Vanessa Bell

The Tub


Not on display

Vanessa Bell 1879–1961
Oil paint and gouache on canvas
Support (confirmed): 1804 × 1666 mm
frame: 1823 × 1702 × 57 mm
Purchased 1975

Display caption

In October 1916 Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and the writer David Garnett moved into Charleston Farmhouse, on the South Downs in Sussex. This unusually large painting was intended for the garden room of the new house. It was never installed, and the artist kept it folded up. It was only rediscovered with the revival of enthusiasm for the art of Bloomsbury in the 1970s.

Bathers were painted by many of the French painters Bell admired, including Cézanne, Degas and Matisse. Originally the figure was partially clothed; there is a photograph of an earlier version of the painting in the display case in this room.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

T02010 THE TUB 1917

Not inscribed
Oil (?) and gouache on canvas, 71×65 7/8 (167×108.3)
Purchased from Anthony d'Offay (Tate Gallery Trust Fund) 1975
Coll: Mrs Angelica Garnett, the Artist's daughter
Exh: British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture 1890–1975, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, November–December 1975 (4)

In September 1917 Vanessa Bell wrote to Roger Fry from Charleston ‘I have started a large picture meant as a decoration for one of the walls of the garden sitting room. There's very little in the picture and it's mostly one colour or two, yellow ochre and a greenish grey. The subject is principally floor with a bath and a semi-nude female rather too like Mary and the pond seen through the window. As it's 6 ft.×5 ft. 6 ins. it will I'm afraid tend to be monstrous...’

In the view of Richard Shone (who has given considerable help for this catalogue entry) ‘The Tub’ dates from early September 1917 and was intended for one of the walls on either side of the French doors in the garden sitting room. Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and David Garnett had moved to Charleston, Firle, Sussex in about October 1916 from Wissett Lodge, near Halesworth, Suffolk, and almost immediately Bell and Grant embarked on a massive campaign of decorating the walls and furniture. However, according to David Garnett (letter to the compiler 16 February 1976), the painting was never hung in the garden room. Duncan Grant told the compiler (conversation 28 May 1976) that it was not hung at all at Charleston. This is confirmed by the fact that the painting has only recently been mounted on a stretcher for the first time and there are traces of a fold down the middle of the picture suggesting that it has been stored on a flat surface.

The first state of the picture, described by Vanessa Bell in her letter to Fry, with ‘a semi nude figure... and the pond seen through the window’, seems to have been close to a water colour (coll. Anthony d'Offay) in which the window consists of tall rectangular segments reaching down close to the floor: beyond them is a view of the pond at Charleston. The female figure is wearing a short unbuttoned chemise-like garment. Between the figure and the bath on the left is a jug.

A photograph belonging to Richard Shone (repr. Richard Shone, Bloomsbury Portraits, London, 1976, p.176) shows ‘The Tub’ suspended from the wall of a room at Charleston, probably upstairs where Vanessa Bell painted. The composition is similar to the watercolour sketch with the exception of the window which has been replaced by one which is high, long and narrow with a curved top; in front of it stands a pot with three flowers resembling tulips. In front of the painting to the left in the photograph is a woman in a white dress who was almost certainly Mrs Mary St. John Hutchinson (Duncan Grant, conversation with the compiler 28 May 1976), the Mary referred to in the letter from Vanessa Bell to Roger Fry, which also contained the passage: ‘I believe Clive and Mary are coming for the weekend’. The photograph may perhaps have been taken on that occasion. Mrs Mary St. John Hutchinson told the compiler (letter of 5 March 1976) that she never posed for Vanessa Bell nude or semi-nude.

In the painting in its present state the figure is nude without a chemise and is holding the end of her plaited hair which was a later addition; and the jug has been painted out. According to Duncan Grant (conversation with the compiler 28 May 1976), these changes were made soon after the state shown in the photograph. Certainly the painting is stylistically homogeneous.

A woodcut, ‘Nude’, by Vanessa Bell, based on ‘The Tub’ was included in a book published by the Omega Workshops: Original Woodcuts by Various Artists. A woodcut by Duncan Grant in the same book is of a female nude, in a tub based on a painting by him of 1916 ‘The Tub’ (repr. Roger Fry, Living Painters: Duncan Grant, 1923). This painting was later destroyed in a fire and Grant painted a replica in the early 1940s.

The theme of bathing women, which may have been suggested by the work of Degas, was popular with Grant and Bell in years c. 1913–18. In addition to the works discussed above, Grant painted ‘The Tub’ 1913 (T0723) and in about 1915 Vanessa Bell painted a large picture of two bathing females one seated, one standing, in a very simplified style. A photograph of this painting, which was probably destroyed by fire, belongs to Richard Shone. Later, Vanessa Bell was working on ‘the children's bath picture’ to which she referred in a letter to Roger Fry (5 March 1918). In 1911 Duncan Grant had painted a scene of men bathing in one of his paintings, ‘Bathing’ (4567), for the Borough Polytechnic.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1974-6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978

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