Can you remember your last truly great conversation? It might have been intense or lighthearted, even confrontational; it might have been with friends, a loved one or even with yourself. The Art of Conversation is a concept that has fascinated artists, writers and thinkers alike, and which has prompted them to devote their time and energy to understanding it. At its most basic level, the functions of a conversation can be split into two functions: to either clarify or to confirm (School of Life, 2014).
In Vanessa Bell’s painting entitled Conversation, completed in 1913, a group of three women sit by an open window facing onto a garden. Their bodies are almost dark, shapeless masses, shadowed against the more vividly coloured flowers beyond. This is clearly an intense conversation. The figure in black is the speaker at the moment the image has been captured but there seems to be something questioning in the way she gestures with her furled hand. Perhaps she has just given a suggestion about which she is not fully convinced, or perhaps she is discussing her doubts about something that has just been said. The women facing her may be visitors because at least one appears to be wearing a hat (Sworn, 2017). They have a penetrating and almost inquisitorial gaze, as though trying to discern some deeper meaning in what she is saying. They do not look to be particularly friendly as their sharp features contrast the speaker's softer facial composition. Their higher position in the image plane gives them a sense of domination.
There is an echo of how a conversation ebbs and flows in the way the background and foreground seem to be simultaneously separated and combined. We have the curtain framing the opening out onto the garden, giving a sense of secrecy and confidentiality to the group. However, if we look at the two women on the right, it is difficult to discern where the shrubbery and the heads/hats of the women begin and end (Sworn, 2017). Thus, as the interior and exterior of this painted world come in and out of focus, so the conversation meanders between the central and the peripheral.
Vanessa Bell was one of the founder members of the London based Bloomsbury Group. She worked alongside a group of creatives that included her sister, the writer Virginia Woolf. Despite London being a hub of great activity and creativity, it was at Charleston House in the English countryside where a great deal of Bell’s work was executed. She lived with Duncan Grant and his lover David Garnett (Charleston, 2021.) in what could be described as an idyll. Here, many social boundaries were pushed and a lifestyle was nurtured that was far freer than that of the rest of Britain during their years there.
This reactionary and controversial sentiment ran through the work of those involved with, and connected to, the Group. And so the art of conversation was truly important; to discuss, define and expand notions as well as to settle matters of dispute and conflict. As in any society, personalities clashed, people disagreed and so communication and conversation were vital. Conversation may not show such a conversation, in fact, one might consider this to be a fictional scene (possibly a modern version of Macbeth’s three witches) or several observations amalgamated into one harmonious scene. Whatever the truth, Virginia Woolf wrote to her sister saying ‘I think you are a most remarkable painter. But I maintain you are into the bargain, a satirist, a conveyer of impressions about human life: a short story writer of great wit and able to bring off a situation in a way that rouses my envy’ (ArtUK, n.d.).
Vanessa Bell’s ability to represent everyday scenes in an almost simplistic and reduced fashion, whilst still maintaining all the humanity and intensity of expression one would expect from more photographic style documentation, is what makes her such a fascinating artist. The world in which she and her counterparts in the Bloomsbury Group lived, relished the need to talk and experiment, using their collective intellect to advance their creative thinking and redefining art and culture at the start of the 20th century.
Painted only a few years prior, George Bell’s depiction of a conversation shares several aspects with Vanessa Bell’s work: the number and composition of figures is the same and he uses a similar visual device to separate the interior world from the exterior world beyond. However, George Bell has depicted not one but two conversations happening simultaneously. We, as the viewer, are welcomed into the scene by the somewhat mischievous and inquisitive look of the woman, Amy Lambert, on the far right (Culture Victoria, 2016). What this playful smile means, and for whom it was intended, is not clear, but by gazing out of the picture plane she engages the viewer, opening the circle of interaction that in Vanessa Bell’s image is closed.
The two figures deep in conversation are the artists George Lambert and Thea Proctor (Culture Victoria, 2016). Their left hand gestures mirror each other. They both have one hand gloved and one bare. Although they are set at different heights, their bodies are turned in mirroring poses. And their concentrated and serious expressions contrast greatly with those of Thea. One other difference between this work and the previous one is that it lacks a definite protagonist. Our eye is drawn to Amy as she is our entry point into the scene. George is placed higher than the two female figures, yet he is partly obscured by the canvas edge. Thea is the central character, well lit and in a pale dress that contrasts with her companions’ black attire. There is a sense of balance and individual personality that is arguably missing from Vanessa’s painting.
George Bell was an Australian artist who underwent much of his artistic education in Europe, and was active in London and St. Ives during the early years of the 20th century (Williams, 1979). It is likely that he came in contact with the Bloomsbury Group but it was not until 1934-5 that he began to connect actively with its members through his reading of publications by Clive Bell (Vanessa’s husband) and Roger Fry. He also made a sudden trip to England to participate in the New English Art Club (ibid). George Bell’s association with these groups formed the basis of much of his teaching in his art school back in Melbourne (ibid.). In this group he continued to propose a view of the world based on the concepts from Clive Bell’s books and the notion of Significant Form.
A conversation - a place to discuss, dispute, inform and reform ideas - was central to the artistic worlds in which these two paintings were created. They involve the mind and body, passion and energy. Artists continue to paint these seemingly mundane everyday situations believing that they need capturing and recording. They understand the art of conversation in a way that potentially few still do.
Charleston — History. (2021). Charleston. Retrieved May 12, 2022, from https://www.charleston.org.uk/history/
Conversation | Art UK. (n.d.). ArtUK. Retrieved May 10, 2022, from https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/conversation-207043/search/actor:bell-vanessa-18791961/page/1/view_as/grid
Sworn, C. ‘A Conversation’ in Milroy, S., & Dejardin, I. A. C. (2017). Vanessa Bell (Illustrated ed.). Philip Wilson Publishers.
The Conversation, painting by George Bell - An Art History of Australia. (2016). Culture Victoria. Retrieved May 13, 2022, from https://cv.vic.gov.au/stories/creative-life/an-art-history-of-australia/the-conversation-painting-by-george-bell/
The School of Life. (2014, August 30). On the Art of Conversation. Retrieved May 10, 2022, from https://www.theschooloflife.com/article/why-conversations-are-often-so-boring/
Williams, F. (1979, January 1). Bell, George Frederick Henry (1878–1966). Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved May 14, 2022, from https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bell-george-frederick-henry-5192
Fig. 1 Estate of Vanessa Bell & Courtauld. (n.d.). Conversation [Oil on Canvas]. ArtUK. https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/conversation-207043/search/actor:bell-vanessa-18791961/page/1/view_as/grid
Fig. 2 National Portrait Gallery, London. (n.d.). Julian Bell; Vanessa Bell, 1910 [Photograph]. National Portrait Gallery. https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw223901/Julian-Bell-Vanessa-Bell?
Fig. 3 Estate of George Bell. (n.d.). A Conversation [Oil on Canvas]. Culture Victoria. https://cv.vic.gov.au/stories/creative-life/an-art-history-of-australia/the-conversation-painting-by-george-bell/
Fig. 4 National Library of Australia. (1979). George Frederick Henry Bell [Pencil on Paper]. Australian Dictionary of Biography. National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6054541 https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bell-george-frederick-henry-5192