Pond at Garsington depicts the pool at Garsington Manor near Oxford. Garsington was the country home of the society hostess and patron Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873–1938) and was a centre for socializing for those associated with the Bloomsbury Group, the house often appearing in paintings and photographs by artists who visited it. Brett spent extended periods at Garsington between 1916 and 1919. The view is from the corner so that the pond appears as a diamond shape within the rectangular composition. This diagonal framing of the view across the pond provides a counterpoint to the vertical forms of the cypress trees on a small island in the centre of the pool, and the short vertical strokes of paint with which the subject is depicted. This interest in the juxtaposition of bold simplified forms is similar to that evident in Brett’s earlier figure paintings such as War Widows 1916 (private collection) and the use of patches of bright green also heightens the palette beyond the naturalistic. The work is signed and dated 1919, and is likely to have been painted in the summer of 1919 as Brett left Garsington in September of that year.
The pond was evidently a place that had significance for the artist since her correspondence describes bathing at Garsington (see Hignett 1984, p.81), and a series of photographs of Lady Ottoline Morrell’s daughter and her friends dancing naked by the pond, now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, were originally in Brett’s ownership. In August 1917 Brett and her close friend the painter Mark Gertler (1891–1939) were working together at Garsington and Gertler wrote: ‘Today I experimented in watercolours with Brett and discussed excitedly various problems of painting … it is a pity that the sun is not here because there is so much to paint around the pond’ (Gertler 1965, p.149). In the summer of 1919, when this work was painted, Gertler described an evening by the pond: ‘We walked round the pond by moonlight reading Verlaine in the melodramatic manner’ (Gertler 1965, p.175). Gertler made several paintings of the pond at Garsington between 1916 and 1919 (Government Art Collection and Leeds City Art Gallery), including a large canvas, The Bathers 1917–9 (private collection), which he described as ‘a good old-fashioned “Cézannish” bathing scene’ (Gertler 1965, p.136).
In its adoption of Paul Cézanne’s (1839–1906) technique of short vertical strokes of paint, Brett’s Pond at Garsington shows the impact on British landscape painting in the 1910s of the critic Roger Fry’s promotion of post-impressionism. Brett’s interest in Cézanne dates from at least April 1915 when Gertler described her recent trip to Paris: ‘She had not much to say about Paris except that she came across a good Cézanne book’ (Gertler 1965, p.90). In May 1917 the artist and critic Roger Fry (1866–1934) mounted the exhibition Omega Translations and Copies at the Omega Workshops in London’s Fitzroy Square. Fry was interested in the practice of copying works by the old masters both as a means of fully understanding their formal qualities, and as a way of producing a contemporary ‘translation’ of their ideas. This interest in reinterpretation was shared by fellow Bloomsbury Group artists Vanessa Bell (1879–1961) and Duncan Grant (1885–1978) who also contributed to the show, in which Gertler exhibited his translation of a Cézanne still life (see Anscombe 1981, pp.77–9).
Brett’s The Pond at Garsington has interesting links with Bloomsbury ideas of translation in its rendering of a resonant location already depicted by Gertler, using a technique of paint application derived from Cézanne. Her work was also explicitly grouped with Bloomsbury artists in exhibitions playing on questions of attribution and influence. Fry included her work Asters (date and location unknown) in the Nameless Exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1921, for which he selected the ‘Modernists’ section alongside Charles Sims’s ‘Academics’ section and Henry Tonks’s ‘Intermediates’. Here artists’ works were exhibited without labels to allow viewers to confront the works directly without their judgement being affected by the artist’s name. Fry wrote to Bell: ‘Yes, I’ve put in both Brett and Carrington – quite respectable work and of course any of our lot are so much better than the best of the R.A.s’ (Roger Fry, Letters of Roger Fry, ed. by Denys Sutton, vol.2, London 1972, p.510). In the context of these exhibitions and the social networks facilitated by Garsington, Brett’s The Pond at Garsington can also be seen as representative of the ways in which social interaction, visual theory and artistic dialogues were interconnected in Bloomsbury circles.
Mark Gertler, Selected Letters, ed. by Noel Carrington, London 1965.
Isabelle Anscombe, Omega and After: Bloomsbury and the Decorative Arts, London 1981.
Sean Hignett, Brett: From Bloomsbury to New Mexico, London, Sydney, Auckland and Toronto 1984.
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