A few months back, I visited the retrospective of Vanessa Bell’s paintings at Dulwich Picture Gallery. The exhibition is still ongoing and an essential visit for anyone with a passion for those strange groups of English rebels that seemed to flourish in the arts around the Fin de siècle. It confirmed for me Bell’s position as one of the most underrated artists from that period, her work seeming to run parallel to the likes of Paul Nash and pre-empt work by Eileen Agar. It was the range of media that Bell experimented with that was most astonishing, from all forms of oil painting, book covers, photographs and everything else in between. Alongside this is the important documentation of many members of the Bloomsbury group who are subjects of a variety of paintings. It’s hard to dispel the feeling that many of the group, including Bell’s husband, Clive Bell the art critic, are standing behind the canvases, or at least in situ during its creation. As a body of work, it was quite astonishing and overwhelming but one painting was always going to stand out for me; one of several portraits of her sister, Virginia Woolf.
Having designed most of the covers for Woolf’s books for the Hogarth Press (all of which are in the exhibition in their original, delicious editions) it was inevitable that Bell would paint portraits of her sister. There are photographs in the exhibition of her, as well as a few others but the main painting that I have always considered to be the quintessential image of Woolf was painted in 1912. Unlike the other paintings of Woolf, Bell removes all of the detail from the writer’s face, having her sit slumped into a chair while engaged in needle work. As a portrayal of depression, it is second-to-none, capturing perfectly the blankness that one continues with through the day-to-day monotony when a spell descends. Even the angle at which Woolf’s body is slumped hints at so much more than is initially conceived; it’s almost as if the chair itself is all that’s supporting her. It tells much more of mental anguish when considering that Woolf is thirty years old, her body reflecting that of someone much older, more ravaged.
The painting was finished before Virginia married Leonard Woolf on August the 10th that year and much is made of the positioning of the painting in light of this. Perhaps such information can reflect the painting to be more optimistic in a form of quiet contemplation at the prospect of marriage to a loved one. Yet 1912 is, in many ways, not a brilliant year for Woolf. For the second time, she spends a period in Burley House, a recuperative home for women effected by mental illness; the spates of depression lead on from her abuse at the hands of her half brothers still manifesting as it would for the rest of her life. The painting brings to mind a quote from Woolf’s diary where she states that “The most important thing is not to think very much about oneself. To investigate candidly the charge; but not fussily, not very anxiously. On no account to retaliate by going to the other extreme — thinking too much.” Bell’s painting reflects this quality in that she removes Woolf’s personality for her, the act of not thinking or contemplating herself in any way reflected in the tragic removal of all of her specific identity. The fact that it is still noticeably Woolf, her silhouette being unmistakable, is one of the true tragedies that the painting reflects, both about the writer and about depression as a whole.
It is even more fitting that Woolf is obstinately not writing in the painting. Other portraits of her have her surrounded by books and yet, contextualising her in her writing is also to frame her in her illness. For, as she writes further in her diary: “My mind turned by anxiety, or other cause, from its scrutiny of blank paper, is like a lost child–wandering the house, sitting on the bottom step to cry.” Writing is in many ways as much a torture as a release for the mental anguish so it is a perfect act of sisterly understanding to paint her doing something as casual and of itself as knitting in a chair. The painting is years before the Hogarth Press, before Sackville-West and ultimately, The Ouse, yet there is something about Bell’s painting that seems to capture Woolf’s essence as a whole. The painting is Woolf in her purest guise, flaws and all, and it is ultimately telling that Bell managed to capture such a moment a whole three years before her sister published her first novel. As Woolf herself attests “It is the penalty we pay for breaking with tradition, and the solitude makes the writing more exciting though being read less so. One ought to sink to the bottom of the sea, probably, and live alone with ones words.”
Faceless, sinking into the chair,
As waves of moths flutter inside.
She has given up batting them away,
Away from her eyes which travelled back and forth,
She is far from the river,
And there are no stones in her pockets.
Just the tussled wool of her memories,
Which weigh as heavy,
Dragging her under for a time.