The Process of Abstraction

by charlestonattic

In many of the sketches by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in the Angelica Garnett Gift one can see the tangible ephemera of everyday life abstracting. Still life scenes become shapes and darts over the course of a sketchbook. Subjects are reworked and refined as outlines of their former selves. People disappear, represented instead by the shapes of their clothing and surroundings. In these works we see the artists’ processes of abstraction, using the contours of landscapes and the shaping of the figure to create significant forms.

Lily Pond Duncan Grant Art Gallery of South Australia

Duncan Grant Lily-Pond design. Photograph © Art Gallery of South Australia.

Bell and Grant experimented with abstract art in the 1910s both in their individual work and in their designs for the Omega Workshops. Grant’s Omega design Lily-Pond used in the Lily-Pond Table that can be seen in Maynard Keynes’s bedroom at Charleston is a notable example. This piece, like many of the sketch works in the Angelica Garnett Gift, though abstract is still recognisably representational. The dark depths of the pond are the bottomless backdrop to the drama of golden scaled fish rippling the lily pads and creating dancing reflections of light. Similarly an abstract landscape sketch by Duncan Grant that we have found in the Gift (see below) replicates the motion of the natural world. Wind moves in a spiralling motion above cliffs and wavy lines rise from the ground and along the edge of a cave. Fish also swim in a pool of water in this sketch, but now they are all facing the same direction, copies of themselves. Indeed, the forms in the sketch are more graphic, more geometric, than those in Lily-Pond. The bold lines of the sketch both capture the mood of this perhaps imaginary landscape whilst refining its representation into abstraction.


CHA/P/2318 Recto. Duncan grant, drawing, abstract landscape study, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Vanessa Bell was also interested in the abstraction of the natural world. Her lesser known painting Landscape, painted on the back of another of her works Window, Still Life, uses the colours and shapes of nature to communicate the feeling of being in a landscape, rather than what it may actually look like. It is as if the fleshy coloured shape of a figure mid-way down the painting is swimming through this landscape, which could be both lily pond and shaded canopy in the same moment. Lines and blocks of colours are also used to insinuate the fall and refraction of light upon the natural scene. This painting is particularly interesting due to its being on the back of another work Window, Still Life from 1912-13. Indeed, the canvas of Landscape was cut down to fit the size of Window, Still Life meaning Landscape must pre-date it and that it was an early experiment into abstraction for Vanessa Bell.

(c) Henrietta Garnett; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Landscape by Vanessa Bell. Photograph © The Cheltenham Trust.

Works like these would develop in Vanessa Bell’s work culminating in 1914 when she created one of the first completely non-representational abstract paintings made by a British artist. This pioneering Abstract Painting developed alongside other paintings which used geometric shapes, such as her portrait of Mary Hutchinson in 1915 and her 1915 self portrait. In these paintings the abstract shapes and colours relate to the colours used to demark the sitter. It is thus possible to read these backgrounds as abstract representations of the portraits themselves.


Mrs St John Hutchinson by Vanessa Bell, 1915. Photograph © Tate.

At the same time Duncan Grant created his Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound (1914) which was a design for a long piece of abstract work which would be hung over mechanical spools rotating the design enabling it to be viewed sequentially through the aperture of a box as it passed. He also intended it to be set to music, specifically a slow movement from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Although this project was never realised this and Bell’s works in abstraction assert their importance to the development of abstract art in the 1910s in England.


CHA/P/2399 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Indeed, the Angelica Garnett Gift is a rich resource for considering their approach to abstraction. When Bell painted her groundbreaking abstract canvas she had, as Richard Shone notes, “seen hardly no non-figurative work by other artists”. This suggests that Bell, influenced by the visual vocabularies of Post-Impressionism brought to England by Roger Fry in 1910, developed her works into abstraction on her own terms. Indeed, the gift gives us glimpses of abstraction in action. A Vanessa Bell sketchbook which includes various studies of fans also contains a sketch in which two well dressed ladies are reduced to the shapes of their fans and feathered hats themselves, standing before a table abstractedly set with a glass of wine and a bowl of fruit for lunch. Furthermore, a page of sketches by Duncan Grant focusing on the female form is also dotted with decorative motifs that mimic the curvature of the female body.


CHA/P/606/42. Vanessa Bell, drawing, decorative motifs, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Although abstraction seems to have been key to both artists’ oeuvres in their artistic development and their continuing process of design for works of art and decorative commissions, Quentin Bell later recalled how Vanessa Bell felt that purely abstract work enacted a loss of the subject matter that she craved. Despite moving away from abstract aesthetics in painting the Angelica Garnett Gift is revealing the continuing importance of abstraction as a method of thinking through composition and design in the works of both Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.


CHA/P/2487 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, abstract design, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.