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2021 / Vanessa Bell: A ‘travelling portrait’ of a Bloomsbury painter

Did Virginia Woolf share a ‘room of her own’ with her painter sister? The following feature is an excerpt from Claudia Tobin’s online lecture ‘Travelling Portraits’, broadcast from Florence and London in April 2021, as part of the Oltrarno Gaze Project. Dr. Tobin’s Italy-inspired take on the shared artistic journeys of writer Virginia Woolf, painter Vanessa Bell, arts patron and photographer Ottoline Morrel and writer Vernon Lee can still be viewed on YouTube.

Where it started

The Bloomsbury group formed at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, where Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf or, as they were then named, Vanessa and Virginia Stephen, moved with their siblings in 1904, after the death of their parents. Moving to this area of London was a symbol of change, a new beginning and, as Woolf put it, “Here, everything was going to be new, everything was going to be different, everything was on trial.”

This group of friends and family made original contributions to painting, literature and economics, as well as experimenting in alternative ways of living and unconventional domestic arrangements and, although Vanessa and Virginia were at the heart of this group and lived in Bloomsbury for much of their lives, Ottoline Morrell was closely connected to the group as a patron and living nearby for much of her life and Vernon Lee visited and lived in the area for short periods. All four of these women were engaged in different ways in the project of describing the human being in all its complexity and mutability across visual and verbal forms, in ways that sought not necessarily to achieve a likeness of appearance, but to capture something of the fleeting, the evanescent inner life of an individual and the instability of the modern persona.

‘A conveyor of impressions’

Painted between 1913 and 1916, Vanessa Bell’s The Conversation now hangs in the Courtauld Gallery in London. Like many of the painters in her circle, Bell was inspired by modern French painting and she became an innovator in color and form, pushing abstraction to its limits long before many of her contemporaries and she was also co-founder of an interior design company and artists cooperative called the Omega Workshops. In this painting, Bell creates a chromatic relationship between the conversing women and the flowers or the flowerbed outside the window, which we see rendered as flat blobs of color almost like speech bubbles, sort of rising up between the women.

There’s a compelling intimacy to these three women huddled and its intent is partly conspiratorial. I think it says a lot about female conversation, friendship and intimacy. Though their backs are turned, there’s a kind of invitation for us to join them or imagine we’re joining this conversation for a little while, particularly because one of the women – the woman in profile – is sort of proffering her hand, in an emphatic gesture that we could read as an invitation. So, for the next little while, we’ll imagine the three women as Vernon Lee Virginia Woolf and Ottoline Morrell, with Bell, as the painter.

According to Virginia Woolf, this painting suggested Bell’s ability as a short story writer. Originally, the painting was titled Three Women and Woolf wrote to her sister, ‘I think you’re a most remarkable painter but I maintain you are into the bargain a satirist, a conveyor of impressions about human life, a short story writer of great wit and able to bring off a situation in a way that rouses my envy.’ She concluded wondering whether she herself could write Three Women, the earlier title of the painting in prose. Bell and Woolf often challenged each other on their respective arts and I think this gives us a sense of the mutual inspiration that the sisters, in their different art forms, offered each other. Woolf and Bell’s commitment to their respective art forms began early.

Filling in the gaps

Vanessa Bell made a series of portraits of women sitters, including of her sister, in an increasingly abstract phase from around 1910 to 1914. She made this series of portraits of women sitters in which she explored the role of abstract color and shapes. Expressing mute yet emotionally powerful subjects is important in these portraits, which reveal her practice of blanking out the faces of her subjects, as in her 1912 painting of Virginia Woolf, now in the collection at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

We see Woolf depicted in a relaxed attitude and she’s cradled by the arms of this bright orange chair; she seems to be knitting or sewing. Bell’s use of bold black outlining recalls the work of the ost-Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne who was a major influence on Bloomsbury and on Bell, but she’s not using this technique to describe Woolf’s facial features. This is compelling as it draws the eye to her face, to these blurred features and, at the same time, there’s a sort of denial of access. We can’t read her face and this is taken even further in another image of Woolf, where she seems almost an oblivious, unconcerned subject. She’s snoozing in the garden, perhaps, and her face is completely unreadable – featureless. In these works, Bell seems to capture her sister in intimate, off-guard moments. They are portraits of private moments and a far cry from the tradition of stiffly posed Victorian portraits of their childhood and yet, they allowed the subject to remain mysterious and elusive.

Bell’s work was not overtly subversive but these identity-blurring elliptical treatment of the portrait and her use of bold non-naturalistic colour and abstract design during the pre-war and interwar years implicitly reassessed gender and artistic boundaries. You might notice that the elimination of facial features invites us, as the viewers, to fill in the gaps, and this is something that Bell’s biographer Frances Spalding has observed. She points out that we were given a blank oval and an empty space through which thought, feeling, imagination can flow and she describes this as a radical solution to portraiture that suggests new ways of thinking about identity. So, Bell’s approach can be compared to Woolf’s own experiment, with the use of silence and ellipses, in the attempt to evoke the inner life of her characters in her novels and you might think particularly of To The Lighthouse and her depiction of Lily Briscoe, the painter or Mrs. Ramsay.

Source: Inside AWA magazine, Summer Edition, 2021


Author: Claudia Tobin

Dr Claudia Tobin is a writer, curator and art historian specializing in the relationship between modern literature and the visual arts. She is the author of Modernism and Still Life: Artists, Writers, Dancers (2020) and co-editor of Ways of Drawing: Artists' Perspectives and Practices (2019). Claudia has contributed to two major exhibitions exploring Virginia Woolf’s life and art, including Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision at the National Portrait Gallery (2014), and Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by her Writings (which toured from Tate St Ives, Pallant House, Fitzwilliam Museum, 2018), as well as curating numerous exhibitions on contemporary artists. She is now a Senior Research Associate at the Intellectual Forum, Jesus College Cambridge and a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies, UCL.


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