Vanessa Bell: A Poet in Colour

Guest blog: Claudia Tobin

Virginia Woolf described her sister Vanessa Bell as a 'poet in colour'. Bell’s visual art was a source of inspiration as well as rivalry for Woolf. Her non-fiction and fiction as well as her writings about Bell reveal a peculiar attentiveness to colour in visual art and an attempt to harness its visceral effects in prose.

As part of an InFocus project on Vanessa Bell's abstract painting commissioned by the Tate Gallery, I have written two papers which examine the meanings and functions of colour in Bell's paintings and textiles. My research also explores the ways in which Woolf attempted to communicate chromatic experience in her writings, and how she developed a language of colour which traverses the terrain between the visual and the verbal. Woolf was, I suggest, also a 'poet in colour'.

Bell produced Abstract Painting (above) in 1914 during a period of extraordinary innovation in the use of colour in art. The combination of pure colours in Abstract Painting is perhaps its most striking quality. Bell later referred to the work as a ‘test for chrome yellow’, and she presumably intended the contrasting blocks of colour to explore the effects of different colour relations. She felt liberated by the brilliant, non-naturalist colouring of post-impressionist painting, and colour remained central to her practice long after she had lost interest in abstraction for its own sake. My contribution to Tate’s project examines the colour combinations in Abstract Painting in the context of the post-impressionist revolution in colour and modernist colour theories.

Abstract Painting is one of only four surviving abstracts by Bell and one of the first abstract works to be produced by a British artist. Alongside work by pioneering European artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, it occupies a significant place in the story of European abstraction. Bell was part of a conversation about emotional expression in abstraction and colour as a subject which went beyond national boundaries. Abstract Painting is also important in Bell’s posthumous reception. It is held in the Tate collection and was most recently displayed at Tate Modern, where it initiated a dialogue with the interlocking geometric forms of an abstract sculpture by Lebanese artist, Saloua Raouda Choucair (1916-).

The Virginia Woolf in Cambridge summer course will make a visit to view Bell’s paintings and works by contemporary Bloomsbury artists. We will explore the protean ways in which Woolf responded to her sister’s work and to the visual arts more broadly. 


Dr Claudia Tobin’s essays for Tate’s InFocus project on Bell’s abstract painting will be published in 2016, alongside essays by Bell specialist Dr Grace Brockington. She led the 2016 Virginia Woolf in Cambridge course visit to Bloomsbury. In 2017, she will lecture on Vanessa Bell in our Reading Bloomsbury summer course.