In Vanessa Bell’s The Schoolroom, all is pattern: from the looping wallpaper to the tablecloth, the striped drapes and lampshade, the softly mottled armchair and the chequered effect of the net curtain, decoration and design abounds. Even the vase of scarlet flowers and their plump, feather-like leaves suggests a fleur de lis or a Tudor rose; a still life made motif.
Style epitomised Bell’s life and art. A student of the Royal Academy in the early 1900s, like other female artists of her time she has become better known for her relations than her exceptional work: she was the sister of Virginia Woolf, whose books she illustrated; her marriage to the critic Clive Bell was mutually polygamous, leading to fiery affairs with the artists Roger Fry and Duncan Grant. A key figure within the Bloomsbury Group and Fry’s legendary Omega Workshops, she was central to some of the 20th century’s most important commercial artistic ventures.
Above all, Bell had an eye for design. The larger part of her early career was spent taking ‘decorative’ commissions: haute couture fashion, textiles and graphics for Omega, theatre costumes, dinner services and dust jackets. Like fellow artist-cum-designer Sonia Delaunay, she saw her commercial work and her ‘fine’ art not as distinct disciplines, but as ways of working that fed into and cross-fertilised one another. In designs for scarves, dresses, and home furnishings she experimented with abstract form and colour then applied the results to her own original work.
The Schoolroom saw both practices come together. Approached by the Contemporary Lithographs founders in the mid-1930s, Bell obliged with an intimate vignette of domestic life. A woman – no doubt a self-portrait – sits in her study; to the left a second figure writes, her sister, perhaps, with the copper hair, while a third plays an out-of-sight piano. Though the scene is quiet, Bell injects visual interest through her juxtaposition of rich colours: deep purple carpet, peppermint walls and mustard furniture. Her use of perspective is no less bold, placing the viewer right at the table as if seated in the foreground. The effect is at once busied and cosy: an image of urban leisure that buzzes with pattern and texture.
Vanessa Bell’s reputation has seen something of a renaissance in the last twelve months. A major reappraisal at the Dulwich Picture Gallery has asserted her place as a modernist who lived and worked at the heart of the British art world. Her outlook was multifaceted, positioned uniquely between salon, studio, workshop and showroom. Few other post-impressionists of her time could lay claim to so particular and colourful a view of London life – a view delightfully embodied in the Schoolroom lithograph.