‘Such Friends’:  Vanessa Bell’s Six Rooms of Her Own

Back in 2002, I went to see the fabulous Picasso Portraits exhibit at the Tate Modern. While eating the brownie with ice cream and fudge sauce in the café, I filled out the museum’s feedback card, which asked,

‘What other events would you like to see at the Tate?’

Always seizing the opportunity for shameless self-promotion, I wrote something to the effect:

‘Why don’t you have me give a talk about my early 20th century writers and artists?’

and

‘Why don’t you have an exhibit of Vanessa Bell’s fabulous paintings which are mostly locked away in a Tate Liverpool basement?!’

Still waiting for answer to the first, but the Dulwich Picture Gallery has answered the second. The third question is now, why did it take so long?!

My research into writers’ salons exposed me to creative people I had not been familiar with before, and one of my favorites is Virginia Woolf’s painter-sister, Vanessa Bell. Partly because of the excellent biography by Frances Spalding—Vanessa Bell:  Portrait of the Bloomsbury Artist—who discovered her while researching the art critic and Vanessa’s one-time lover, Roger Fry.

So finding my way from Birmingham to Dulwich to see this exhibit has been high on my to-do list this year. As part of our new-found freedom of semi-retirement, My Husband Tony and I set aside last Tuesday for a London jaunt. Road trip!

First, we had to figure out how to get to Dulwich. Not as difficult as we thought. Train to Euston, Victoria Line to Victoria station, train to West Dulwich, lovely well-marked walk from the station thanks to the glorious weather.

How posh! The Dulwich Gallery is one of the few museums which was actually built as an art gallery, to house a private collection back in the early 19th century. It’s not terribly big, but most rooms are fantastically well lit with the skylights built in.

My timed ticket to the exhibit was for 2:15, but we got there early to have lunch in the crowded but excellent café. The woman in the box office said that the ticket timings were ‘very strict.’ Tony planned to have a look at the museum and then head off to explore nearby Dulwich.

The building itself is well worth a look, but we also spent some time in the related free exhibit, Legacy: Photographs by Vanessa Bell and Patti Smith. Singer/artist/photographer Patti Smith, 71—who, I confess, I remember most from Gilda Radner’s impersonation of her on Saturday Night Live—is a big Virginia Woolf fan, and has recorded a video at Vanessa’s Sussex home, Charleston Farmhouse. [Also a must see. Trust me. Go.]

This exhibit juxtaposed Smith’s photos over quite a few years with Bell’s photo albums of her life—a very interesting idea. Smith’s were artistically small, mostly black and white Polaroids, and a bit dark. Unfortunately, the room itself was a bit dark, and we found ourselves squinting quite a bit.

I sent Tony off—What did you think of Dulwich, honey?

‘Beautiful. I want to live there’—

with a reminder to meet up at the Tate Modern so we could take in the exhibit of Sir Elton John’s photography collection, which includes quite a few by Man Ray, from my Paris group. A doubly deductible trip.

This gave me plenty of time to explore the six rooms at Dulwich devoted to Vanessa’s work. All on her own.

Vanessa bell dulwich poster

Poster for Vanessa Bell exhibit at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

The first room, ‘Among Friends’ [missed a trick there, didn’t they?!], showcases her portraits of those in and around the Bloomsbury Group, including her own self-portrait which is the poster for the exhibit. The room has the same attraction as London’s wonderful National Portrait Gallery—all eyes are looking at you.

Here is Vanessa’s take on her friend and lover of her husband Clive Bell, Mary Hutchinson:

bells por of mary hutchinson

Mrs. St. John Hutchinson (1915)

In the ‘Design and Experimentation’ room are some of Vanessa’s early attempts at abstraction, influenced by the Post-Impressionists Fry was championing around the same time. I got the feeling Vanessa wasn’t as comfortable with abstract painting as she was with recreating the feeling of the real world and people around her—her sister, her children, her lovers, her flowers.

This room also includes fantastic examples from the Omega Workshops which Fry and Vanessa directed from 1913 to 1919. As the exhibit’s wall explanation states, the Workshops represented the pre-World War II hopes that were ‘dashed’ on the battlefields of Europe.

Screen by bell and grant

Tents and Figures (1913), painted folding screen

The ‘Still Life’ room has one of my favorites, Iceland Poppies.

iceland poppies

Iceland Poppies (c. 1908-09)

Doesn’t it look like the pattern for a Norwegian ski sweater? [To those in charge of the gift shop—you can have that idea for free. You’re welcome.]

‘At Home’ demonstrates Vanessa at her best, photographing and painting her family in their natural environments.

Angelica reading

Interior with Artist’s Daughter (1935)

Although some of the playful photos of her two sons would probably get her arrested today.

The fifth room, ‘Landscape,’ shows an interesting juxtaposition of her first painting of the pond at Charleston, done in the fall of 1916, when she had first moved there,

pond at charleston 1916

The Pond at Charleston, East Sussex (1916)

and a more chaotic version of the same scene three years later when the communal life had developed its own complications.

view-of-the-pond-at-charleston-1919

Charleston Pond (1919)

The finale, the sixth room, ‘Pictures of Women,’ includes one of my other favorites, A Conversation, which I’ve always thought would make a nice cover for ‘Such Friends.’ Girls night!

A conversation

A Conversation (1913-1916)

And doesn’t this 1913 portrait look like Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in Star Wars?!

The model 1913

The Model (1913)

In addition to the paintings, one of the other highlights of this room is a letter Vanessa wrote to her daughter-in-law, Anne Olivier Bell, on the birth of her baby girl,

‘How clever of you to produce a daughter…’

After walking back and forth through the six rooms a few times, I headed back to Dulwich train station, back to Victoria, on to Blackfriars, to walk over the bridge to Tate Modern.

Along streets and through Tube stations that Vanessa, her sister and their ‘Such Friends’ would have used over 100 years ago. And probably, some days, the weather was just as good as well.

The exhibit, Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until June 4, 2017, and I would have no problem making the journey again if you would like to have your own personal tour guide. And my offer to give a talk is still open…

To walk with me and the ‘Such Friends’ through Bloomsbury, download the Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group audio walking tour from VoiceMap.

In the UK, on Monday, 27th July, 2015, Life in Squares premieres on BBC Two…

…focusing on the life and loves of the Bloomsbury group.

We’d love to know what you think of it. We’ll be watching—with the cats, William Butler Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory, both 12 years old—and tweeting our highly valued opinions @SuchFriends.

Parts of the three-part series were filmed at the gorgeous Charleston, the east Sussex home of Vanessa Bell, and parts in the Bloomsbury section of London, where many of them spent their early years together.

This month we’ll be posting about what the Bloomsbury group was doing during the important years of 1907-1915. And watch this space for information about upcoming walking tours of Gordon and Fitzroy squares you can enjoy with me—even if you’re not in London!

Post your comments about the BBC show here. We’d love to know what you think.

The cast of Life in Squares. Can you figure out who is who?

The cast of Life in Squares. Can you figure out who is who?

Almost 100 years ago…

This month, instead of looking back 100 years, I want to visit 1916.

Recently I attended a writing workshop, conducted by the terrific Fiona Joseph, connected to the Library of Birmingham’s exhibition, Voices of War:  Birmingham People 1914-1919 [http://www.libraryofbirmingham.com/event/Events/voicesofwar]. The display will be up until the end of the year, and I highly recommend paying a visit.

Our assignment was to write a piece based on something we saw in the exhibit. I chose a quote from a conscientious objector’s letter, and connected it to the members of the Bloomsbury group.

[PS:  The first shot in the trailer for the film Carrington shows Jonathan Pryce as Lytton Strachey in the scene described below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h9MXDP2B4DU]

1916

By Kathleen Dixon Donnelly

March 1916:  London

Essayist and pacifist Lytton Strachey, soon to turn 36, is called before the Hampstead Tribunal to apply for status as a conscientious objector. He brings a cushion for his tush, explaining to the military men sitting in judgment on him,

‘I am a martyr to the piles…’

When they ask him, ‘If you were to find a German soldier raping your sister, what would you do?,’ Lytton answers,

‘I would try to interpose my own body between them.’

He then gives an impassioned explanation of his stand against the current war, reminding them,

I am the society you’re fighting for.’

October 1916:  East Sussex

Painter Vanessa Bell, 37, is desperate. She is trying to find any way to keep her lover—Lytton’s cousin and former lover—painter Duncan Grant, just turned 31, out of the war.

The only way for a single man to avoid conscription is to work in service to his country. As a last resort, Vanessa finds a local farm, Charleston, which she can rent and live in with her sons. Duncan and their other painter/writer/intellectual/homosexual friends can then ‘work’ the farm.

 

Oh, and her husband, art critic Clive Bell, 34. He can help, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

February 1916:  Birmingham

‘Never mind if you feel a prig or if you look a fool before the rest of the world. Those living in 2016 will be the best judges of whether you did right or wrong at this time.’

–Gerald Lloyd, 30, conscientious objector

And we will…

Birmingham Remembering 1914-18

Birmingham Remembering 1914-18

‘Such Friends’: Britain before the War— The Irish Literary Renaissance and the Bloomsbury Group

While WB Yeats’ circle were busy organizing the Abbey theatre in Dublin, Virginia Woolf and her friends and family were reinventing art and literature in the townhouses of Bloomsbury and the country cottages of Sussex. Until The Great War intervened, the British sat in drawing rooms, talking over whisky, buns and cocoa, late into the night.

I will be giving a presentation about Britain 100 years ago, before the war, next Monday, 25th November, from 1 to 2 pm, at The Birmingham [UK]  & Midland Institute, Margaret Street, City Centre, http://bmi.org.uk/.

The BMI has agreed to waive the £2 non-member fee to anyone who uses the password ‘Such Friends’ when they arrive. So, if you’re in the area, come along and be sure to say hi. Maybe afterwards we’ll all have our own salon at a nearby pub…

‘Such Friends’ events in the UK and on the Atlantic Ocean

‘Such Friends’ has some upcoming events you are all welcome to find out about and join us.

Here in Birmingham, UK, on Wednesday, 6th February, I will be presenting ‘W B Yeats and the Founding of the Abbey Theatre’ to the Birmingham Irish Heritage Society, at The Irish Club, in the Digbeth part of town. It’s 7 pm for a 7:15 start, and free to anyone interested. We’ll have some books, pictures and reading lists, and a few clips from the National Library of Ireland’s excellent DVD about Yeats and the theatre. If you’re interested in coming, e-mail me at kaydee@gypsyteacher.com for details.

The weekend after, 9th and 10th February, London’s Southbank center is putting on ‘Paris 1910-1930’ as part of their ‘The Rest Is Noise’ series. I’ve got my weekend pass! If anyone cares to join me, the schedule and ticket information are at http://ticketing.southbankcentre.co.uk/sites/default/files/documents/paris_full_weekend_listings_1.pdf.

Also in London, the play, Fiesta, based on Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, is at the Trafalgar Studio. Let me know if you’re game…

The Yeats presentation is a warm up for the three-lecture series I will be doing this May on board the second leg of the Semester at Sea’s Enrichment Voyage through northern Europe. In addition to Yeats, we will also explore ‘Britain Before the War—the Irish Literary Renaissance and the Bloomsbury Group,’ and ‘Happy Bloomsday! James Joyce in Dublin and Paris.’

Semester at Sea [www.semesteratsea.org] is one of my favourite ways to teach—on board the beautiful MV Explorer, sailing from LeHavre, to Antwerp, to Amsterdam, to Edinburgh, to Belfast, to Dublin to Dover. If you or someone you know is interested in joining us, check out the details at http://enrichmentvoyages.org.

As discussed in the last blog posting [see post below and the article to the right], 2013 is the centenary of the Armory Show, a seminal event which links all four of my groups of writers and artists. I have been posting what was happening 100 years ago on my ‘Such Friends’ Facebook page and @SuchFriends.

And in May the new film of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby will appear. Let’s hope it’s a great year for all of our ‘Such Friends’!