Catherine Bell

Watercolour 'portraitist of plants'


Catherine Bell, artist: born Hazlewood, Yorkshire 30 November 1951; married first Glenn Chatfield (marriage dissolved), second 1987 Derek Ogle; died York 22 May 2006.

Catherine Bell began by painting what she called "portraits of plants". She sought inspiration for her pictures in her travels to the botanical gardens from Kew to Leiden in Holland and around north-west Europe, and her highly coloured close-up drawings won three major prizes from the Society of Botanical Artists. (Her favourite flowers were irises.) As her work progressed and developed, however, so it became bolder and more intense, freer in colour and tighter in design.

She painted from life - the flowers, vegetables and tropical foliage taking on abstract forms as they appeared on the paper. Yet while Bell's talent flourished so her health declined: it was almost as if she had foreknowledge of her early death. She completed her last picture the day before she died.

Bell was born in 1951 at Hazlewood in the West Riding of Yorkshire (it is now part of Tadcaster in the North Riding). Her father was a doctor with a practice in the Dales. After attending Wakefield High School for Girls she had a career as a provincial journalist. Idealistic and politically committed to the left, she was also active within the National Union of Journalists and CND. Subsequently she read Urban Studies as a mature student at Sussex University.

After the dissolution of her first marriage Bell married in 1987 Derek Ogle, a fellow sub-editor on the York Evening Press, who was 20 years her senior. Having painted intermittently throughout her career, two years after her marriage she felt able to begin work full-time as an artist. Although she had drawn since she was a child and had an A level in art, Bell was largely self-taught; this she did not regret, only remarking wryly that she was lucky to have been "spared the rigours" of an art school.

She painted in watercolour and acrylic, her work being characterised by accurate drawing and strong use of colours which she kept pure and unmixed; mixing, she held, always made things worse. Her working methods were idiosyncratic in that she typically first of all completed a very fine drawing in pencil of the picture and then finished it in detail section by section (a watercolour artist would more conventionally work over the complete picture and proceed from dark to light areas).

For about four years Bell's health deteriorated as she suffered increasingly from a metabolic disorder, a rare condition which drained her of energy. At the same time the dramatic increase in the power of her pictures brought them more and more to public attention. By now she was exhibiting widely across the north of England and for several years she showed at the Mall Galleries in London.

In 2005 Bell won the Buzzacott Prize for watercolour painting which led in the same year to her election to the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour. And yet despite her considerable success as an artist - her work can now be found in private and corporate collections throughout Britain, Europe, America and Japan - she was always modest in her purposes, and she sought only to enhance people's lives by putting pictures on their walls and offices.

Of medium height and with straight dark hair, Bell was kindly, unassuming and conscientious. She wore sensible, unshowy clothes and flat shoes and never owned a television but preferred newspapers and novels, which she read avidly (she had a particular love of Iris Murdoch). She also took pleasure in good wine, food and music, and in the great gardens of the National Trust properties and stately homes of Yorkshire such as Castle Howard and Beningborough. Unable to own the garden she longed for, instead she filled - indeed crowded - the yard of her terrace house in York with pots of flowers. They were overflowing with poppies at the time of her death.

Catherine Bell collapsed while on a visit to the dentist and she died on her way to hospital. An exhibition of her work, which will now become a retrospective of her career with works on loan from by private collectors, opens at the Look Gallery at Helmsley in North Yorkshire on 3 July.

Simon Fenwick

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