‘She can always paint more pictures'
Country Life UK|September 15, 2021
The vigorous creativity of Vanessa Bell and her lover Duncan Grant’s work owes much to the countryside surrounding their farmhouse in the Sussex Downs, says Matthew Dennison
Matthew Dennison

THE winter of 1940 was unusually cold. In the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, A. J. Drummond noted that such conditions had not been experienced for 50 years. As much as she could, artist Vanessa Bell worked indoors on a painting of the barn at Charleston, the farmhouse in East Sussex she had shared with her friend and lover Duncan Grant since 1916. The uncompromising chill of this stark, apparently simple image, included in ‘Charleston: The Bloomsbury Muse’ at Philip Mould Gallery, is unusual among landscape paintings by Bell and Grant.

At Charleston that winter, Bell worked in her new attic studio. Deliberately, she cut herself off from others in the colourfully decorated house that, for more than two decades, had served as the gathering point for the artists, writers and thinkers known collectively as the Bloomsbury Group. The wintry view appealed to her state of mind.

Months earlier, her London studio at 8, Fitzroy Street had been destroyed by an incendiary bomb. Grant noted a phlegmatic quality to her response to catastrophe then. She ‘takes it very philosophically,’ he wrote, ‘and says she can always paint more pictures’. And so she did, including this painting so at odds with any of Grant’s images of Charleston’s barns, among them a picture of the threshing barn painted two years later that, despite its winter setting, glows with gashes of bold yellow sunshine like the glittering light of Old Master Nativity scenes.

By the winter of 1940, Bell had struggled with greater challenges than the destruction of her studio. Three years before, she had failed to dissuade her elder son, Julian, from travelling to Spain to support Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He died after only a month in the country, killed by a bomb attack on the ambulance he was driving. He was 29. His mother never recovered.

She did, however, continue to work. A number of pictures in the new exhibition, beginning with a spare still life, Apples and Vinegar Bottle, painted in the autumn of 1937, postdate Julian’s death. In this instance, Bell rendered the rounded forms of the apples and quinces without her customary sensuousness: the ‘Italian’ colours of terracotta and harsh yellow convey little of the warmth of the sun and even the paint’s thick impasto lacks any tactile quality. As so often in Bell’s still-life painting, Cézanne’s shadow hovers. This bold image is nevertheless without the lusciousness of so much of her work.

One over the eight

IN about 1920, Bell and Grant collaborated on an eight-panel mural commission from John Maynard Keynes for his rooms at King’s College, Cambridge. The current exhibition reunites all eight Studies for The Muses of Arts and Sciences. As in much of their decorative work, details are sublimated to the overall design and what each figure represents is not always clear. Instead, the viewer is impressed by a statuesque quality to the figures, as well as the richness of their colouring.

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