December 19, 2017

The Keats-Shelley Memorial Association has acquired a pencil and crayon portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Edmund Sullivan, dated 1902 for display at the House in Rome. 

Edmund Sullivan (1869-1933) was a British book illustrator whose work is still recognizable today by virtue of its vibrant style, and whose specific Keats-Shelley related commissions are among the most daring of his day and age. 

Like most of the Shelley portraits made after the poet's death, Sullivan's is inspired by Amelia Curran’s 1819 life portrait now at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Sullivan’s aesthetic touch, however, enhances our perception of a poet who, around the time this portrait was made, was enjoying unprecedented popularity. 

Shelley's characteristic quill, for instance, which appears in both Amelia Curran's life and Joseph Severn's posthumous portrait of the poet, is missing in Sullivan's sketch, making the poet’s vocation less evident, and the figure consequently becoming more elusive and suggestive. Moreover, Shelley's features are sharper, yet somehow more sensual than in Curran's ethereal life portrait, and while Curran's subject looks out at the spectator, Shelley's gaze in the Sullivan sketch is directed elsewhere. All these aspects combine to make this image quite special and give it a ghostly flavour quite typical of both the artist’s oeuvre and the decadent times in which this work was made.

The portrait was commissioned for the frontispiece of a 1902 edition of The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley published by George Newnes Ltd. Newnes and Sullivan collaborated on various projects, including an edition of Washington Irving's Sketchbook also dating from 1902, which includes illustrations by the same artist. A similar looking drawing of Shelley by Sullivan was also used as the frontispiece for an undated Simpkin Marshall edition of Shelley's poems.

We are particularly grateful to James Kidd and Tony Yablon from the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association for their roles in the acquisition, and to Professor Michael Rossington of Newcastle University for his research into the Newnes edition. 

Shelley Sullivan

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