Pre-Raphaelite Sisters @ the National Portrait Gallery

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was an art movement set up initially by three idealistic young art students (John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt) in 1848 and lasted in its first form until 1853.

However, the initial founders were joined by followers, including the young disciples William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, who evolved a style of medievalising, idealising and spiritualising art which endured till the end of the nineteenth century. In the latters’ hands many of the PRB values evolved into the Arts and Crafts Movement which went on to influence craftspeople across the country and abroad.

Possibly the most memorable style associated with the original Pre-Raphaelites is the depiction of long-gowned, long-necked beautiful women with cupid lips and frizzy hair, brought to perfection in the later paintings of one of the founders and central figures, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877) The model is Jane Burden, daughter of a stableman, who married William Morris, became the iconic beauty of the movement, and for whom Rossetti developed an unhealthy obsession during the 1870s

The Pre-Raphaelite World

Reading about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood often reminds me of the the Bloomsbury Group, the group of writers, artists, critics, historians and economists which loosely associated before, during and after the Great War. The two groupings were:

  • a complex matrices of artists, writers, critics, friends and extended families, and wives and lovers, who all bring with them the complicated stories of their intertwined adulteries and affairs
  • many of the wives or children or grandchildren or greatgrandchildren capitalised on their connection to write biographies or memoirs, which helped to add to the ‘legend’ of the group as a whole

Both are characterised by the very pukka English trait of everyone in the group thinking that everyone else – their friends and partners and lovers – was a genius.

Of course this was partly because they all suffered from attacks by the brutal English critics and, quite naturally, sprang to the defence of the paintings / designs / poems / novels or whatever else, produced by their close friends, or bothers, or sisters, or lovers.

The result is that entering the PRB world, like entering the Bloomsbury world, is to quickly become aware of the legends and well-told stories surrounding each of them, of the way the commented on and supported each other’s work, and of a small industry of secondary and tertiary artworks and criticism and writing devoted to them, with a number of descendants working alongside devoted scholars, to pour out a never-ending stream of PRB-related material.

When you go into the shop (which you have to walk through on the way out, just as you have to walk through the shop on the way out of V&A or British Museum exhibitions) you realise that, in any case, this or that new book about the PRBs – in fact all scholarly or biographical writing about the PRBs – forms only a small subset of the wider merchandising surrounding the movement. Alongside the many biographies and memoirs are the posters and prints, reproductions, cards and label pins, fridge magnets, tote bags, scarves, pillowslips and duvet covers, and much more, much more, extending out to the huge range of William Morris-inspired designs you can buy at Liberty’s for wallpapers and carpets and tapestries and so on.

And that’s before you get to the talismanic geographical locations you can visit connected with the group, such as William Morris’s house in Hammersmith, the William Morris museum in Walthamstow, the Red House (now a National Trust property) in Bexleyheath, the remnants of the Morris and Co fabric factory at Merton Abbey Mills, the restaurant at the Victoria & Albert Museum decorated by Arts & Crafts designers, and so on.

So to engage with one or other of the Pre-Raphaelites is not just to go and see a bunch of paintings, it is to enter a large and complex and multifaceted imaginative world. I think this is part of what draws the PRB devotees: the fact that the PRB world is so large, so complex, there were so many of them, who produced so many works, that once you’re in, you can forget all about the actual world we live in and never come out again.

Georgiana Burne -Jones, long-suffering wife of adulterous Edward Burne-Jones, with her children Philip and Margaret in the background, painted by Edward Burne-Jones (1883)

The Pre-Raphaelite Women

As you might expect, many of the women connected to the Pre-Raphaelites – their wives and lovers and models and muses – have been extensively written about, and even had films made about them (for example, a quick search on Amazon shows that the first woman in this exhibition, the model Effie Gray, has had two books written about her, plus a 2015 movie based on her life).

But, rather surprisingly, this big show at the National Portrait Gallery appears to be the first exhibition ever devoted to putting the female point of view of all the women connected with the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, as a whole, as a group.

Specifically, the exhibition showcases the lives and works of twelve Pre-Raphaelite woman, bringing out the extent to which many of them were not passive models or wives-in-the-background, but were studio managers, businesswomen, promoters, mothers, sisters, lovers and muses, as well as – and this is the key revelation of the exhibition – often being notable artists in their own right.

Having pondered how to convey this information, I’ve fallen back on the actual layout of the exhibition as being the most objective, least subjective way of presenting it. The main NPG exhibition space is divided into 12 rooms or parts of rooms, each devoted to one of the twelve women they are showcasing. These are thumbnail portraits of the women’s biographies and achievements:

1. Effie Gray Millais (1828-97) Model, wife and businesswoman

Euphemia (‘Effie’) Gray married the art critic John Ruskin in 1848. She was very beautiful and John Everett Millais used her as the model for the woman in The Order of Release painted during the movement’s first period, in 1852. This hangs as the centrepiece of the first room and we are drawn to the unusual realism of Effie’s face.

The Order of Release 1746 (1852-3) by John Everett Millais

Millais went on a trip to Scotland with the Ruskins, during which Effie’s profound unhappiness became clear. The exhibition includes sketches made of the couple by other guests on the holiday. While Ruskin was totally absorbed in writing up the notes to his masterpiece about architecture. The Stones of Venice, Millais and Effie fell in love. In 1854, supported by her family, she brought a case to annul her marriage, and the following year married Millais. She became his business partner, helping with research, production and marketing of his artworks, researching locations, sourcing costumes, cultivating clients etc. She became Lady Ruskin in 1885 when her husband was made a baronet and there is a painting of her looking very haughty indeed.

2. Christina Rossetti (1830-94) Poet

Christina was sister to the leading Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and another brother, the critic Michael Rossetti. They were all brought up in an intensely religious atmosphere which is conveyed, here, by the painting of the Annunciation which Dante made in 1850. In 1858 she started working in a home for girls thought to be sexually at risk, an experience which (apparently) inspired her most famous poem, Goblin Market, with its ripe sublimated sexual imagery.

Christina went on to publish three volumes of adult poetry, verse for children and devotional works, was recognised and admired in her time. Fans who gave her good reviews and promoted her works included Tennyson and Browning. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices…’ – Here is an example where that is simply not true.)

Beside portraits of her by others, the exhibition includes some of her own drawings and illustrations, her notebook containing a sonnet on Elizabeth Siddal – In an Artist’s Studio – plus a funny cartoon by her brother of Christina having one of her famous ‘rages’, in the cartoon she is smashing up a Victorian living room with an axe.

There appear to be at least six biographies of Christina, plus umpteen editions of her verse and critical studies

3. Annie Miller (1835-1925) Model and muse

The daughter of a soldier, Annie grew up in poverty in the backstreets of Chelsea, close to the studio of William Holman Hunt, one of the three founders of the RB movement and, arguably, the most conventionally Christian. He was introduced to her and used her as a model for the woman in his astonishing painting, The Awakening Conscience.

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853)

Hunt paid for her to be taught to read and write and good manners and deportment, with a view to marrying her. But then he went off to Palestine for two years (1854-6) to paint meticulously realistic Biblical paintings in the actual scenery of the Holy Land, and while he was away Annie also modelled for Millais, Rossetti, Arthur Hughes and others. On his return Hunt was disillusioned by her character which had become, he thought, lazy and addicted to luxury. He broke off the engagement and offered to send her overseas, but she preferred to stay in London and pursue a career in modelling.

By the early 1860s she had found herself an eligible husband, Thomas Thompson, a cousin of Lord Ranelagh, who she married. They moved to Richmond, had children, and in later life Annie was at pains to play down her association with disreputable bohemian artists.

There appear to be no books specifically about Annie.

4. Elizabeth Siddal (1829-62) Model, artist and poet

The working class daughter of a cutler whose shop was in Southwark, Lizzie Siddal was plucked from the street to model for another Victorian painter, before gravitating into the circle of the PRBs and especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti to whom she became a passionate muse. Her most famous commission was as Ophelia in John Everett Millais’s awesome painting of her floating in full dress amid flowers.

But Lizzie was also an artist. She was the only woman exhibitor in an 1857 PRB exhibition which was held in America, the producer of a series of watercolours taking Tennyson and medieval legends as her subject. She also wrote poetry and the exhibition includes a manuscript of her poem, At Last.

After a long and stormy courtship Siddal finally married Rossetti in 1860, but the next year she had a stillborn son, and was lunged into such a deep depression that she committed suicide by poison. Distraught, Rossetti placed the manuscript of his poems in her coffin. A year later he was reluctantly persuaded to re-excavate the coffin, open it, and retrieve the poems, a taboo actions which oppressed him for the rest of his life.

5. Fanny Cornforth (1835-1909) Model and lover

Born plain Sarah Cox into a blacksmiths family in Sussex Fanny took her name from her sister who died in infancy. She encountered Rossetti, Ford Maddox Brown and Millais in the Surrey Pleasure Gardens in London and quickly began posing as a model for various paintings.

In 1860 when Rossetti married Siddal, Fanny married Timothy Cornforth, but it appears to have been a holding operation because, when Lizzie killed herself, Fanny moved in with the distraught Rossetti.

For over a decade she sat for many of Rossetti’s mature paintings of the classic pre-Raphaelite look – willowy dresses, long neck, strong jawline, cupid lips, billowing tressed hair, such as one included in the exhibition, The Blue Bower.

The Blue Bower by Dante Gabriel Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1865) The model is Fanny Cornforth, famed not only for her strong pre-Raphaelite jawline, but her sumptuous, tressed, blonde hair

Half-time thoughts

The obvious point about the exhibition so far is that, with the outstanding exception of Christina Rossetti, a notable poet in her own right, and maybe Effie Millais for her efforts as a businesswoman on her husband’s behalf, the women covered so far

  1. mostly do conform to the limited stereotype of model and ‘muse’
  2. are extremely well-known, having been on the receiving end of one or more biographies and even films, and featured in at least two BBC TV dramatisations of the lives of the PRBs

So that you begin to wonder a bit in what way this exhibition is overturning any preconceptions.

It’s in the second half that the show – or its polemical purpose – lifts off, with a raft of women who were clearly notable artists in their own right, and/or had much more to them than

6. Joanna Boyce Wells (1831-61) Artist

Joanna was encouraged to paint by her businessman father, artist brother and sister. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices…’ here is another example where that is simply not true.)

Her father paid for her to study art and her first exhibited piece was shown at the Royal Academy in 1855.

Elgiva by Joanna Boyce Wells (1855)

There are half a dozen other paintings and drawing by Joanna in her section, including The Boys Crusade and Head of a Mulatto Woman. Some of them are marvellous, some of them a bit more run of the mill. Difficult to get worked up about this head of an angle. It’s the kind of rather second-rate image you get on umpteen Christmas cards.

Thou Bird of God by Joanna Boyce Wells (1861)

Joanna married Henry Wells during a visit to Italy in 1857-8, and set up a joint a artistic partnership when they returned to England, Lizzie Siddal being quoted approvingly commenting that Joanna was very much the head of the firm’. It was a tragedy when she died aged just 30 from complications of childbirth.

Up till now the exhibition had featured little more than paintings and drawings. Here for the first time was an object, the exact dress which Joanna wore for a portrait of her done by her husband, Henry. This was a fascinating object in itself, with asymmetrical patterns and the jet black Victorian exterior fitted inside with bright scarlet trim.

The presence of objects in the second half of the exhibition made it feel much more interested and rounded – with a dress, a pair of shoes, a handbag, medallions and so on giving a much fuller sense of the times, and of the range of artistic channels which were available.

7. Fanny Eaton (1835-1924) Model

Possibly the most striking revelation of the whole exhibition was the life of Fanny Eaton. She was black, born in Jamaica, came to England with her mother in the 1850s and married working class carter and cabman James Eaton.

By 1859 she had been discovered as a model and sat for Rebecca and Simeon Solomon and Albert Moore. She had a thin face and frizzy hair and one of the best things about this exhibition is the way it’s pulled together half a dozen paintings by different artists which use her as a model, along with her biography and a simply stunning pencil drawing of her by Simeon Solomon.

Fanny Eaton by Joanna Boyce Wells (1861)

8. Georgiana Burne-Jones (1840-1920) Wife and model

Georgiana is one of the core figures of the PRB myth. She was one of five MacDonald sisters who all went on to achieve fame and eminence, one of her sister’s sons, for example, going on to become the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

Her main role in the mythology is a) long-suffering wife who b) suppressed her own talent in devotion to her husband. At the age of fifteen she was engaged to Edward Burne-Jones, who gave her craft and engraving lessons, and then was apprenticed to Ford Madox Brown.

She married Burne-Jones and moved into the core of the movement, getting to know Jane Morris and Lizzie Siddel, between them they discussed plans to publish a volume of illustrated fairy tales.

But the birth of her daughter Margaret put a temporary end to her own artistic aspirations. She was then dismayed by her husband’s very public infatuation with the artist Maria Zambaco. While he painted ever more torrid and sensual pictures featuring Maria as model, Georgiana found herself sidelined into the fate of motherhood, managing her husband’s studios and business, and Being There to comfort him when he returned from a series of infatuations and affairs.

A classic example of the wife as Mother and Martyr.

9. Maria Zambaco (1843-1914) Model, muse and sculptor

Maria Cassavetti was born to a wealthy Anglo-Greek businessman based in London, with patron connections with the PRBs. In 1861 she married a Paris-based doctor but the marriage failed and she returned to London with their children. Here she began modelling for Burne-Jones, an activity which quickly developed into ‘an intense love affair’.

Burne-Jones described her as ‘primeval’ and the siting of Maria’s section right next to Georgiana’s beings out Georgiana’s dowdy, proper Victorian demeanour and helps you understand why the uninhibited Greek beauty must have swept Burne-Jones into a new realm.

Georgiana Burne-Jones, née MacDonald (c.1882) photographed by Frederick Hollyer

Now compare and contrast the naked body of Maria, modelling for B-J’s astonishing painting The Tree of Forgiveness.

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones (1882)

This is one of three massive paintings which fill the end wall of the exhibition, the other two being Burne-Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin, which also features Maria as model, and Proserpine by Rossetti. If you love PRB painting this is one wall with its trio of massive paintings are worth kneeling and praying to. They make you realise that at their peak, the works of Millais, Burne-Jones and Rossetti were of an other-worldly brillance in the sense that they are consummate exampes of the art of painting, but also that they successfully create an Otherworld of the imagination, vastly more rich and sumptuous and perfect and wonderful than the actual fallen world, in which Burne-Jones looked like a kindlier version of Rasputin and his wife looks like a tired childminder.

The world they all aimed to create utterly transcended this one to take us into a world of perfect bodies, perfect colours and shades, and uplifting stories of noble figures from the Bible, the Middle Ages of Greek legend.

Anyway, after the affair with Burne-Jones ended, Maria became a sculptor, studying with Alphonse Legros in London and Rodin in Paris. She produced figurines (none of which, alas, are in the exhibition) and also became an expert at portrait medallions and there are four spirited examples of portraits set in circular medallions. Apparently, most of them have been lost, these four survive because Maria presented them to the British Museum soon after they were exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy? I thought the nineteenth century was the age of the patriarchy when all women were forbidden from practising art or writing… apparently not.

10. Jane Morris (1839-1914) Model, muse and craftsperson

Jane Burden grew up in poverty and was destined for domestic service until she met the young Pre-Raphaelites who were undertaking a commission to paint a mural at the Oxford Union. Rossetti painted her as a tall elegant noble Queen Guinevere and Morris married her in 1859. She became his partner in what became Morris and Co., managing the embroidery commissions, and a close friend of the Burne-Jones family, whose children called her Auntie Janey. Henry James called her a ‘grand synthesis of all the Pre-Raphaelite paintings ever made’ and photographs of her as a young woman confirm that she had the super-strong features, the strong jaw, cupid lips and tressed hair beloved by the male painters.

Jane Morris at Tudor House (1865) photographed by John Robert Parsons

In 1868 she resumed modelling for Rossetti and they began an affair which lasted until his nervous breakdown in 1876, and inspired a series of his major mature works like Proserpine, above.

Jane was a renowned needlewoman, who also experimented with bookbinding and calligraphy and the exhibition features an evening bag sweetly designed and stitched by her.

11. Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) Model and artist

Born, like Maria Zambaco, into the Anglo-Green community in London, Marie’s sister was painted by James Whistler and Marie herself was then asked to pose for the note Victorian woman photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.  The famous Victorian woman photographer. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices and preventing them expressing themselves…’ here is an example of that simply not being true.)

Spartali decided to become a painter and studied with Ford Madox Brown, who became a lifelong mentor and her first paintings were exhibited in 1867. (So she’s supported by her male father, by her male mentor, given an exhibition by a male gallery owner, and taken up by a male dealer.)

She married an American and went with him to Italy and Greece on business, painting all the while, for her male husband supported her career. She developed a particular style, ‘notable for colour harmony and evocative atmosphere’, depicting late medieval scenes from Chaucer, Dante or Petrarch.

The First meeting of Petrarch and Laura by Marie Spartali Stillman (1889) Note: this work has never been public displayed before so this is a rare opportunity to see it in the flesh

If this painting is anything to go by, her paintings are detailed, colourful and take colourful historical subjects. But they feel weak and underpowered. All the characters are limp-wristed and so are their poses, and the colouring, which is vague and wishy-washy on outline.

Sorry to be predictable, but compare and contrast with The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones, which has a tremendous dynamism, and a pictorial excitement, by which I mean he has total command over the medium of oil paints to create a wonderfully dynamic and involving image.

Back in the Jane Burden section there’d been a painting of Kelmscott Manor, the Oxfordshire home of William Morris, painted by Marie and which, it seemed to me, suited her style more than human compositions – a landscape as if on a rather misty morning, the house and garden a little foggy and unclear, making it all the more poignant and expressive.

Kelmscott Manor by Marie Spartali Stillman

Apparently her landscapes like this sold well, particularly in America, where you can imagine them providing exactly the kind of idealised view of a picture postcard Cotswold England which rich American collectors warmed to.

Objects: The exhibition includes a pair of evening shoes designed and stitched by Spartali, who was an accomplished seamstress.

12. Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919) Artist

Evelyn was born into an aristocratic family, the great-grand-daughter of the Earl of Leicester, her uncle was the Pre-Raphaelite artist J.R. Spencer Stanhope. She was a prize-winning student at the Slade School of Art. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices and preventing them expressing themselves…’ here is another example of that simply not being true.)

She exhibited alongside Marie Spartali and others at the Grosvenor Gallery (hang on, I thought the Victorian patriarchy prevented women from expressing themselves, becoming artists or selling their work) before in 1887 marrying the noted ceramicist William de Morgan. Together they built a close professional and personal relationship, her art sales subsidising his pottery production.

She came a generation after the first PRBs and her style shows a kind of off-shoot of the style. There are several large paintings by her here and their obvious quality is a kind of cartoon simplification of the PRB style.

Night and Sleep by Evelyn De Morgan (1878)

This huge painting, Night and Sleep, is done with consummate skill, the figures, the faces and the drapery all extremely good. And yet, overall, the composition lacks a certain… vigour? Life? I can’t quite put it into words, but – placed amid so many other masterpieces – it didn’t quite do it for me.

Conclusion

1. The art

None of the women artists shown here are as good as the best of the male artists.

Maria Zambaco, Marie Spartali, Evelyn de Morgan and Maria Boyce Wells are often good, sometimes very good – but nothing they made matches the tip-top best of Rossetti, Burne-Jones or Millais. We could argue about this for a long time, but for me, walking from the pallid rather lifeless pictures of de Morgan back to the big works by Rossetti and Burne-Jones was to move from the alright, quite nice, so-so, to supersonic masterpieces.

The exhibition allows you to size up de Morgan’s painting of a dryad:

The Dryad by Evelyn de Morgan (1885)

And then stroll 20 yards back through the gallery to Burne-Jone’s Tree of Forgiveness, above, in order ot make a direct comparison of their treatments of a nearly identical subject.

It was obviously her artistic choice to treat the subject like this, but de Morgan’s painting seems to me thin and cartoony. Good, but… empty and undemanding. Almost naive art. Whereas the Burne-Jones painting has tremendous, muscular energy which lifts you up into the action, like a movie, like a good book.

BUT – all that said – the exhibition DOES work in showing us that these women were not just ciphers and sidekicks. Many of them really were good and notable artists in their own rights and, as new overviews and histories are written, hopefully their achievements will receive a more coverage and understanding.

AND it brings together into one place works that have either never been seen before like The First meeting of Petrarch and Laura by Marie Spartali Stillman or have not been seen in public for 25 years like Thou Bird of God by Wells, and the cumulative effect – especially in the more artist-focused second part of the exhibition – is to create a kind of communal critical mass where you realise that there were a lot of them, they were very talented, and they did have a lot to say.

2. The lives

In a different direction, the exhibition fleshes out the lives and achievements of the women it is easy to dismiss or overlook as ‘simply’ wives or models. Thus, even though they were only, in the end, quite small sections about each of them, I nonetheless got a much better feel for the lives, hopes, aspirations, achievements and frustrations of figures who had often been only names to me (not being a PRB or Arts & Craft completist) such as:

  • Annie Miller and Fanny Cornforth
  • Jane Burden and Lizzie Siddel
  • and a sad feel for the quiet mournful figure of Giorgiana MacDonald.

And the complete revelation of the character and importance of the black model, Fanny Eaton, whose life story is presented here for the first time.

The exhibition curator Dr Jan Marsh, writes:

When people think of Pre-Raphaelitism they think of beautiful women with lustrous hair and loose gowns gazing soulfully from the picture frame or in dramatic scenes painted in glowing colours. Far from passive mannequins, as members of an immensely creative social circle, these women actively helped form the Pre-Raphaelite movement as we know it. It is time to acknowledge their agency and explore their contributions.

I suspect people will continue for a long time to associate Pre-Raphaelitism with ‘beautiful women with lustrous hair and loose gowns gazing soulfully from the picture frame or in dramatic scenes painted in glowing colours’ – simply because that’s what the best of their paintings depict and are famous for depicting and nothing is going to change that any time soon.

If you’re already a fan of the PRB and the later Arts & Crafts movement this will already be a must-see exhibition. But even if you’re not, it turns into quite an eye-opening revelation as to the roles and work and achievements of many of the women who have only hovered on the periphery of the stories up till now. I don’t think it will turn the average person’s view of the movement upside down… but this exhibition marks a distinct shift of the dial.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Vanessa Bell @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

‘You have a genius in your life as well as in your art’
(Art critic Roger Fry to his sometime lover, artist Vanessa Bell)

More than anything I can write, this YouTube montage of Vanessa Bell’s paintings set to music by Chopin gives a good overview of her work.

Biography

Vanessa Stephen (1879-1961) was born into an upper-middle-class and well-connected Victorian family. She was the eldest daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Duckworth, Julia being a niece of the pioneering Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, and cousin of the noted temperance leader, Lady Henry Somerset.

Her siblings were a younger sister, Virginia (later renowned as a great novelist under her married name of Virginia Woolf), brothers Thoby (Clifton College and Trinity, Cambridge) and Adrian (Westminster school and Trinity, Cambridge), and half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth (both educated at Eton, Gerald went on to found the publishing house named after him, and was able to help Virginia set up her publishing house, Hogarth Press).

The Stephen family lived in a smart house at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Westminster, with lots of servants where Vanessa was home educated in languages, mathematics and history. She showed an early gift for art and had drawing lessons from Ebenezer Cook, before she attended Sir Arthur Cope’s art school in 1896, and then went on to study painting at the Royal Academy in 1901 under John Singer Sargent.

After the death of her father in 1904, Vanessa sold the Hyde Park Gate house and moved to Bloomsbury, along with Virginia and the brothers. Here they began socialising with the like-minded artists, writers and intellectuals who would form the ‘Bloomsbury Group’ who, in all areas of life, art and literature, set themselves to overthrow the stifling influence of their Victorian parents.

Self–Portrait (c. 1915) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Self–Portrait (c. 1915) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Vanessa married the art critic Clive Bell in 1907 and they had two sons, Julian and Quentin. The couple had an open marriage, both taking lovers throughout their lives. Bell had affairs with art critic Roger Fry and with the notoriously bisexual painter, Duncan Grant, with whom she had a daughter, Angelica, in 1918.

Vanessa and husband Clive, their lover Duncan Grant and his boyfriend ‘Bunny’, all moved to the Sussex countryside shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, and settled at Charleston Farmhouse near Firle in East Sussex. By farming here the menfolk, all pacifists and conscientious objectors, evaded service in the Great War.

Here Vanessa and Grant painted and also worked on commissions for the Omega Workshops, an artists’ co-operative for decorative arts established by Roger Fry that operated between 1913 and 1919, and which produced interesting work in a Vorticist/Futurist style. Her first solo exhibition was at the Omega Workshops in 1916. The influence of contemporary radical experiments in Futurism and Vorticism are immediately obvious in many of these bold, colourful designs.

Design for Omega Workshops Fabric (1913) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Design for Omega Workshops Fabric (1913) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Bell lived a long life and painted right through to the 1950s, but even her most devoted fans admit that the 1910s represent her most creative and innovative period. In the 1910s, 20s and 30s she was a member of a group of friends and acquaintances who pioneered new ways of living, open marriages and a very liberal approach to sexuality. But works from the 1940s and 50s show her slowly losing the radical edge of the period either side of the Great War, her depictions of the Sussex countryside or of interiors with vases of flowers, becoming steadily more conventional.

The exhibition

This is the first ever retrospective of Bell’s work. It brings together some 100 paintings, book jackets she designed for the Hogarth Press, ceramics, fabrics, photos, diaries and letters to present a themed overview of Bell’s life and career. As always with the Dulwich Picture Gallery, it offers a beautifully laid out and informative opportunity to assess a rather neglected figure in English modern art.

Several things emerge from a slow perusal of the exhibition’s six rooms:

Blocky painting style

Bell’s earliest paintings reflect the sophisticated sheen of her teacher John Singer Sargent (note the telltale flecks of white on the vase to give the illusion of reflected light in Iceland Poppies 1908). But even then she was being exposed to the revolutionary influence of Picasso, Matisse and contemporary French painting. In fact right from the earliest portraits shown here, she seems more naturally to take a slabby, blocky approach to paintwork – instead of trying to capture the smooth contours of a fabric or a face, preferring to map out areas of solid colour, depicted with broad chunky brushstrokes. The rough, sketched-out feel, the deliberate lack of finish and the deliberate use of non-naturalistic colour are all suggestive of contemporary experiments in Europe, but are done with a distinctive English gentleness. Despite this, something of all her formal training comes out in the naturalistic outline and presence. these traits are exemplified in one of her many portraits of her novelist sister, Virginia:

Portraits of friends and family

In fact portraits of family and friends are a recurrent feature of Bell’s work and occupy one of the six rooms here.

They represent a decisive break with Victorian naturalism and Salon art, and a wholesale incorporation of the unreal colours, simplification of pattern, crude brushstrokes and awkward anti-aesthetic shapes found across the continent in the work of Gauguin, Die Brucke, the Fauves and so on.

The portraits of her sister are among the most persuasive or gripping. I think this is the best one, all the more powerful for its ‘modern’ blanking of the face, the part which should, traditionally, be the most detailed, revealing the sitter’s character etc. All that has been rejected in favour of an interest in composition and colour.

Virginia Woolf (c. 1912) by Vanessa Bell © National Portrait Gallery, London

Virginia Woolf (c. 1912) by Vanessa Bell © National Portrait Gallery, London

In the portraits, as in her other genres, the later work becomes noticably more conservative and straighforwardly figurative. Enjoyable, but in a different way.

Derivative

After a few rooms I felt I had seen a lot of these paintings before, or ones very much like them – most recently in the early-twentieth-century rooms of the excellent Courtauld Gallery, which contains works by Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck, Bonnard and other post-impressionists. (The term ‘Post-impressionism’ was in fact coined by Vanessa’s friend and sometime lover, art critic Roger Fry, as an umbrella term to cover developments in French art since Manet.)

This feeling was confirmed by many of the wall labels for individual paintings and by the (very useful) audioguide by exhibition co-curator Sarah Milroy. Both frequently pointed out the influence of the Nabis (a group name given to the French painters Vuillard, Bonnard et al), of Cézanne, of Matisse, of Picasso, on individual Bell works.

For example, it is hard not to see the largest work in the show, The Other Room (1930) as anything other than a homage to Matisse – the emphasis on design and areas of bright colour over detail, the interest in the design on fabrics (the curtains, the chair cover), the wilful indifference to anatomical realism in the human figures.

The Other Room (late 1930s) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: Photography by Matthew Hollow

The Other Room (late 1930s) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: Photography by Matthew Hollow

Landscapes

When Bell moved to the country, she took the urban continental style developed in her portraits (and the occasional, rare depiction of urban scenery) with her and applied it to numerous images of the landscape around the Sussex farmhouse. Many of these are strikingly composed in a kind of flat, blocky, post-impressionist style. They apply a continental mentality to the south of England countryside, a blockiness derived from Cézanne, along with the big slab brushwork of maybe Vlaminck or Derain.

Landscape with Haystack, Asheham (1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Landscape with Haystack, Asheham (1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Bell painted landscapes for the rest of her life and the selection here allows you to see how her style, over the decades, lost the modernist edge it once had, and reverted to a tamer figurativeness. Thirty years separate the painting above from the one below.

Flowers and vases

Bell painted flowers and vases throughout her long working life. There is a room devoted just to this subject. I found these a lot less interesting than the landscapes or portraits.

Once again, a careful examination of the chronology suggests a falling away of intensity in the later paintings. The later flower paintings lack oomph. Maybe they’re content. Happy.

Wallflowers by Vanessa Bell (c. 1950) © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images

Wallflowers by Vanessa Bell (c. 1950) © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images

A note on colour and reproduction

Despite the brightness of many of the images included in this review, the colour which perhaps came over most from these paintings was a kind of turd brown, obvious in a work like The Conversation, or the double portrait of Frederick and Jessie Etchells (1912). A congeries of dark and murky browns, emphasised by the often plain wooden frames.

Without exception all the reproductions I’ve seen online – and even the reproductions on the hand-held audioguide – come out brighter and more colourful than the actual works themselves which, in the flesh, are mostly dour and drab, with a particular deep brown the prevailing tone. As one of the commenters I quote below put its – with some notable exceptions – ‘muddy’ gives a good summary of the majority of the paintings’ visual impact. In fact, the main visual takeaway from the show has been to make me notice just how much brown there is around us in everyday life – bricks of walls and houses, reddy-brown roof tiling, brown fences and so on.

The Bloomsbury group

More than enough has been written about the loose group of artists, writers, novelists and critics, economists and philosophers who lived in and around Bloomsbury Square near the British Museum, and also had connections with Trinity College Cambridge. They shared a desire to overthrow the stuffy prudery of their Victorian parents. The philosopher G.E. Moore in his vast Principia Ethica emphasised the centrality of honest personal relationships in his definition of ‘the good’ and ‘the good life’. This represented a massive break with the strongly social basis of Victorian ideals of Duty, Honour and so on.

Thus Bell’s wholesale rejection of the Victorian naturalistic tradition in painting can be seen as part of the wider rejection of Victorian values among her wider family and friends, and her ‘open’ marriage and the complex love lives of herself and her friends constituted a breath-taking departure from the norms of her parents and the stuffy Edwardian society she worked in.

The importance of Bloomsbury as a hotbed of new ways of seeing and living is emphasised throughout the exhibition – it is unavoidable since her portraits were all unofficial depictions of her family and close friends, and so the audiocommentary and wall labels insistently namecheck members of the Group, providing details of Bell’s lovers and associates. The show features a display case showing photographs of friends and family together in the garden of the Sussex house, which convey the casual informality of this impressive group of thinkers and artists.

Bell and feminism

The Canadian curator Sarah Milroy emphasises that Vanessa was a feminist pioneer. The first wall panel claims that Bell’s

‘portraits of women offer bracing encounters with female subjects given startling new force and agency.’

With the best will in the world, I couldn’t quite see this. Some of the earliest work captures an odd, alien effect which I enjoyed, for example the worrying intensity of the female figures in –

and many of the first room of portraits are deliberately unnerving and unsettling –

and amount to a full-frontal assault on Victorian aesthetics of female beauty –

The commentary tells us that the strange and ominous Studland Beach is considered one of her masterpieces. It certainly has a kind of Expressionist alienation and Symbolist portentousness. But I don’t see it as particularly giving the women depicted in it ‘agency and force’.

Studland Beach (c.1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit © Tate, London 2016

Studland Beach (c.1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit © Tate, London 2016

And these are exceptions to the majority of works here. The more frequent portraits of Virginia, Iris, Molly and so on, although modernist in form, are supremely calm and placid in tone. Her sitters are generally ensconced in a comfy chair in a nicely furnished living room – and the presence in the surrounding rooms of so many depictions of the peaceful Sussex countryside, not to mention the umpteen paintings of tasteful vases of flowers – the overall effect is a great feeling of calm and tranquility.

And the early experimentalism in this genre, as in the others, slips away as the later paintings become more conventional.

The final wall label repeats this feminist emphasis, which is clearly important to the show’s organisers:

‘One of Bell’s greatest legacies is her reimagining of the image of womanhood, with her powerful female bodies and countenances claiming pictorial space with a kind of brute force.’

Many of the female portraits from her glory years around the Great War are strange rebellions, and just focusing on the work from that specific period does emphasise their originality in the hidebound English tradition. But even the weirdest of them feel to me static and dreamlike. ‘Brute force’ is just not a phrase I would apply to Bell’s work.

As to subverting or revolutionising women’s roles, which the commentary claims she did, I also couldn’t really see it. Bell designed fabrics and painted vases of flowers; she moved to a lovely farmhouse in the countryside where she hosted charming weekends for her artistic friends; she was the loving mother of two adorable sons (Julian, who went to private school and King’s College before becoming a poet, and Quentin, who went to private school before becoming an art historian). I genuinely don’t see how this is revolutionary or subversive.

Possibly I don’t understand the times well enough, and the ongoing weight of conformity to Victorian gender stereotypes which most of her contemporaries endured. Maybe it was precisely Bell and her friends who opened the door to this kind of lifestyle, which eventually became so widespread as to become a cliché in succeeding generations.

The Omega workshop and abstraction

The works of Bell’s which approach nearest to the dynamic abstractions of her contemporaries on the English art scene – Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg or C.R.W. Nevinson – derive from her period with the Omega workshop, set up by close friends Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, with the idea of producing fabrics and textiles based on their own designs. It opened in 1913, produced a wide range of domestic furnishings to modernist designs, before closing in 1920.

One of the six rooms is dedicated to Bell’s Omega phase, with patterns and designs for rugs, curtains and so on, for example the Design for Omega Workshops Fabric reproduced above. There are also examples of the book jacket illustrations she provided for the Hogarth Press, the small publishing house set up by Leonard and Virginia Woolf in 1917.

The biggest object in the show is the painted screen from this period, Tents and Figures – a big powerful work which conveys Bell’s interest in abstraction and bold geometric design – but with a power, you can’t help thinking, borrowed from Cezanne’s landscapes and the Fauvist use of African masks for the faces. It’s good but haven’t I seen these clashing diagonals and mask-faced figures before?

Tents and Figures (1913) by Vanessa Bell. A painted folding screen. Victoria & Albert Museum. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tents and Figures (1913) by Vanessa Bell. A painted folding screen. Victoria & Albert Museum. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

Conclusion

I found many of the the early portraits novel and fresh, some of her odder stuff (e.g. The Conversation) bracingly disconcerting, the Omega workshop designs and artefacts an interesting variation on the Modernism of her contemporaries. I found a number of the landscapes evocative, especially the earlier, more modernist ones, and some of the still lifes prettily decorative.

But, in general, the paintings which make the biggest impact are the ones most obviously derived from Continental exemplars. Bell is an interesting artist, who produced lots of good work but maybe, in the end, is an example of the way hundreds, maybe thousands of artists in the 1910s, were gripped and liberated by wholly new ways of seeing and painting created by a handful of pioneers in France and Germany (the Expressionists, the Fauves).

One of the best paintings in the show is Nude with Poppies – admirable but… isn’t it almost entirely Matisse?

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

I worried that maybe I was failing to ‘get’ Bell, so I was reassured by these comments added to the online Guardian review of the exhibition:

  • “Looks very derivative to me. Not a patch on the originals, ie. Matisse, Mondrian, Gauguin, Munch”
  • “Not in the same league as the greats of the period, though, but still… pretty pictures.”
  • “I love her early work – the abstracts and experimental portraits. The later stuff is too muddy and repetitive, and the radical edge disappears pretty quickly.”
  • “Probably nice above the mantlepiece in a suburban villa. Nowt wrong with that, I’m a great lover of domestic art. But put her in a public gallery and her work withers to almost nothing. A very second rate artist.”
  • “you really have to work hard at liking them – and that’s because they are poor; badly done, lazily composed, arrogantly confident. “

Summary

So – some arresting and some eerie portraits, a few impressive semi-abstract landscapes, lots of vases of flowers. But with the nagging sense that they are very derivative, throughout. And – to step back a bit – the enormous social, political and philosophical upheavals which were going on at exactly this time (1914-1930) and are represented in the Royal Academy’s exhibition of Russian Revolutionary art – or the impact and experience of the two cataclysmic world wars as captured in, say, the recent big exhibition of Paul Nash at Tate Britain – are completely absent.

It is interesting that the curators chose to arrange the exhibition by theme and not chronologically. Is it because a chronological presentation would highlight the way the impact of the European post-impressionists set off a storm of creativity in Bell’s work during the 1910s – but also show how that energy faded in the 1920s so that by the 1940s and 1950s she is painting capable enough works, but many so bland they wouldn’t be out of place in a local jumble sale.

On the Steps of Santa Maria Salute, Venice (1948) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: The Bloomsbury Workshop

On the Steps of Santa Maria Salute, Venice (1948) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: The Bloomsbury Workshop

As ever with the Dulwich Picture Gallery, it’s a thorough, well-presented and elegant exhibition of a neglected artist, and so a welcome opportunity to find out more, to range over Bell’s work, to try and formulate a view. Maybe I’m missing something but for me, although it contains some arresting work and some surprises and convinces me that her name should be better known and more of her work displayed in public collections – it ultimately doesn’t persuade me that Vanessa Bell was in any way a major figure.

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Unintentional comedy There are three articles about this show in the Guardian, all of which complain that Bell has too long been in the shadow of the more famous Bloomsburyites. But ironically, the subtitles of all three articles define her in precisely the terms they claim to be trying to rescue her from:

  • “Vanessa Bell to break free from Bloomsbury group in Dulwich show – The sister of Virginia Woolf and lover of Duncan Grant is long overdue recognition as pioneer of modern art, say curators”
  • “Vanessa Bell: stepping out of the shadows of the Bloomsbury set – The artist, best known for her tangled love life and being Virginia Woolf’s sister, gets her first major solo show”
  • “Design and desires: how Vanessa Bell put the bloom in Bloomsbury – She was best known as a member of the Bloomsbury group and sister of Virginia Woolf – but will the first major show of her artwork change her reputation?”

The answer to the last question is surely – No, not as long as her biggest fans, her most knowledgeable curators and her most supportive journalists, continue to define her in terms of her better-known sister, her numerous lovers and her social set – and not as an artist in her own right, which is surely how she should be presented.

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

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