Byzantine Lady

Vanessa Bell (1879 - 1961)

Oil on composite paper board


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© Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett

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  • About the work

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    Using jewelled colours and bold outlines, Vanessa Bell reveals an affinity for pattern and design in Byzantine Lady. Dressed ornately, her cheeks theatrically rouged, the woman’s profile is arresting. The painting has been dated from 1911–1912, but recent research suggests 1912 is closest. An unnamed Spanish woman sat for Bell and painter Duncan Grant (Bell’s long-time companion). A shared sitting in 1912 resulted in this painting and Grant’s The Countess (lost). The profile of the model in Bell’s work is stylistically close to that of the woman in Grant’s The Queen of Sheba (1912, Tate). The model is also recognisable in Bell’s Spanish Lady (1912, New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester) and in Roger Fry’s Head of a Model (1913, Private Collection).

    On 6 June 1912 Bell wrote to Fry about a technique she was experimenting with:

    I am trying to paint as if I were mosaicing, not by painting in spots, but by considering the picture as patches each of which has to be filled by the definite space of colours as one has to do with mosaic or woolwork ...

    Her flat unbroken areas of colour were directly inspired by the sixth-century mosaic of Empress Theodora, wife of Emperor Justinian, in the Church of S. Vitale, Ravenna. Grant had visited Ravenna in 1910, and it is likely that Bell saw reproductions of the mosaics before she visited in 1912. The gown and head-dress are based on those of Theodora’s, a ‘Byzantine’ style that peaked in Bohemian circles in modern Europe and America. Actress Sarah Bernhardt revived the role of Theodora in Byzantine dress in 1884; and Paul Poiret’s dress designs (1911) used Byzantine decoration. In 1913, Fry founded The Omega Workshops, a commercial association of artists and craftspeople for which Bell and Grant designed distinctive fabrics, book jackets and furnishings influenced by Byzantine aesthetics.

    From art critic John Ruskin’s ‘discovery’ of Byzantine Venetian architecture in the mid 1800s, to Fry’s coining of ‘Proto-Byzantinism’ in 1917 (Art and Life), the style flourished in Europe and America, fuelled by archaeological discoveries in Greece and Turkey. In 1893 a Byzantine-style chapel designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany featured in the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Performances by the Ballet Russes, founded by Diaghilev in 1909, influenced fashion and painting. Even the lobby of the Woolworth Building (1914), New York’s first modern skyscraper, was designed in the Byzantine style.

    Theodora was a strong subject – acknowledged as a powerful woman in a male-dominated political arena. She represented an iconic figure for the British Suffragettes, and Bell produced this painting amid a charged period of the movement. In 1912 the British government legislated the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act – temporarily discharging hunger strikers until they were fit to be imprisoned again. Several Suffragettes were force-fed in prison, including Sylvia Pankhurst, causing public outrage. On 4 June 1913, the Suffragette Emily Davison died at the Epsom Derby after throwing herself under the King’s horse.

    Although there is scant explicit evidence of Bell’s view of the Suffragettes, the political activism of Bloomsbury figures is well- known. Her sister, writer Virginia Woolf published feminist essays; and Fry’s sister, Margery, was a prominent penal reformer who supported women’s education. It is inconceivable that Bell, a woman who had studied and later worked within a male- dominated art scene, would not have sympathised with the Suffragettes. Her unconventional personal relationships show she was a woman of independent opinion.

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    A leading figure of the Bloomsbury Group, Vanessa Bell was born in London, the eldest daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen (first editor of The Dictionary of National Biography) and Julia Prinsep Jackson, a widow whose family once had links with the Pre-Raphaelites. Of a large family of half siblings, Bell was closest to her direct sister Virginia Woolf. After attending art school in South Kensington in 1896, Bell studied at the Royal Academy Schools (1901–04) where her tutors included Sir John Singer Sargent.

    Bell moved to Bloomsbury in 1904, living with Woolf and her brothers. A year later she set up The Friday Club, a meeting place for artists. She married art critic Clive Bell in 1907 (with whom she had two sons, Quentin and Julian) and it was at their home at 46 Gordon Square that the Bloomsbury Group regularly met to discuss art, literature and politics. Bell’s personal life became complicated in 1910 when she met Fry, starting a lasting friendship, although for Fry it was a case of unrequited love. His exhibitions of Post-Impressionist art in London in 1910 and 1912 showed works by Cézanne, Picasso, Van Gogh and Gauguin greatly influencing Bell and Duncan Grant, who both exhibited works in the 1912 exhibition.

    With the opening of The Omega Workshops in 1913, Bell worked closely with Grant, with whom she eventually began an enduring relationship. Her marriage to Clive Bell had petered out in a conventional sense, but they remained close – to the extent that the Bells and Grant shared a ménage a trois arrangement. Grant and Bell’s daughter, Angelica was born in 1918.

    Bell and Grant were among the first modern British artists to experiment with abstraction. Bell regularly exhibited with the London Group and the London Artists’ Association and her first solo show was held at the Independent Gallery, London, in 1922. However soon after this, the work produced by the Bloomsbury Group was criticised for its conservatism, in contrast to more challenging movements, notably Surrealism.

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    The death of Fry in 1934 and that of her son Julian in 1937, badly affected Bell. In 1941, Virginia Woolf committed suicide. By the start of the Second World War, Bell lived almost permanently at Charleston Farmhouse, the home she shared with Grant and with Clive Bell near Lewes in Sussex. Today Charleston is renowned for its colourful interiors designed by Bell and Grant. Bell died in April 1961, after a short illness. She is buried in the churchyard of Firle, close to Charleston.

    © Crown copyright: UK Government Art Collection

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  • About the artist
    Vanessa Bell painted and carried out decorative commissions throughout her life, designing fabrics, cushion covers, book jackets and interiors. Like her sister the writer Virginia Woolf, she belonged to the circle known as the Bloomsbury Group which included Clive Bell, whom she married in 1907. Bell worked for the Omega Workshops, an association of artists/craftsmen active from 1913 to 1919. She was also involved in the decorative work at Charleston Farmhouse near Lewes in Sussex. Now open to the public, this was Bell’s home until her death in 1961. Bell and Grant’s paintings were greatly influenced by exhibitions of Post-Impressionist art in London in 1910 and 1912, in which works by Cézanne, Picasso, Van Gogh and Gauguin were shown.
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    unknown woman
    Materials & Techniques
    board, oil, oil painting
  • Details
    Byzantine Lady
    Oil on composite paper board
    height: 72.00 cm, width: 51.50 cm
    Purchased from the Fine Art Society, July 1977
    With Anthony d'Offay Ltd., London; from whom purchased by the Fine Art Society, London, in July 1977; from whom purchased by the Department of the Environment in July 1977
    GAC number