Vanessa Bell at Dulwich Picture Gallery — 23 May 2017

Our journey began on a bright summer morning, crossing Salisbury plain and giving us a brief glimpse of Stonehenge on route, then on through Hampshire and leafy Surrey into picturesque Dulwich Village.

The gallery was designed by Sir John Soane to house a collection of European art (1600-1800) that had been bequeathed to Dulwich College. Opened in 1817 and visited by many famous artists of the day, including Van Gogh, Monet and Constable, it was the first gallery designed to display art for the public; its simple interior and top-lit galleries give a sense of space and light.

Vanessa Bell

Photograph of sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell playing cricketBrought up surrounded by artistic talent and overshadowed by her sister Virginia, Vanessa at an early age was encouraged to express herself though many art forms and trained at the Royal Academy Schools, one of her tutors being John Singer Sargent. His influence could be seen in an early portrait of Saxon Sydney-Turner at the Piano.

We perhaps know her work best as a leading light within the Bloomsbury Group of artists. Portraits of these friends and family showed her great skill in capturing the essence of character, with bold colourful brushstrokes, in a few cases reducing facial features to a bare minimum or non existence, but still retaining the inner strength of her sitter.

In 1913 Bell, along with Duncan Grant, became a director of Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops and contributed numerous designs for interiors, clothing, rugs and fabrics that were striking in their modernity and chromatic combinations. The designs on display would not have looked out of place today.

Widely travelled throughout Europe Vanessa became an avid collector of ceramics and textiles; these formed the backdrops and settings for most of her still life studies.

Painting of flowers in a vase: Flowers by Vanessa BellEarly examples of these had a quiet ethereal beauty about them, as in the unusual composition, Iceland Poppies 1908-9,  a cream and fine detail study. Four years later in an explosion of colour, Oranges and Lemons, vibrant yellow, green, blue and orange, had the feel and flamboyant style of Van Gogh about it, again beautifully observed. Throughout this exhibition one got the sense of a lifetime experimenting with style and colour to make it uniquely her own.

Also around this period she was producing dust jacket designs for The Hogarth Press; her sister Virginia’s publications were on display.

A keen photographer (her great-aunt was Julia Margaret Cameron ) she recorded everyday life with family and friends and many of these photo albums were on show as well as her detailed interior paintings of her home.

Painting landscape was one of Bell’s favourite pursuits, whether in Sussex or whilst travelling in France and clearly influenced by Bonnard, Picasso and Matisse whose work she knew at first hand; she adapted her own unique style using intense earth colours, formal simplification and bold geometrics, coming together in the lovely, The Pond at Charleston.

This was a diverse and well curated exhibition with many facets and giving some insight into the life of a notable 20th century artist.

Janette Sawyer

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