“The Maternal Paradox: The Private Portraiture of Vanessa Bell” by Samantha Wilson

by charlestonattic

Last Wednesday we travelled once more up to London, this time for the annual British Portraiture conference at The National Portrait Gallery, attending a talk by another former attic intern Samantha Wilson. Wilson’s research explores the uneasy relationship between the eye of the mother and that of the artist, arguing that Vanessa Bell’s portraits of her infant son stage a conflict between the emotional attachment of the former with the practical detachment of the latter. The lecture was focused through the lens of a particular object from the gift, a 1908 velum-bound sketchbook by Vanessa Bell containing studies of her infant son Julian Hewert Bell.

The book, and the sketches within it, Wilson argued, not only embody Bell’s burgeoning maternal affection, but also offer glimpses of the artist at work, deep in thought, studiously engaged in artistic exercises. Julian’s shifting, developing form proved an especially ideal subject for studies of movement, connecting Bell’s domestic subject matter with concurrent – broadly male-authored, and widely celebrated – experiments by Cubist painters. Indeed, Wilson boldly suggested that one can situate Bell’s most experimental work in the early years of her children’s lives. Wilson thus framed Bell as representing a radical, uniquely maternal – and inevitably overlooked – current of Modernism.


 CHA/P/621/15. Vanessa Bell, drawing of the artist’s son Julian, 1908. Sketchbook. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Yet why, Wilson’s talk implicitly asked, is the concept of a maternal Modernism  – or maternal artistry in general – so seemingly paradoxical? The conflict, Wilson argued,  results from a socially imposed contradiction between pregnancy and artistry, one aggravated by the Victorian values Bell inherited. While pregnancy often served to exclude women from the public sphere, artistic productivity – especially one concerned with exhibition and sale – entailed a resolute commitment to self-promotion and public engagement. Hence the prevalence, Wilson implied, of the mythologized ‘childless artist’ – women too committed to their craft to procreate – a trope famously fulfilled by her own sister Virginia Woolf. However, attempts at a reconciliation of these roles pervade Bell’s work, but particularly, Wilson suggested, in Bell’s more prominent, resolutely public Post-Impressionist paintings.

Wilson picked out Bell’s 1912 ‘Nursery Tea’ alongside her (now lost) 1913 ‘Woman and Baby’ as instances where scenes conventionally coded as domestic and feminine are lent an avante-garde treatment. In a landscape where acclaimed  Modernist painters – from Wyndam Lewis to Pablo Picasso – busied themselves aestheticizing urban isolation, violence and advanced mechanization, the unique nature of Bell’s subject matter cannot be stressed enough. Here, Wilson concluded, Bell achieves a conflation of her conflicting visions: motherhood is depicted through highly experimental means, and crucially without recourse to anecdote or sentimentality.

nursery tea

The Nursery Tea, 1912 Vanessa Bell. oil on canvas © Christies

After Julian’s death in 1937, Bell recalled her early days of motherhood as implicitly tied to her art practice:

“sitting at a long window looking onto the square with him on my lap. Clive beside me. Intense peace & joy. Painting him in his cradle every morning as he lay & kicked. Drawing as he began to stagger about (I still have those).”

Bell’s parenthetical aside belies a sustained, passionate commitment to possessing and cherishing these works; as Wilson remarked, Bell’s normally detached attitude to her paintings – unruffled by the loss of her studio in an air raid – is here set aside. Therefore ultimately, in Wilson’s reading, the preservation of this sketchbook represents a prevailing of the maternal over the artistic: memory and mourning collapse any critical distance, allowing the survival of work otherwise considered expendable. It is the eye of the mother, then, as well as Wilson’s illuminating talk, we can thank for the endurance and exploration of this beautiful object.