Although Vanessa Bell painted a great variety of subjects throughout her career, it is perhaps in still life that she is at her most personal, revealing and unselfconscious. Two of her best-known, rare early works, from the years 1908-10, Iceland Poppies and Apples: 46 Gordon Square (both Charleston Trust) show her delight in and mastery of solid objects in a mood that is relaxed, meditative and intimate. It was after seeing the former work that Sickert exclaimed to the artist, 'Continuez!' when it was shown at the New English Art Club in 1909. This boosted her confidence and in the following years, whenever she needed some respite from designing for the Omega Workshops or the practical difficulties of sitters and models, she could turn to the uninterrupted contemplation that still life afforded her.
The present work dates from circa 1919. Although the colour is rich, it does not have the prismatic exuberance of her earlier Post-Impressionist period works. The famous European rappel à l'ordre that consciously or unconsciously affected artists of many aesthetic persuasions around 1918 and afterwards was certainly evident in the works Bell produced at that period. Six apples are seen in a boldly striped shallow dish resting on the low seat of a chair. The dish is not a product of the Omega Workshops but might well have been acquired there as the Omega sold Mediterranean and North African pottery from its premises in Fitzroy Square. The chair is one of a pair of early 19th century prie-dieu chairs of gilded wood with embroidered and beadwork upholstery which Duncan Grant bought in a second-hand shop in Brighton in about 1917-8. These chairs are still at Charleston in Grant's bedroom. Their dramatic foliage design on a red ground formed the setting of several still life paintings by Bell and Grant around the years 1919-22. Grant's Hollyhocks on a Prie-dieu at Charleston (circa 1920) was exhibited in Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, London, Spink, 1991, no. 46, reproduced, and a similar painting by Grant of a vase of dahlias on the same chair is reproduced in Simon Watney, The Art of Duncan Grant, London, 1990, pl. 36.
It is worth remembering that a year or so before this work was painted, Maynard Keynes came back from Paris where he had bought a still life of seven apples by Cézanne from the sale of Degas's collection in 1918. He returned via Charleston and the little painting had an electrifying effect on Bell and Grant (who had seen very little French art during the years of the First World War). The still lifes of both painters at Charleston at this time seemed to find a confirmation in the great example of Cézanne whose modestly scaled study of apples they briefly had before them. Bell's tilted composition, the dish seen from above on the low chair seat, and the subdued but not sombre colouring, set the pace and tone of her work over the next few years.
We are very grateful to Richard Shone for providing the catalogue note for this lot.
For further information about Arthur Crossland please see the catalogue entry for lot 41.