Vanessa Bell

Mrs St John Hutchinson


Not on display

Vanessa Bell 1879–1961
Oil paint on board
Support: 737 × 578 mm
frame: 800 × 642 × 55 mm
Purchased 1973

Display caption

This portrait shows the short-story writer Mary Hutchinson. She was the mistress of Bell’s husband Clive, a fact of which Bell was aware. This may account for the unflattering nature of the portrait. When it was exhibited, to the sitter’s consternation, Vanessa Bell wrote ‘It’s perfectly hideous...and yet quite recognisable’.

The dazzling colours are reminiscent of work by Matisse – an artist Bell revered – and the French ‘Fauve’ painters.

Gallery label, February 2010

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Catalogue entry

Vanessa Bell 1879–1961

T01768 Mrs St John Hutchinson 1915

Stamped with studio stamp, ‘VB’ b.l.
Oil on pulpboard, 29 x 22¾ (73.5 x 58); irregular.
Purchased at Christie’s (Grant-in-Aid) 1973.
Coll: The artist’s estate; Edward le Bas; Edward le Bas’s estate; Mrs James Hadley; sold Christie’s 13 July 1973 (222) as ‘Portrait of a Lady’, bt. Tate Gallery.
Exh: Adams Gallery, October 1961 (9), as ‘Portrait of a Lady’; A Painter’s Collection, Diploma Gallery, R.A., March–April 1963 (18), as ‘Portrait’; Arts Council Gallery, February–March 1964 (28), and tour of Plymouth, Bolton, Leeds, Norwich and Brighton, April–August, as ‘Portrait of a Lady’.

The sitter, née Mary Barnes, married St. John Hutchinson, K.C. in 1910.Mr and Mrs Hutchinson are among the friends of George Moore represented in 4614 ‘Saturday Night in the Vale’ 1928–9 by Henry Tonks, in the Tate Gallery collection. The reverse of T01768 is inscribed in ink ‘Mrs Clive Bell/The Grange/Bosham’ and there is an ink drawing of what looks like an elderly bearded man contemplating a small object. The number 11 is inscribed, in a circle, in blue crayon. Vanessa Bell stayed at The Grange, Bosham in August–September 1915, and Duncan Grant was there during part of her visit. Bosham is near Mrs Hutchinson’s then home at West Wittering. Reasons for believing T01768 to have been painted in London earlier in 1915 are however set out below.

T01768 is one of four paintings of Mrs Hutchinson made at the same time, that have been traced, two by Vanessa Bell and two by Duncan Grant. Of these Mrs Pamela Diamand owns a version by Vanessa Bell which is oil on canvas, 30 x 23 inches, and is almost exactly the same design as T01768 but slightly more loosely painted. There is a photograph in the Witt Library. This is probably the ‘Portrait, M. H.’ exhibited in The New Movement in Art, The Mansard Gallery, Heal and Sons, October 1917 (5), to which it was lent by the organiser, Roger Fry, who formerly owned MrsDiamand’s painting. This hypothesis is supported by a detailed description of the painting pencilled in the Tate Gallery’s copy of the Heal’s exhibition catalogue by a visitor to the exhibition.

In a private collection there is a ‘Portrait of Mary Hutchinson’ by Duncan Grant, oil on board, 24½ x 17¼ inches, which is reproduced in the catalogue of the exhibition Ottoline held at the Gallery Edward Harvane, October-November 1971. This picture is inscribed on the reverse ‘J. M. Keynes, 38 Brunswick Square, London, W.C. Carriage Forward’; Roy Harrod’s biography of Keynes records that he lived at this address from 1911 to 1914. In this painting by Duncan Grant, the sitter is viewed from a few feet further to the right than in Vanessa Bell’s versions. Details of costume, jewellery, hair and the chair on which she is seated are identical and the background contains abstract rectilinear vertical forms (looser and more slender than those in T01768). This picture was inscribed ‘Grant/17’ by the artist in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Anthony d’Offay has a less finished version of it, oil on board, 30 x 25 in., which is not inscribed. The sitter’s diary shows that portraits of her were painted by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant simultaneously at their home at Charleston, Firle, in several sittings between 16 and 22 April 1917. Duncan Grant told the compiler in March 1974 that in dating one of his versions 1917 he had no particular sitting in mind though he did mean the year precisely rather than approximately.

However, in a letter in the Charleston Papers at King’s College, Cambridge (VBRF119), dated‘46 Gordon Square Tuesday’, Vanessa Bell wrote to Roger Fry ‘on Friday we painted Mary. Duncan got very desperate and began his again which I think I ought to have done too but I didn’t. It is a frightfully difficult arrangement for I’m bang in front of her and everything is very straight and simple and very delicate colour.’ This description is consistent with the appearance of T01768. The same letter mentions a play evening at the Omega Workshops and reports that J. M. Keynes has just returned from Paris and that Duncan Grant is to depart soon for a fortnight alone at the Hutchinsons’ house near Chichester to paint quietly. All these details point to a date earlier than 1917. (Harrod’s biography of Keynes records that ‘soon after December 1914, when installed at the Treasury, he had to go on a deputation to Paris’ (p.201) ). In reply to a letter from the compiler, Mrs Hutchinson wrote (19 March 1974) ‘I have found in a diary, of 1915, scribbled in pencil, : DG. VB.— on February 5th and 9th and on the nth. D & V paint. This was in London’. 5 February 1915 was a Friday and could therefore have been the Friday which Vanessa Bell mentions in her letter, written at a time when the letter seems to imply that a further sitting or sittings are still to occur. A date of 1915 for T01768 would perhaps be more plausible than one of 1917 on grounds of style. This dating would gain further strength if any of the portraits of Mrs Hutchinson painted at Charleston in April 1917 could be found and firmly identified both as to date and to having been painted on a quite separate occasion.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.

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