Before Post-Impressionism: Vanessa Bell’s Iceland Poppies

Canvas issue 18 Simon Martin

Iceland Poppies, c.1908-9, Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), The Charleston Trust © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, DACS 2020.

In September 1940 Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s London studios at No. 8 Fitzroy Street were destroyed by an incendiary bomb and much of Bell’s early work was destroyed. ‘Vanessa takes it very philosophically,’ Grant wrote to his mother, ‘and says she can always paint more pictures.’ 1 However, Vanessa Bell’s early work, belonging as it did to a quite different age and temperament before she was so profoundly influenced by Post-Impressionism, could never be repainted.

Consequently, Charleston’s recent acquisition of her enigmatic still-life Iceland Poppies is highly significant, not only because it is by far the most successful of her early works, but also because it is one of relatively few works from the period to have survived. It forms a milestone in the artistic and social journey that Bell made from the rigid social conventions of the Victorian age in which she grew up to the ground-breaking abstract paintings she was producing immediately before the First World War.

How then can one place this restrained still-life in the context of Bell’s trajectory towards the expressive, vivid colours and the concern for ‘significant form’ that has come to characterize her mature work? Clearly Bell greatly valued this painting, as she retained among her possessions until later in life, when she gave it to Grant as one of a number of exchanges between the two artists. That it hung in the Garden Room at Charleston alongside many of the finest works in their collection, by artists such as Sickert, Vlaminck, Matisse and Picasso, is evidence of its continuing importance to Bell during her lifetime.

Painted in 1908-9, Iceland Poppies dates from the years immediately preceding the event that Desmond MacCarthy called ‘the Art Quake of 1910’, Roger Fry’s groundbreaking exhibition ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’ at the Grafton Galleries, which exposed a startled London public to the work of European modern artists such as Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Dérain, Matisse, Seurat and Picasso. Although Vanessa Bell had admired the French Impressionists as early as 1903, when she read the first book in English on the group by Camille Mauclair, and she was aware of continental artistic developments through visits to Paris with her husband Clive Bell, the principal influences on her early work were John Singer Sargeant, whose teaching she greatly admired when at the Royal Academy Schools, and James Abbot McNeil Whistler, whose ‘nocturnes’ she had seen in the home of the artist and family friend Arthur Studd. Indeed, Whistler’s subtle tonalities seem to have been a particular influence on Iceland Poppies. In one of his rare exhibition reviews Duncan Grant praised ‘Mrs Clive Bell’s exquisite still-life’ when it was exhibited at the New English Art Club Exhibition in 1909, but he criticized the works exhibited by her former tutor Sargeant for appearing ‘commonplace in colour in spite of their astonishing virtuosity.’ 2

The New English Art Club had been founded in 1886 in reaction to the conservatism of the Royal Academy by a new generation of young British artists who looked to France for their inspiration. 3 Bell later recalled how ‘all members of the New English Art Club seemed somehow to have the secret of the art universe within their grasp, a secret one was not worthy to learn, especially if one was that terrible low creature, a female painter.’ 4 Although in 1905 she had formed the ‘Friday Club’, one of the first significant twentieth-century artists’ groups, as a female painter at this time it was quite an achievement to have work accepted and displayed alongside the likes of Sargeant, Orpen, Augustus John and Steer in the N.E.A.C. exhibition. Bell’s sister Virginia Stephen (later Woolf) wrote of how ‘Nessa has a picture in the New English, [and] all her friends are envious’ 5 and with some surprise Sickert urged Bell: ‘I didn’t know you were a painter. Continuez!’ 6

Vanessa Bell never wrote about her choice of subject matter or the ideas that inspired her work, except to write to Roger Fry, ‘I don’t think I’m nearly as enterprising as you (or Duncan) about painting anything I don’t find at my door.’ 7 Her Post-Impressionist still-lifes were usually casually arranged groupings, where what mattered was the point of view that she adopted. However, it would seem that the objects in Iceland Poppies were carefully chosen. The eighteenth-century French pharmacist’s jar was probably brought to 46 Gordon Square from their old home at Hyde Park Gate and is now at Charleston in Maynard Keynes’s bedroom. Its grouping with a small alabaster bowl and green glass poison bottle suggests that the painting has an underlying symbolic subtext relating to medicine and even to death. 8 Bell would probably have been aware of the symbolic association of poppies with death in the work of Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Burne-Jones, Millais and Rossetti, who had been regular guests of her great-aunt Sara Prinsep. 9

The Iceland Poppy (known by its Latin name as papaver nudicaule) is a spring-flowering variety of the Arctic poppy, and had been introduced to England in the mid-eighteenth century. Although not a direct source of morphine and opium, the wider associations of poppies with narcotic properties and as a symbol of sleep, oblivion or indifference are implied. In Roman mythology Somnus, the God of sleep, is crowned with poppies, which were created by Ceres (Goddess of the harvest and fertility) as a means of getting sleep after the loss of her daughter Persephone. The Romans used the plant to soothe away the ‘aches of love’ by drinking a sedative tea, which would have released ‘morpheus’. Morpheus features on the head of a bed at Charleston painted by Grant for Bell in 1916-17, while the foot of the bed is decorated with two large red poppies arcing from a central glass vase. In August 1916, Bell designed a bed-head for her husband’s mistress Mary Hutchinson, which featured a nude with poppies. Her comment in a letter to Roger Fry that ‘On one side is a woman asleep, rather like Flaming June by Lord Leighton, with poppies and waves (I think) all very symbolical,’ 10 suggests that while she was not as responsive to classical mythology as Grant, she was certainly not afraid of invoking symbolic associations.

The pharmacist’s jar, poison bottle and poppies could be read as a nuanced modern approach to the language of the traditional still-life in which ‘vanitas’ (the emptiness of possessions and frailty of human life) was often indicated by a skull, a memento mori that we must die. In the spring of 1907 there had been an exhibition of eighteenth-century French painting at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, which included a number of works by Chardin. Duncan Grant particularly admired Chardin’s work and had copied it at the Louvre and would have probably discussed the artist’s work with Bell. Yet, whilst still-life often formed an element in grand Edwardian portraiture or genre-scenes of domestic interiors, it was not commonly a popular subject in its own right. Perhaps the closest contemporary comparison to Iceland Poppies is the work of William Nicholson, who painted his first pure still-life in 1907. However, while Nicholson’s still-lifes combined simplicity with technical brilliance, in terms of the flattening of forms and background and its grey tonalities, Iceland Poppies has more in common with the route taken by his son, the Modernist artist Ben Nicholson.

What sets Iceland Poppies aside from its contemporary still-life paintings is the feeling of psychological intensity. In her biography of Bell, Frances Spalding suggests that Iceland Poppies reflects an autobiographical preoccupation with triangular relationships. She observes that it is a still-life based on triplicates: three still-life objects, three bands running across the background, three flowers, two of which are white and slightly separated from the third, which is red. Spalding writes of its ‘introspective, bitter-sweet mood’, likening the composition to ‘a strain of music that lingers on dissonance before resolution’. 11 Indeed, there is no doubt that there was a certain amount of dissonance in Bell’s relationships at this time. Following the birth of their son Julian in February 1908, Vanessa and Clive Bell’s marriage had come under pressure as Clive Bell had been infuriated by Julian’s screams and began sleeping in a different room. In a letter to Virginia Stephen in December 1908 he complained of how ‘I see nothing of Nessa. I do not even sleep with her; the baby takes up all her time.’ 12 When Clive, Vanessa and Virginia took a holiday in Cornwall in May 1908, Clive and Virginia began taking regular walks together and engaged in a flirtatious relationship. Although probably never actually consummated, Virginia later described it as an ‘affair’ and wrote to Clive that ‘I was certainly of opinion though we did not kiss – (I was willing and offered once – but let that be) – I think we “achieved the heights” as you put it.’ 13 Vanessa Bell was in a difficult position, her trust betrayed by the two people she was closest to.

Much later, Grant wrote in his diary of a discussion about jealousy and love affairs that he had with Bell, in which she confided that ‘the higher the opinion of a rival the greater the jealousy: She produced Virginia of whom she had been more jealous than anyone at a time when she admired her more than any woman she knew.’ 14 Perhaps in this context the idea of poppies releasing ‘morpheus’ to soothe the aches of love has particular relevance. Spalding later notes that in The Tub (1918), when Bell was again involved in triangular relationships, three flowers appear in the vase on the window that overlooks the pond and, as in Iceland Poppies, one is separated by its colour from the others, for two are red and the third yellow. 15

The triangular composition may, however, be just as much to do with the traditional pyramidal compositions that Bell would have been taught to employ as part of her training at Cope’s School of Art, the Royal Academy Schools and, briefly, at the Slade. The triangular composition has its roots in the Renaissance and was essentially a device to lead the eye into a painting and retain interest in the subject matter. Devotional painters of the High Renaissance generally arranged the figures of Madonna, child and patron in a pyramid, a composition that evoked a reassuring sense of solidity and repose. Bell had been an admirer of the artists of the Italian Renaissance since she had been given books on Fra Angelico and Botticelli as a student. During her visit to Italy in 1904 she had admired the Titians and Tintorettos in Venice, and the early Italians such as Cimabue, Giotto, Filippo Lippi and Botticelli in Florence. In spring 1908 she had returned to Italy with Clive, visiting Assisi, Siena and Perugia, where she saw a number of Perugino frescoes, and she later painted copies of paintings by Raphael, such as the Madonna del Colonna (1923). However, the Renaissance artist perhaps most important to Vanessa Bell and other members of the Bloomsbury Group was Piero della Francesca.

Duncan Grant had painted a superb copy of Piero’s Portrait of Federigo da Montefeltro in 1904, but it is the Madonna della Misericordia (c.1454), or ‘Madonna of Mercy’, that appears to have held a huge personal significance for Bell and her art. Spalding likens Bell’s central position within the Bloomsbury group to the Madonna ‘extending the protection of her cloak to those around her, a figure offering a large repose, wise tolerance and an extraordinarily rich, mellow understanding.’ 16 Furthermore, Spalding and the art historian Lisa Tickner have both rightly likened the white bathing hut in Bell’s Studland Beach (1912) to the Madonna’s cloak, which takes on a maternal, protective role for the figures around it. 17 The form of the Madonna della Misericordia and the shape of the canopy in Piero’s Madonna del Parto (1450s), which is drawn back to reveal the pregnant Madonna, could both equally be likened to the shape of the pharmacist’s jar in Iceland Poppies. When considered in this light, it is tempting to suggest that the jar represents, albeit unconsciously, Bell’s matriarchal feelings, of the Madonna forgiving and protecting those around her despite their human errors.

By tracing both Iceland Poppies and Studland Beach back to the possible shared source of Piero’s Madonnas it is possible to see a direct link between the two works, despite the fact that one is a still-life and the other a pared-down landscape with figures. Indeed, when the composition of Studland Beach is reversed it has the same compositional arrangement as Iceland Poppies, with the protective form of the pharmacist’s jar equivalent to the bathing hut, and the poison bottle equating to the standing figure and the bowl to the seated group on the other side of the hut. This extraordinary similarity of form leads one to wonder if it is not just a coincidental arrangement of shapes, but that Bell was using the arrangement of objects in Iceland Poppies to work out the composition of Studland Beach in order to strengthen the sense of structure and design.

Studland Beach is often read in terms of ‘significant form’, an aesthetic theory that Clive Bell first used in relation to Cézanne in 1911. In Clive Bell’s view, when we look at a work of art we experience an aesthetic emotion, which is produced by all true works of art. He asked in his book Art: ‘What quality is common to Sta Sophia and the windows at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, Giotto’s frescoes at Padua, the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca and Cezanne? Only one answer seems possible – significant form. In each, lines and colours combined in a certain way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions.’ 18 Perhaps Iceland Poppies, with its intriguing grouping of objects and associations, is central to understanding Vanessa’s Bell’s way of working out how significant form related to her own work. Although Clive Bell insisted that to seek the emotions of life within or behind form was ‘a sign of defective sensibility, always’, 19 it is undeniable that Iceland Poppies not only stirs aesthetic emotions, but suggests a depth of feeling beyond immediate appearances. As Quentin Bell wrote of his mother, ‘To the end of her life, she painted pictures replete with psychological interest, while at the same time firmly denying that the story of a picture had any importance whatsoever.’ 20

Regardless of whether these multifarious suggestions regarding its ‘meaning’ have any validity, it is undeniable that Iceland Poppies has much to tell us about Bell’s development as an artist, emerging from the conventions of Victorian and Edwardian art to develop her own very distinctive and ultimately groundbreaking artistic voice, and as Simon Watney recently suggested at Charleston, this enigmatic painting shows how the road to abstraction could as well proceed from the subtle tonalities of Velasquez, Whistler and Manet as it could directly from the Cubism of Picasso and Braque.

1 Grant, Duncan to Ethel Grant, 26 September 1940.

2 Grant, Duncan. The Spectator, 19 June 1909, p.977

3 The fifteen founding members, who included Stanhope Forbes, Henry Scott Tuke, Fred Brown, and Philip Wilson Steer, had all studied in France and had contemplated calling themselves ‘The Society of Anglo-French Painters’.

4 Bell, Vanessa. Sketches in Pen and Ink, Lia Giachero (ed.), Hogarth Press, London, 1997, p.118

5 Woolf, Virginia to Violet Dickinson, 1909.

6 Sickert, Walter to Vanessa Bell, 1909

7 Bell, Vanessa to Roger Fry, letter of 16 September 1921.

8 In an inventory of paintings made by Grant c.1945, no. 3 is called ‘Poppies and Poison.’

9 For example, in Sir John Everett Millais’ iconic painting Ophelia (1851-2) the flowers floating on the surface of the water were chosen for their traditional symbolic meanings, including poppies for death. The model for this painting, Lizzie Siddal, subsequently died of an overdose of laudanum in 1862 and in her memory Rossetti painted Beata Beatrix of Dante’s beloved Beatrice, in which a dove brings a white poppy, again a symbol of death. Vanessa’s mother Julia Stephen had been a model for Burne-Jones’ Annunciation (1876-9). The combination of red and white flowers is also traditionally seen as to be avoided because of the funerary associations.

10 Bell, Vanessa to Roger Fry, 2 August 1916, Tate Gallery Archive.

11 Spalding, Frances. Vanessa Bell, London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1984, p. 82.

12 Bell, Clive to Virginia Stephen, 30 December 1908, University of Sussex Library.

13 Woolf, Virginia, The Flight of the Mind: The Letters of Virginia Woolf,

Vol. I: 1888-1912, edited by Nigel Nicholson, London, Hogarth Press, p.133

14 Duncan Grant’s 1918 diary, quoted in Spalding, ibid., p.172

15 The model for The Tub was Clive Bell’s mistress Mary Hutchinson, and at the time this was painted, Duncan Grant was engaged in a relationship with Bunny Garnett while living with Vanessa Bell at Charleston.

16 Spalding, ibid., p.74

17 See Spalding, ibid., p.124 and Tickner, Lisa, Modern Life and Modern Subjects: British Art in the Early Twentieth Century, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2000, p.124

18 Bell, Clive, Art, London, Chatto & Windus, 1914, pp. 7-8

19 Bell, Clive, ibid., p.28

20 Bell, Quentin, Bloomsbury, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1968, p.84

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