Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) was one of the leading artists of the storied Bloomsbury Group and for a short period amongst the most progressive painters in England of her generation. Bell’s Still life on Corner of a Mantelpiece and Abstract Painting (both 1914, Tate Gallery) mark the apogee of her modernism, along with her very progressive, striking and vibrant decorative work for the Omega Workshops, established in 1913 by Roger Fry, with whom she had recently had a passionate affair. Bell had four works in Fry’s ground-breaking Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition. British, French and Russian Artists in 1912.
One of the four children of author and biographer Sir Leslie Stephen and his second wife Julia Duckworth, who had been a model for the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, Vanessa’s younger sister was the novelist Virginia Woolf. Vanessa married the writer Clive Bell in 1907, with whom she had two sons, and she had a daughter, Angelica, to fellow artist and lifelong companion, Duncan Grant, in 1918. Grant’s superb portrait of her, not long before Angelica’s birth, is in the Auckland Art Gallery (Mackelvie Collection) and is the cover illustration of her biography by Frances Spalding.
Vanessa Bell was a prolific and successful artist throughout her life, which has been minutely documented, along with all the other members of the Bloomsbury Group. However, perhaps surprisingly, there is no detailed catalogue raisonné of her entire oeuvre; paintings, works on paper, decorations and designs, including those for the Omega Workshops, and book jackets (mostly for the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press) and much more. And there is no detailed exhibition history.
Still life, especially flower pieces, was possibly Bell’s most preferred genre and she painted many throughout her career from art school to her death at Charleston, Sussex, where she and Duncan lived. Bell’s life and work has most recently been celebrated at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London with a major retrospective exhibition and fine catalogue.
This Still Life is undated but we have a terminus post quem for it because the vase, which it features, was one of several made in 1932 and remains at Charleston. Its form was cast by the potter Phyllis Keyes (a regular collaborator) from Grant’s Decorated Vase (also at Charleston, c1914, made in Tunis) and then decorated by Grant.
One of these decorated vases was exhibited in December 1932 when Bell and Grant conceived a “Music Room” for the Lefevre Gallery. A photograph shows the vase on the mantelpiece in front of a large decorated mirror by Bell, which was bought by Virginia Woolf, who had guaranteed the exhibition by committing to spend £100. All the objects were for sale, although the primary objective was to attract commissions for decorative schemes, following the artists’ work on the homes of Lady Gerald Wellesley and Ethel Sands. However, no commissions eventuated directly from the exhibition although Cunard commissioned decorative panels for the liner RMS Queen Mary in 1935.
Grant included the vase in several of his paintings and decorations but, in the absence of a catalogue raisonné, it cannot be said with any confidence that Still Life is the only painting of hers to include it.
Bell had several solo exhibitions in the 1930s along with two and three person shows and was included in numerous group shows, including the annual exhibitions of the London Group.
Two of them were at the Lefevre Gallery in 1934 and in 1937, the latter of 32 recent paintings, mostly painted in Rome, after which she visited Picasso in Paris where he was at work on Guernica.
In 1941 she showed at the Leicester Galleries and in 1956 at the Adams Gallery, Davies Street, where her memorial exhibition was held in 1961 and attracted the comment that “a number of pictures produced in the 1950s testify to the vigour of her later years”.
Besides Grant’s painted vase, Still Life features a vase of flowers and a piece of fruit, all on a mantelpiece or table with a background of vertical stripes, harking back to her most modernist works around 1914-15. The flowers are most likely dahlias, especially scarlet, amongst Bell’s favourite flowers from her garden at Charleston. Writing to Fry she described “the wealth of dahlias and red admirals” in the summer and hated to leave her garden when travelling on the Continent. She regularly took the flowers from her garden up to London to her Fitzroy Street studio to paint.
It is possible that the background vertical forms in Still Life are a painted folding screen, implying that the objects are on the corner of a table covered with a cloth. Formally, it is a visually satisfying balanced exercise of curved forms against verticals, thrust right up against the picture plane, with both the round fruit (an apple?) and the slightly off-vertical reflection on the flower vase working rather like punctuation marks.
Given the date of Grant’s vase, Bell’s signature on the painting, “V Bell”, and its painterly handling, Still life, can be dated to the mid 1930s, when it was surely exhibited, although it does not get a mention in any of the reviews in The Times, for example.
However, Spalding’s commentary on her March 1934 Lefevre exhibition makes the painting’s inclusion quite likely, given that the 1937 exhibition was mostly painted in Rome:
“her subjects were mostly confined to scenes in and around Charleston and to still lifes – the subject that Roger [Fry] had once praised as ‘in modern times… one of the purest expressions of modern feeling’. Virginia [Woolf] again provided a foreword in which she tried to suggest the beauty and strangeness that Vanessa found in familiar things. It was an art, she said, that took one over the boundary into a world where words have little meaning: ‘And yet it is a world of glowing serenity and sober truth’. And not financially unsound, for it brought in more than any of her previous shows, earning Vanessa some £500.”
Still life was most recently exhibited at the d’Offay Couper Gallery just off New Bond Street in London’s Mayfair, the forerunner of the renowned Anthony d’Offay Gallery, which held exhibitions of Bell’s and Grant’s work in the 1970s, which contributed to a revival of interest in the artists.
At a glance, Vanessa Bell’s Still Life transports one to the era of later Bloomsbury and picturesque Charleston, and to the heart of English painting in the inter-war years.