Original Woodcuts

by charlestonattic

In The Bloomsbury Artists – Prints and Book Design Angelica Garnett remembers her mother Vanessa Bell sitting by the stove on dark evenings sketching on her lap. One can imagine Bell in such a pose at Charleston trying out designs for the various woodcuts that she produced over the course of her artistic career. This print by Bell from the 1950s, a recent find in the Angelica Garnett Gift, could have been designed on one such evening.


CHA/P/2571. Recto. Vanessa Bell, print, basket of fruit, ink on card. © The Charleston Trust

In this stylish woodcut design a basket of fruit takes centre stage; fresh fruit – light grapes and gleaming two-tone apples – rolls towards the front, tumbling amongst the woven basket, its intertwining branches shaping the deep tall structure. The striped background unfurls like drapes around the basket, following its elegantly curved edges. Here Bell uses the contrast of black and white to capture light and movement. It is reminiscent of her book cover designs for titles such as Hogarth Essays and features typical motifs from her work such as curtains and the shape of the vase. The woodcut, printed onto a thick piece of card, is also similar to Bell’s calendar designs. Indeed, a small tear-off pad of calendar pages would have fit nicely in the rectangle formed beneath the basket.

Woodcuts were an important part of Bell’s oeuvre and the project of putting together a book of woodcut prints had occupied her since Virginia and Leonard Woolf had set up the Hogarth Press in 1917. She wrote to her sister upon receiving the Woolfs’ first publication Two Stories, comprised of “The Mark on the Wall” by Virginia and “Two Jews” by Leonard, admiring both her sister’s writing and Dora Carrington’s woodcut illustrations. She proceeded to add

“It has occurred to me, did you seriously mean that we might produce a book (I mean pamphlet) of woodcuts? Both Duncan and I want very much to do some, and if you really thought it feasible, I should like to get a few other people also to produce one or two each and get together a small collection. Could this be arranged with your new press?”

Plans went ahead but later that year a dispute with Leonard Woolf over the layout of the print led to a temporary abandonment of the project. It was taken up again the following year by Roger Fry and was eventually published by the Omega Workshops under the title Original Woodcuts by Various Artists.


Nude by Vanessa Bell, 1918. Published in Original Woodcuts by Various Artists  © Bonhams.

Duncan Grant later recalled how woodcutting was a new endeavour for the artists, explaining “We [Bell and Grant] learned to do it ourselves … I think Roger may have helped us at first. I found it very easy, but Nessa had difficulties at first. She kept gouging holes in herself”. However, it was not the fear of physical injury that would stop the pair from working but Charleston’s rural location and thus the shortage of decent artist’s supplies. Indeed, Bell wrote of this hindrance to Roger Fry in 1918:

“I have done another woodblock. Duncan has done 3 altogether. But we are both waiting for a fine tool with which to finish them. I hope Bunny may bring one back from London tomorrow and then we can soon get them done and send them to you.”

The Tub by Vanessa Bell, 1917. © Tate

Woodcutting had an effect on both Bell and Grant’s other artistic outputs, Vanessa Bell in particular using woodcuts to refine her artistic practice. She made her woodcut print Nude at the same time, and based around the same image, as her painting The Tub. The print was used by Bell as a method to figure out proportion and design issues in her larger piece, being helpful due to its smaller size. Nude was also published alongside other works such as Dahlias in the final version of Original Woodcuts by Various Artists and suggests that, as well as a tool for refining her composition, Bell saw it as a work in its own right. Bell also began making woodcut illustrations for many of Virginia Woolf’s books, as discussed in a previous blog post Judging a Book by its Cover, inaugurating a long relationship of sisterly artistic collaboration.

Duncan Grant’s print Hat Shop designed for Original Woodcuts by Various Artists, also reveals a relationship between print making and his design work. Hat Shop depicted hats that he had designed to sell in the Omega Workshops (James Beechey The Bloomsbury Artists – Prints and Book Design) and thus was not only a clever marketing scheme but also represented the merging of fine and decorative arts at the Omega Workshops. We have recently found some Omega hat designs in the Angelica Garnett Gift (image below) which could have provided inspiration for these woodblocks. Grant also designed prints for various commissions throughout his life including one in 1965 from The Folio Society to produce illustrations for its publication of Arthur Waley’s translation of Monkey: a folk-tale of China, more commonly known simply as Monkey, discussed on a previous blog post. Another print that we have found in the same box in the Attic as Bell’s basket of fruit is Duncan Grant’s cover design for In an Eighteenth Century Kitchen, published in 1969 by Cecil Woolf. These later print works show the enduring appeal of the print form in Grant’s artistic career.


CHA/P/2454 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, Omega hat designs, pen on grid paper. © The Charleston Trust

The final publication of Original Woodcuts by Various Artists in early 1919 included woodcuts by Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Roald Kristian, Edward Wolfe, Simon Bussy and McKnight Cauffer. However, it was the Omega Workshops’ last communal project and by June the same year Roger Fry had announced its closing down sale. Although the workshops had not taken off as Fry had imagined, the publication of the prints made a final parting statement about collaboration and innovation in artistic work in England. Indeed, copies of the book survive to inspire us into the modern day and Jeanette Winterson describes the delight that a copy of Original Woodcuts by Various Artists now brings in her own book Art Objects: “Is it the hand-decorated coloured-paper wrappers, or the thick cream insides, or the fact that she [Virginia Woolf] stitched this book that I have before me now? It is association, intrinsic worth, beauty, a commitment to beautiful things, and the deep passage of the woodcuts themselves”.

bell dahlias

Dahlias by Vanessa Bell, 1918. Published in Original Woodcuts by Various Artists © V&A