Tate Etc

Family pleasures Behind the curtain

Henrietta Garnett, a regular visitor to the Tate archive, recognises two painted calendars done by her grandmother Vanessa Bell.

Vanessa Bell Hand-painted calendar done as Christmas gifts for friends 1951 two

Vanessa Bell
Hand-painted calendars done as Christmas gifts for friends 1951
Photo: Tate Archive © Estate of Vanessa Bell

One of the delights of researching in the Tate archive is passing through the library and pausing to look at what is on show in the glass-topped display cabinets. One morning I was impelled to stop, having caught a fleeting sight of colours, a swirl of design. The exhibit was suddenly so familiar that my heart jumped in a leap of recognition. Among various items of Bloomsbury memorabilia were two calendars for 1951 by my grandmother, the painter Vanessa Bell. Connoisseurs of Bloomsbury’s applied and decorative art will be familiar with her book jackets and illustrations, but less likely to have come across the Christmas cards and calendars she designed, simply because she sent them to her friends and they have seldom been reproduced. 

Done for her own pleasure as well as that of her friends, Vanessa’s calendars are spontaneous, charming and were a delight to receive. These two are particularly felicitous. I did wonder if the second was done by her companion and fellow artist, my grandfather Duncan Grant – for the turquoise, yellow and terracotta are more reminiscent of his palette than of her more restrained one. Even so, I was sure that the gentle stippling, the use of space positively including what isn’t there, could only be Vanessa. Then I discovered the identical design, albeit in different colours, for each one was executed individually, in the catalogue for a forthcoming exhibition at Cornell University and attributed to Vanessa. 

If Vanessa was staying at their London Percy Street flat, she would buy the ready-made printed calendars from Woolworths in Tottenham Court Road. When she was at Charleston, she bought them from Baxter’s – a glorious stationers in Lewes High Street. Sitting in Duncan’s downstairs studio in the evening after dinner, she would sip her coffee and design a motif, the slow deliberate movement of her hand guiding her soft dark pencil, or possibly a biro, across the sketch pad on her knees. She had an expression of serious concentration. At the same time, a curious smile played on her half open lips. 

The actual execution of the design was done in her attic studio after lunch. The mornings Vanessa spent on more serious work; the afternoons were subtly less exacting and given over to more frivolous projects. The shop-bought calendars were painstakingly gummed in with a home-made paste of flour and water. An economical woman, the inexpensiveness of these very personal New Year gifts appealed to her. If they gave the recipients pleasure, so much the better. She enjoyed making them, and that they continue to give pleasure would very likely have brought back that self-deprecating smile and her low hoot of amusement.