The Wise and Foolish Virgins

WAG 2649


This painting by Charles Haslewood Shannon recounts the parable of the Ten Virgins, recorded in the Gospel of St Matthew in the Bible. In the story 10 women are instructed to wait overnight for the arrival of the bridegroom. According to Matthew, "It was already midnight when the cry rang out, 'Here is the bridegroom! Come and meet him!' The ten girls woke up and trimmed their lamps. Then the foolish ones said to the wise ones, 'Let us have some of your oil, because our lamps are going out.' 'No indeed,' the wise ones answered, 'there is not enough for you and for us. Go to the shop and buy some for yourselves.' So the foolish girls went off to buy some oil; and while they were gone, the bridegroom arrived.'(Matthew, chapter 25 v 6 -10.) The 5 women were not adequately prepared for their task and so not allowed in when they returned. The marriage feast is a metaphor for heaven in this story. The parable teaches us that we must always be practically and spiritually prepared to be judged by God or we risk being shut out of heaven forever. Shannon may have been questioning whether he was prepared to be judged by God when he made this painting. He lived with Charles de Sousy Ricketts, the son of an English father and a French mother. The pair met at 19 and 16 respectively as students at the City and Guilds Art School in Kennington in 1882. The couple were artistic and personal partners for more than fifty years. They designed and illustrated books, established the occasional art journal ‘The Dial’ in 1889 and founded the Vale Press in 1894. The Press published around 75 books, including a complete reprint of the works of Shakespeare. They closed Vale Press following a fire in 1899 when most of the book stock and decorative materials were destroyed. Ricketts and Shannon moved in a wide circle of artist friends and were key figures in the London art world from the 1890s onwards. Their friends included the poet and playwright Gordon Bottomley, the book illustrator Edmund Dulac, the portrait painter William Rothenstein and Oscar Wilde. Ricketts and Shannon also worked as illustrators for Wilde. Ricketts, for example, illustrated The Sphinx in 1895. Shannon and Ricketts never publicly identified themselves as a homosexual couple. Shannon seems to have occasionally been attracted to women. His close relationship with Kathleen Bruce was upsetting to Ricketts, who wrote of his terror that they might marry. However, the two men were completely committed to each other. Rickett’s even gave up his own painting career as a young man so that the couple could afford to support Shannon’s own artistic aspirations. Their relationship was clearly spiritual and romantic. If not necessarily physical, it was certainly devoted. Instances such as this demonstrate how difficult it can be to talk retrospectively about relationships using contemporary language and concepts. The prosecution and imprisonment of their good friend Oscar Wilde for homosexual acts made it impossible for Ricketts, Shannon and their peers to make their sexuality public. Shannon tragically fell off a ladder in 1929. He suffered brain damage and required extensive nursing. Ricketts died two years later in 1931, devastated by Shannon’s suffering and exhausted from work. Shannon lived on until 1937.