‘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.

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In Number 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, London, summer of 1913…

…art critic Clive Bell, 32, is considering an opportunity.

His friend and fellow art critic, Roger Fry, 46, has been asked by publisher Chatto and Windus to write a book on post-impressionism, a term that Roger coined and used for two major art exhibits he has mounted in the past few years.

Fry is the obvious choice, but currently he is too busy setting up his ‘Omega Workshops’ to sell ceramics and fabrics with painters Duncan Grant, 28, and Vanessa Bell, 34, Clive’s wife. So he has recommended Clive for the job.

Clive and Roger have had their theoretical differences about art. They’d recently sustained an argument about the definition of the term ‘aesthetic’ in the Nation magazine.

But Roger is distracted by his Omega project. And by Vanessa, Clive thinks. So the book would be all his. Clive decides to call it Art.

Clive Bell, c. 1913

Clive Bell, c. 1913

This year, we’ll be telling stories about these groups of ‘such friends,’ before, during and after their times together.

If you were able to watch the BBC Two drama Life in Squares about the Bloomsbury group, let us know what you think.                                                                                                                       

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

In 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, London, in fall of 1914…

…artist Vanessa Bell, 35, is in tears. She’s admitting to her sister, Virginia Woolf, 32, that her love for gay painter Duncan Grant, 29, is hopeless. Totally hopeless.

Vanessa, Duncan, and the art critic Roger Fry, 47, have been running the Omega Workshops together for a while now. But last year, while she was carrying on an affair with Roger, she inexplicably found herself attracted to Duncan.

Roger Fry by Vanessa Bell, 1912

Roger Fry by Vanessa Bell, 1912

Vanessa feels she has learned so much about art—and herself—from her time with Roger. He is so upset he won’t even visit Gordon Square if he knows Duncan is present. Which he often is. Even her husband, art critic Clive Bell, 33, has complained that Duncan is around too much.

Vanessa has always admired Duncan as the only other full-time painter in the group. She knows about his relationships with the gay men in their circle of Bloomsbury friends. But now…she feels she wants to have his child.

Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant, 1914-15

Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant, 1914-15

This year, we’ll be telling stories about these groups of ‘such friends,’ before, during and after their times together.

Watch the final episode of the BBC Two drama Life in Squares about the Bloomsbury group, on Monday, 10th August, at 9 pm, and let us know what you think.                                              

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