Louis Philippe.
Shannon painted several works of this period in which the subject was in an 'action pose'. For this he was considered 'an artist and a portrait painter afterwards' by Lewis Hind writing in the Studio (1896; vol. VII, p. 68). The lady in The Silver Ship is as yet unidentified and poses holding the object of the title. Aesthetic harmony is of paramount importance over and above likeness and it was this aesthetic interest that gave Shannon his international standing and recognition.