Vanessa Bell

Studland Beach. Verso: Group of Male Nudes by Duncan Grant


In Tate Britain

Vanessa Bell 1879–1961
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 762 × 1016 mm
frame: 898 × 1153 × 87 mm
Purchased 1976

Display caption

Studland Beach is in a quiet bay in Dorset. The idea of the beach as a place for leisure activities was relatively new in 1912. It is a sign of their modernity that Vanessa Bell and her Bloomsbury Group friends holidayed there. This is one of several works by Bell from 1911–2 which show a debt to Matisse in their simplified design and bold colouring. Though an exercise in what her friends, the critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry, called ‘significant form’ (emphasising colour, shape and line rather than subject matter), the picture retains some of the feel of a sunny day by the sea.

Gallery label, September 2016

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Catalogue entry

T02080 STUDLAND BEACH c.1912

Not inscribed
Oil on canvas, 30 × 40 (76.2 × 101.6)
On verso is a painting of male nudes by Duncan Grant, not inscribed, painted area 31 × 40 1/4 (78.8 × 102.3)
Purchased from Anthony d'Offay Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1976
Exh: Vanessa Bell, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, November–December 1973 (4 repr.)
Prov: Purchased by a private collector from Anthony d'Offay, 1973
Lit: Richard Shone, Bloomsbury Portraits, Oxford 1976, p.76 repr.
Repr: Richard Shone, The Century of Change: British Painting Since 1900, Oxford, 1977, pl.16

Vanessa Bell is known to have visited Studland in the years 1909, 1910 and 1911. At least four beach scenes, none dated, by the artist exist. First is a Whistlerian low-toned oil, 14 × 12in (private collection), shown in the 1964 Arts Council Vanessa Bell Memorial Exhibition (No. 6) and dated 1911 on grounds which are unknown. This picture probably dates from 1909, the year of Vanessa Bell's first visit to Studland, and is similar in style to ‘Iceland Poppies’ (private collection) of 1908.

A second painting of Studland (oil on board, 25 × 30in, private collection) shows six adults, one naked, and five children on a beach. Compositionally this work recalls something of Gauguin. Richard Shone suggests (discussion with the compiler 23 May 1977) that this painting dates from 1910 and is the one rejected by the jury of the Friday Club in June of that year. However in the opinion of Frances Spalding (letter to the compiler 22 January 1978): ‘Due to the tall standing female figure on the right hand side, it is probably to this painting that Vanessa Bell referred when she wrote to Roger Fry on 27 September 1911 “I've been trying this morning on the beach to paint your subject - the one with my colossal figure in the foreground, but its a failure” [Charleston Papers, King's College Library, Cambridge]. The previous owner (unknown) of this picture had been informed that the figure lying down on the left hand side represented Virginia Woolf and this provides proof that this painting of Studland bay can also be securely dated to 1911 as Virginia Woolf stayed at Studland from 19th to 27th September of that year’.

The third painting of Studland is a sketch for the Tate painting (oil on cardboard, 10 × 13 1/2in, private collection). The most notable difference is in the standing female figure silhouetted against the tent; in the sketch the willowy figure has one arm raised to the head which in the Tate picture (the fourth painting of Studland) the arm has been lowered and the figure is of block-like proportions with the hair falling down the angle of the back. Richard Shone (op. cit. 1976) dates the Tate picture to 1911. However Frances Spalding suggests that 'is almost certainly to be dated at the earliest to the second half of 1912 on grounds of a further visit to Studland by Vanessa Bell in the summer of 1912 or 1913 and of style, a rejection of descriptive detail in the outlines of the figures and the severe reduction of the picture to a few essential components.

'In February of either 1912 or 1913 Vanessa Bell was planning to leave her two sons at Studland whilst she, Clive Bell and Roger Fry visited Italy. Reference to this is given in a letter to Roger Fry written from Asheham and dated only February 7th: “We have been discussing times for going abroad because the Gibbons at Studland want to know when we propose to send the children to them and that depends on when we go” [Charleston Papers, Kings College Library, Cambridge]. It was the Gibbons referred to in this letter that made the visit so memorable.

'Professor Quentin Bell (Vanessa Bell's son) has recalled: "There is to my mind conclusive evidence that we were there in Studland in 1912 or 1913. This is because I can remember something of that holiday and remember a Mr Gibbons who was our neighbour.

‘Mr Gibbons achieved celebrity by being rescued from the ocean when the Titanic sank. He kept himself afloat with whisky bottles tied round him; these he had previously emptied for recorking and in this very sensible manner was saved from drowning. The Titanic sank in April 1912, and therefore our visit must have been later than April 1912. It is however, just possible that there was a visit later, in 1913, although I think this is very unlikely. The argument in favour of 1913 is that I could have remembered the visit having been born in August 1910".’ (Letter to Frances Spalding, June 1975.)

In the compiler's view a date of c.1912 for T02080 seems likely. In the simplification of the forms the painting seems close to ‘The Bedroom, Gordon Square’ 1912 (Private Collection) also by Vanessa Bell. Support for this dating is provided by the unfinished painting of male nudes by Duncan Grant (who confirmed it was by him, discussion with a member of Tate Gallery staff 30 October 1976) on the verso of the canvas. According to Richard Shone this can be dated stylistically to late 1911. In the view of the Tate Gallery Conservation Department Grant's painting was executed before Vanessa Bell's. In Richard Shone's view the figures in the foreground of T02080 are Vanessa Bell's elder son Julian and his nurse.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1976-8: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1979

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