Latest news from the gallery

Philip's Vanessa Bell Painting Bears Fruit

Fri Apr 7, 2017

By Philip Mould

Vanessa Bell’s (1879-1961) fascination with colour and design, with simple shapes and purposeful, geometrical associations is magnified in this modern interpretation of a traditional still-life subject, which I’m lucky enough to have at home. It should, I suppose, be in our kitchen, but with Charlestonian purpose it hangs next to our drawing room fireplace, holding its own with quiet assertion. Although a simple still life on first glance, Bowl of Figs, is a playful image which toys with the dominance of circular forms: the fruit imitates the definite crimson circles on the table-cloth and one fig in particular escaping the bowl and mischievously penetrating the only vertical line present in the composition.

In 1951, two years before this work was painted, Vanessa Bell visited Long Crichel near Salisbury, a house owned by Desmond Shawe-Taylor. During her stay she was exposed to modern works by Picasso and Graham Sutherland, the latter’s work she described as ‘large and hot and shapeless’, and she described herself as being ‘merely thought old and old-fashioned’ in her artistic pursuit of simple beauty.[1] There is no doubt that Bell’s later works, particularly Bowl of Figs, demonstrate a bold reaction to the professed ‘shapeless[ness]’ of post-war artworks.

What’s more, the painting may yet bare further insight into Bell’s influences at this stage in her artistic practise. Since the painting has been on display at Dulwich Picture Gallery’s recently opened Vanessa Bell exhibition, scholars have been debating the identity of the fruit depicted: the figs may in fact be medlars.

  • slide
  • slide

Clockwise from large painting on left (all by Vanessa Bell): The Other Room, late 1930s - Collection Bryan Ferry - © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett; Wallflowers, c.1950 - Private Collection - © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett ; Still Life, 1953 - Philip Mould Collection - © Philip Mould & Company.

Medlars are a winter fruit which are less familiar to most because they are only edible once slightly decayed or ‘bletted’ and so less suitable to our supermarkets. The medlar has historically been used as a symbol of decay, particularly in association with female sexuality and maturation. Prominent literary examples range from Chaucer likening old age to the medlar and naming it the ‘open-arse’ in The Reeve’s Tale, Shakespeare making a similarly bawdy reference in Romeo and Juliet as well as several other works, to D.H. Lawrence and more recently in C.J. Samson’s Dark Fire.

The medlar’s connotations were unlikely to have been lost on Bell given her literary knowledge. Therefore, it has been suggested that this image, painted when the artist is in her seventies, could be considered a meaningful, perhaps an ironic nod to the iconography of the elder female subject.

By this time, Bell’s children had grown-up and she was entertaining her grandchildren at hers and Duncan Grant’s Sussex home, Charleston. She had become a colourist, relishing the opportunity to capture simple natural beauty using bolder brushstrokes and refined techniques. Suffering her first bout of rheumatisim in 1953, Bell found herself bound to Charleston with her friend Edward le Bas for most of that year, watching the Queen’s coronation on the television rather than celebrating in London. It is therefore likely that the fruit present in this painting have come from the garden at Charleston.

[1] F. Spalding, Vanessa Bell, (London, 1983), p.333.