Obituary: Eileen Bell
Artist, children's writer and mentor to the young Alan Titchmarsh
Friday 04 February 2005
Bell was an artist for whom contrasts of tone and the quality of paint were important. She learned from some of the best teachers in pre- and post-Second World War London. Bell was also a trained musician as well as a potter, interior designer, writer and the early cultural mentor of the television gardener and writer Alan Titchmarsh.
She was born in Clifton, Bristol, in 1907, elder daughter of John Bowerbank, a bank manager, and his wife Margaret, an amateur cellist. The Bowerbanks were hostile to Eileen's becoming an artist and so, instead, she studied the piano. It was only after her 1937 marriage to Randall Bell, a consultant surveyor, that she could study art.
In 1939 she joined the St John's Wood School of Art, teachers including the co-principals, Patrick Millard and Ernest Perry, plus Kenneth Martin, a distinguished maker of constructions and kinetic work. Fellow students included Michael Ayrton and John Minton, "very much admired by me, Minton especially, and miles above my head", said Bell:
I remember feeling exceedingly flattered by seeing them standing looking at a canvas of mine and Ayrton saying: "She has a very good sense of tone. She might be the English Utrillo one day." (The said canvas was not good, a mess, in fact.)
Randall Bell's job took him around wartime England, including Oxford, where their only child, Sebastian, was born. Eileen was sympathetic when Sebastian wanted to study music and he went on to become principal flautist with the London Sinfonietta and to teach at the Royal Academy of Music.
Back in London in 1947, Eileen Bell resumed her studies at the Anglo- French Art Centre, which followed on from the closed St John's Wood School. There, in addition to such English teachers as Perry, she learned from noted continental artists including Oskar Kokoschka and Jean Lurcat.
She had joined the Artists International Association in 1939 and continued to show with it. Among her exhibitions was one shared with the distinguished Scottish painter Anne Redpath, as well as appearances at other notable London venues. These included the Young Contemporaries, Leicester Galleries, London Group and Royal Society of British Artists.
From the late 1950s until well into the 1960s Bell was a visiting designer of house interiors with the Council of Industrial Design. This included work for Woman magazine, a couple of show-houses at the Ideal Home Exhibition, wallpaper and textiles for Sanderson's, textiles for Elizabeth Eaton Ltd, commissions for private clients and interiors for the Lygon Arms at Broadway, in Worcestershire.
In 1967 Bell slipped on clay in the potting studio and broke her arm, incapacitating her for a long time. As well as crocheting rugs, she wrote two children's books for Puffin: Tales from the End Cottage (1970) and More Tales from the End Cottage (1972). They recalled Sebastian's childhood in Northamptonshire and the animals where they lived.
Alan Titchmarsh, a student at the nearby Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, called on Eileen Bell in 1969 seeking digs. This was a turning point in his life, as he recalled in his 2002 memoir, Trowel and Error, and his introduction to the catalogue of her 2003 retrospective. As well as the cosy, Bloomsbury-style environment, Titchmarsh enjoyed "wonderful soups and stews, and her own brand of moussaka, and wine - sometimes home-made (her oak leaf had a particularly detrimental effect on the legs)".
Bell took him to the Wallace Collection, National Theatre, Proms at the Albert Hall and concerts on the South Bank. "To say that Eileen Bell was my main cultural influence during my formative years is no exaggeration," "Titch", as he was known to the Bells, wrote.
In the mid-1970s Eileen and Randall Bell settled in Suffolk, first at Drinkstone, then nearby at Tostock, with visits to Walberswick and Aldeburgh for painting inspiration. As well as showing widely in the region, in 1989 she had a solo exhibition at the Duncalfe Galleries in Harrogate, introducing her work to a new and enthusiastic public. Eventually, failing eyesight stopped Bell from painting, and she lived finally in a care home in Leiston, Suffolk.
Christie's South Kensington plans a studio sale of her work on 11 May.
Eileen Elizabeth Jefferd Bowerbank, artist: born Bristol 28 October 1907; married 1937 Randall Bell (died 2004; one son); died Leiston, Suffolk 27 January 2005.
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