Vanessa Bell
Frederick and Jessie Etchells Painting 1912

Artwork details

Vanessa Bell 1879–1961
Frederick and Jessie Etchells Painting
Date 1912
Medium Oil paint on wood
Dimensions Support: 511 x 530 mm
frame: 653 x 678 x 79 mm
Acquisition Purchased 1971


Frederick and Jessie Etchells Painting is an almost square, medium-sized oil painting on board by British artist Vanessa Bell. The painting depicts two figures in largely monochrome shades, surrounded by strong vertical blocks and horizontal bands of rich red and green. The work is a double portrait showing brother and sister artists Frederick and Jessie Etchells at work. Despite the fact that it is a portrait, neither of the figures have facial features. The paint has been applied loosely, with the textured brushwork and unpainted edges still visible. Nonetheless, a number of alterations were made during the process of painting, as art historian Richard Shone has noted: ‘at first the French doors were closed, [indicated by] the overpainted vertical visible immediately to the left of [Frederick] Etchell’s figure’ (Shone 2002, p.88). He also speculates that Jessie’s facial features were initially depicted.

Bell made Frederick and Jessie Etchells Painting during a family summer holiday at Asheham House in Sussex in 1912. The painting appears to depict a room in the south extension of the house that served as a light, spacious studio, with French windows opening out onto a terrace and lawn. Bell rented Asheham House jointly with her sister Virginia Woolf and it played an important role in Bell’s work over the next two years. At Asheham she was able to fashion an environment of sympathetic freedom for both work and play. It provided the backdrop for family and friends like the Etchells ¿– who later worked for a period of time at Bell’s Omega Workshops – to gather together. Art historian Frances Spalding has suggested that the atmosphere ‘must have been thick with antagonism as well as the smell of oils’, yet this work fits within a group of similar paintings from the period that foreground the pleasures of friendship, domesticity and concentrated work (Spalding 2006, p.112). They include Bell’s Conversation at Asheham House 1912 (University of Hull Art Collection, Hull), featuring Adrian Stephen, Leonard Woolf and Clive Bell, as well as the painter herself reflected in an over-mantel mirror; The Studio: Duncan Grant and Henri Doucet at Asheham 1912 (private collection); and Virginia Woolf c.1911–12 (National Portrait Gallery, London), which may also have been painted at Asheham.

Art historian Christopher Reed has argued that Bell’s depictions of artists at work furnish evidence of ‘her ambition to forge a personal style that allied woolwork and mosaic’, which is symptomatic of her renegotiation of the boundaries between fine art and craft (Reed 2004, p.84). He explains that:

The red-stockinged leg of the woman artist is picked up by the brilliant red-orange curtain (probably one Bell made); the warm tones of the curtain are echoed in the lighter patches of the tiled walkway and wall seen through the open door. That this sequence of warm tones was self-conscious is clear from close emanation of the painting, which reveals that the strong orange bands of the garden view replaced closed French doors.
(Reed 2004, p.89.)

Reed asserts that Bell’s careful use of colour suggests ‘the conceptual links between the figure of the female artist, Bell’s colourful blocky style of painting, and this Post-Impressionist domestic environment’, linking modernism and domesticity (Reed 2004, p.89). Bell’s attention to textiles and interior environments continued throughout her career, particularly through the motif of curtains – sometimes hand-made by the artist – which frequently appear in her paintings, for example in Chrysanthemums 1920 (Tate N03836), Interior with a Table 1921 (Tate N05078) and Pheasants 1931 (Tate N05749).

Further reading
Richard Shone, The Art of Bloomsbury: Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 2000, pp.87–8, reproduced no.24.
Christopher Reed, Bloomsbury Rooms: Modernism, Subculture, and Domesticity, New Haven and London 2004, pp.84, 89, 148, reproduced no.52.
Frances Spalding, Vanessa Bell, Stroud 2006, p.112.

Hana Leaper
March 2016

Supported by Christie’s.