The subject of Belle of Bloomsbury is a bull terrier bitch called Swirl. She was owned by the artist's sister, Nancy, who lived in Bloomsbury, London during the late 1920s and early 1930s. As Swirl was kept in this part of London for much of her life, the painting is titled Belle of Bloomsbury. Morris painted the picture especially for his sister while staying with her at Henley shortly after their mother's death. Swirl herself had died some fourteen years earlier.

The painting is based on an undated black and white photograph (Tate Archive) taken by Angus Wilson, a friend of the American collector and painter Paul Odo Cross. It shows Swirl sitting on a blanket in the garden of Cross's house near Fordingbridge. Belle of Bloomsbury is probably the only example of Morris copying a picture from a photograph, and though it is largely faithful to the original image several significant changes have been made. For example, extraneous features, such as the lawn, have been removed to bring Swirl into the centre of the picture; the dog's anatomy has been altered slightly, in particular, her head and left hindleg have been made more squat; the details of the ivy and the wall have been simplified for compositional effect. Perhaps most significant, however, is the introduction of colour.

The importance accorded to Swirl as the subject of a portrait suggests that Morris was well aware of how much his sister liked her dog. Indeed, within the painting various pictorial devices have been used to emphasise her status. For example, the dog, sitting on its hindquarters rather like a human, is enlarged beyond life-size. The strong colour contrast between her creamy white coat and deep blues, greens and terracotta tones in the rest of the picture, combined with the crisp delineation of her body, emphatically establishes her as the subject of the painting. The spiky impasto, particularly in the dog's body, gives the painting a physicality absent from the flat two-dimensional surface of the original photograph. This stress on physical presence is reiterated by the artist's deeply incised signature in the lower left corner, which accentuates the materiality of the paint itself.

Further reading:
Richard Morphet, Cedric Morris, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reproduced p.64

Toby Treves
May 2000