Vanessa Bell Retrospective

Vanessa Bell, Self –Portrait, 1915, Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett
Vanessa Bell, Self-Portrait, 1915, Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

The first ever retrospective of the important Sussex artist, Vanessa Bell (1879–1961), is the latest exhibition to go on show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

This timely exhibition seeks to place Bell’s work in the context of her life with over one hundred paintings on display. The story of Vanessa Bell’s life has often overshadowed the work which it inspired. But throughout her life she devoted herself to her painting which allowed her to voice her belief in the importance of substance and freedom. Her home at Charleston in Sussex remains a moving testimony to her life – a house transformed by her art.

In London Vanessa Bell had married the art critic Clive Bell and was one of the leading members of what would become known as the Bloomsbury Group. She worked in the Omega Workshops with Roger Fry and collaborated with Duncan Grant in numerous decorative projects and artistic commissions. Both men would eventually become Vanessa’s lovers. Many of her designs embraced the new artistic ideas from the Continent. The abstracted fabric design for the Omega Workshops in watercolour seen here is striking in its modernity but maintains a fluidity underpinned by the use of colour in the composition.

Vanessa Bell, Landscape with Haystack, Asheham, 1912, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts. Purchased with the gift of Anne Holden Kieckhefer class of 1952, in honour of Ruth Chandler Holden, class of 1926. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Vanessa Bell visited her sister Virginia Woolf at her Sussex home, Asheham, in 1912 where she painted ‘Landscape with Haystack, Asheham’. Here the influence of the Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912, organised by Roger Fry at the Grafton Gallery in London, are readily apparent in the way that she employs light, blocks of colour and bold outlines.

It was Vanessa Bell’s love for Duncan Grant and Virginia Woolf which brought about her move to Sussex during the First World War.

Vanessa was living with Duncan Grant, and his friend David Garnett, at Wissett Lodge in Suffolk when Virginia Woolf, wrote to her. In her letters Virginia explained that not only did Charleston house need a tenant but that the neighbouring farmer was short of ‘hands’ to work on the land. Duncan Grant and David Garnett needed to be essentially employed on the land to avoid being called up to fight or the prospect of gaol as conscientious objectors.

Vanessa Bell 1879–1961, Design for Omega Workshops Fabric, 1913, Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

As well as covering the walls and furniture at Charleston with painted decoration Duncan and Vanessa portrayed those who visited and the countryside around them.

A number of remarkable portraits by Bell are included in the exhibition. Her paintings of Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and David Garnett are revealing and remarkably daring in their execution challenging our perception of the world and beauty. Amongst these is a self-portrait painted in 1915. Vanessa sits in a chair her head averted from us as she stares from the canvas deep in thought. There is a strength and resilience in her demeanour.

Vanessa Bell, Wallflowers, undated, Private Collection. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

I have always loved the intimacy of Vanessa Bell’s still lives. The study of wallflowers does not disappoint. The flowers sit in a jug which may well have been decorated by Vanessa at Charleston.

This superb and long overdue exhibition allows us to see Vanessa Bell’s development as an artist and the techniques, themes and subjects which unite her work.

‘Vanessa Bell’ runs at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until the 4th June 2017 and is one of this year’s must see exhibitions. For more information go to www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

From Town and City to the Country

‘The Tug’ by Sussex artist, Vanessa Bell
‘The Tug’ by Sussex artist, Vanessa Bell

In the late 19th and 20th centuries many of Britain’s leading artists were inspired to leave London and our towns and cities, for the country. For some it was to escape the effects of the industrial revolution and for others the wars. There was a desire to articulate the ancient hope of the English expressed in and through their landscape. A hope bound up with a romanticized view of a rural idyll, lost or under threat.

It was Virginia Woolf’s love for Duncan Grant and her sister, Vanessa Bell, which brought her to Sussex during the First World War. Vanessa was living with her lover, the artist Duncan Grant, and his friend David Garnett, at Wissett Lodge in Suffolk when her sister, the author, Virginia Woolf, wrote to her in the May of 1916. She extolled the virtues and potential of Charleston house near Firle in East Sussex. To avoid being called up to fight and the prospect of gaol as conscientious objectors, Duncan Grant and David Garnett needed to be essentially employed on the land. Virginia Woolf was by this time living at Asheham some four miles from Charleston and, having suffered a breakdown, sought Vanessa’s company. In her letters Virginia explained that not only did the house need a tenant but that the neighbouring farmer was short of ‘hands’ to work on the land.

Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant would gather an extraordinary array of artists, writers and intellectuals to Charleston. Amongst them was the great economist Maynard Keynes, the authors Lytton Strachey and T. S. Elliot, the artist and critic Roger Fry and, amongst many others, Vanessa’s husband Clive Bell.

In London Vanessa Bell had married the art critic Clive Bell and was one of the leading members of what would become known as the Bloomsbury Group. She worked in the Omega Workshops with Roger Fry and collaborated with Duncan Grant in numerous decorative projects and artistic commissions.

As well as covering the walls and furniture at Charleston with painted decoration they portrayed those who visited and the countryside around them. The delightful oil by Vanessa Bell titled ‘The Tug’ depicts a scene reminiscent of Newhaven harbour which is across the Sussex Downs from Charleston. The light is golden and luminous. Her handling of paint is broad and filled with life and movement in the manner of the French Post-Impressionists. There is freedom and joy in the moored boat’s hopeful depiction.

Walter Langley’s oil painting, ‘A Quiet Time’
Walter Langley’s oil painting, ‘A Quiet Time’

In contrast to Vanessa Bell’s bright palette is Walter Langley’s depiction of a working class woman at rest. Titled ‘A Quiet Time’ it reflects Langley’s empathy with the persistent hardship faced by the poor in 19th century Britain. Muted earth hues are employed in the stillness of this sensitive, delicate portrait. The economy of detail is typical of his portrayals of the working people of Newlyn in Cornwall. Walter Langley belonged to a group of artists from Birmingham who journeyed to Newlyn in Cornwall to escape the hardships caused by the Industrial Revolution in our cities. Their pursuit of realism was influenced by the French Barbizon painters. There is a romantic articulation of the nobility in working people.

If Sussex and her Downs touch your heart the need to live in their folds never leaves you. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant would continue to live at Charleston throughout their lives. 2016 marks a century since the Bloomsbury Group artists, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, arrived in Sussex to make their home at Charleston. I look forward to returning to Charleston and their array of events to celebrate this important anniversary. For more information go to www.charleston.org.uk/whats-on.

Vanessa Bell’s and Walter Langley’s paintings are already consigned for sale in Toovey’s select Fine Art Sale on Wednesday 23rd March 2016, each with an estimate of £8,000-12,000.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.