Vanessa Bell British , 1879-1961


Reid & Lefevre Ltd, London, 1934
Ralph and Frances Partridge
By descent, Sophie Partridge


1934, London, Alex. Reid & Lefevre Ltd, Recent Paintings by Vanessa Bell, no.14
2018, London, Piano Nobile, From Omega to Charleston: The Art of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, 1910-1934, no.29
Vanessa Bell was born in London in 1879. The eldest of four children and sister to renowned writer Virginia Woolf, she was encouraged from a young age to pursue her individual talents. In 1901 she began studying at the Royal Academy Schools, under the tutelage of John Singer Sargent, amongst others. Following the death of her parents, Vanessa and her siblings moved from their family home to Bloomsbury, where regular meetings with other artists and intellectuals led to the formation of The Bloomsbury Group. She founded the exhibiting group, the Friday Club in 1906, and was also a member of the New English Art Club. In 1907, she married another Bloomsbury member Clive Bell, with whom she had two children. Despite this, she lived openly in a committed relationship with fellow artist Duncan Grant at their home, Charleston, in Sussex from 1916 onwards. Bell exhibited her work in the influential Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition at the Grafton Galleries, London, a landmark show organised by Roger Fry including notable works contributed by Matisse and Picasso. Alongside Fry, Bell and Grant co-founded The Omega Workshop, an artists' co-operative for decorative arts that operated between 1913 and 1919. Bell had her first solo exhibition at the Omega Workshops in 1916, and another at London's Independent Gallery in 1922. She exhibited her work internationally in exhibitions in Paris, Zurich and Venice. Deeply affected by the death of her son Julian in the Spanish Civil War, the increasingly reclusive Bell worked quietly at Charleston until her death in 1961. Her work has benefitted from a substantial re-evaluation in recent years, is held by numerous public collections, and was the subject of a major retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2017.

A characteristic of Bell's still-life paintings, from the earliest ones we know such as Apples: 46 Gordon Square (c.1909-10), through her mature career like this Basket of Flowers, to ones from her last years, is the subtle variety of viewpoints she adopts. She liked to look down on her motif or up at it, placing objects on a high mantelshelf or raised table. In several flower-pieces she may face her subject directly at eye level but include a mirror behind it in which the reflection is slightly raised. The present painting probably depicts a bookshelf against a wall at Charleston, affording strong, close shadows. The roses in the basket are accompanied by what appears to be a faded hydrangea flower, suggesting a date of autumn 1933. It was then that Bell was completing a group of oil paintings in readiness for her exhibition in March the following year where this work was first shown.

It is in still lifes such as these, Richard Shone writes, "that Vanessa Bell is most herself, disclosing with a concentrated simplicity levels of feeling often evaded in her portraits. The pace is grave, unforced; complexities of design slowly reveal themselves; they are works that are easily overlooked for she makes no compromise with prevailing fashions nor solicits attention with pictorial tricks."

By the 1930s, Bell had all but retreated to Charleston. The death of Lytton Strachey in 1932 marked the first in a series of personal tragedies including the deaths of Roger Fry in 1934, her son, Julian, during the Spanish civil war in 1937, and, finally, Virginia's suicide in 1941. The domesticity of life at Charleston also offered a respite from the worsening political situation of the 1930s. In the words of curator Sarah Milroy, "At the heart of Bell's vision was the reimagining of home as a place of personal freedom, collaboration and industrious creativity."