Vanessa Bell’s Self-Portrait was painted in her attic studio at Charleston Farmhouse, Sussex. It shows her seated in a flamboyantly covered chair, a textile she designed for the fabric producer Allan Walton in the 1930s, on the floor behind which is a landscape painting of Bell’s. (Her sister, the novelist Virginia Woolf, was photographed in an almost identical chair some years earlier. See fig. 1.) Brushes are clenched in her left hand and another bundle of them stand up in the foreground; the pot that holds them is cropped from view by the lower edge of the picture. At the lower right-hand corner of the painting, her palette – a dinner plate – sits on a low table.
In the later phase of her life following the Second World War, Bell busied herself with family and travel abroad. She painted only to please herself, neglecting to cultivate a wider following and only exhibiting rarely. Almost none of her work was painted to be exhibited, with the exception of special projects like the large canvas executed for 60 Paintings for ’51, an exhibition that formed part of the Festival of Britain. This relative disregard for publicity lends her later work qualities of introspection, withdrawal and remoteness, which are underpinned by her consistent selection of domestic subjects from inside and around her Sussex home.
Of Bell’s late style, her biographer Frances Spalding has written, ‘Vanessa now sought a tighter and more exacting degree of finish. In her easel paintings she had begun to use smaller brushes and in her portraits she often built up the modelling of the face with minute touches of colour.’ Self-Portrait is largely in keeping with this characterisation of Bell’s technique, though there are notable passages where the paint is stylishly unresolved and where areas of broken brushwork create a decorative pattern at the surface – in the back wall behind her head, for instance, where distinct tones of grey and green interlock and shimmer. Where her smock and loose red scarf were executed with smooth uniform applications of the brush, the face was handled with boldly individualised downward strokes, achieving a dramatic quality that is heightened further by a contrast of light and shadow.
Regarding the artist’s personality, Spalding has described Bell in later life as ‘still shy, an essentially private person not always capable of rising to public occasions.’ The hooded eyes in this painting, unlit beneath the wide-brimmed straw hat, corroborate this argument. They give the figure a mood of introversion: even as Bell recorded herself looking in the mirror, she sought to conceal her staring eyes and so shield herself from the picture’s audience. Working from dark to light in the manner of the Impressionists, the well-lit face projects forward from the thinly painted shadows that represent her eye sockets.
This is not the only reading of the hooded eyes in this self-portrait, however. The Bloomsbury scholar Richard Shone has denied any suggestion of ‘self-effacement’, instead describing this concealment simply as a consequence of ‘her manner of painting, her choice of subject and colour scheme, her refusal to be drawn away from what she sees in front of her’. Shone’s knowledge of Charleston is unmatched and he astutely observes that the house’s attic studio, at the top of the house, has a sunlight which exposes the space to bright daylight. Bell’s choice of hat was straightforwardly practical as such, intended ‘to temper the distraction of light above her’.
Bell painted approximately six other self-portraits in her lifetime. Her early self-portrait (c. 1915, Yale Center for British Art) is largely unrelated to the final five self-portraits, which form a coherent group. Like this work from c. 1952, another late self-portrait (c. 1958, Charleston) (fig. 2) shows her wearing a wide-brimmed hat. (She had a number of similar straw hats and it is unclear if they are the same one.) These late images of the painter share a mood of quiet concentration and are composed without a sense of design – they show only what the artist was wearing and what surrounded her at the time. In her state of withdrawal, Bell became artless, even as her painting came to articulate (with unintended intimacy) the limits of her existence.
1961, London, Adams Gallery, Exhibition of Paintings by Vanessa Bell, Oct. 1961, cat. no. 39 1985, London, Belgrave Gallery, British Post-Impressionist and Moderns, Feb. - March 1985, cat. no. 1 2001, London, National Portrait Gallery; Leeds, Leeds City Art Gallery; Bath, Victoria Art Gallery; Canterbury, Royal Museum & Art Gallery, Mirror, Mirror: Self Portraits by Women Artists, 12 Sept. 2001 - 20 Jan. 2002; 18 April - 9 June; 22 June - 1 Aug.; and 7 Sept. - 2 Nov. 2002, unnumbered 2017, London, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Vanessa Bell, 8 Feb. - 4 June 2017, unnumbered
Sarah Milroy & Ian A.C. Dejardin, Vanessa Bell, Philip Wilson Publishers, 2017, pp. 178-9 (col. illus.) Richard Shone, The Art of Bloomsbury: Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Tate Gallery Publishing, 1999, p. 236, fig. 133 (illus.)
Please enter your details
Checking your information
Please check your email
We have sent you an email with a link to access this page.