Obituary: Professor Quentin Bell
Wednesday 18 December 1996
As the son of Clive and Vanessa Bell and the nephew of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, he was born into the very heart of "Bloomsbury". The year was 1910 and therefore he was, as he has said, used to say, coeval with the first Post-Impressionist exhibition. He imbibed the tenets used to justify this art, regarded Roger Fry as his first teacher and took to heart Fry's premise: "In art we know nothing for certain." On leaving Leighton Park School Bell went to Paris to study painting, his artistic education leading him through a variety of styles, including abstraction and Surrealism, before his political inclinations directed him towards a more socially committed form of realism. In the late 1930s he joined the Euston Road School.
The death of his brother, Julian, in the Spanish Civil War caused an irreparable blow to all the inhabitants of Charleston, the family home on the Firle estate in Sussex. This may explain why, when exempted from military service owing to a past history of tuberculosis, Quentin Bell remained there during the first half of the 1939-45 war, undertaking farm work and in his spare time collaborating with his mother and Duncan Grant on the decoration of the nearby Berwick Church. Brought into the political warfare executive by David Garnett, he worked briefly on propaganda for the French.
He also continued to make pots, having gone to Staffordshire in 1935 to acquire the necessary technical knowledge. His attitude to this art, however, owed less to tradition than to Roger Fry's belief that pottery is essentially a form of sculpture and its surface texture should express directly the artist's sensibility. Quentin Bell's mugs are often imperfectly shaped and at least one of his vases leaked. But because he resisted mechanical exactitude his pots and plates, with their blues, greens and gold lustre, unfailingly convey the pleasure he experienced in their making.
The importance to him during the last years of his life of his daily sojourn in his pottery hints at the frustration he may have felt during the 25 years he lectured on the history and theory of art. His distinguished career in education began at King's College, Newcastle, in 1952 and brought him professorships at the universities of Leeds and Sussex. He was also Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University during 1964- 65 and, the next year, Ferens Professor of Fine Art at Hull University.
Perhaps Bell's chief gift as a teacher was his use of humour to infiltrate his message into the minds of his listeners. As his published lectures reveal, he wore his erudition lightly and combined a combative stance with a conversational manner. He developed an interest in Victorian and in particular Pre-Raphaelite artists long before these came back into fashion. He also wrote on Ruskin, Roger Montane and the history of art education in the 19th century.
Less well known is a small book published in 1957 - The True Story of Cinderella, written and illustrated by Bell for his nieces. The overflow of his imaginative energy in his private life led to the devising of plays and treasure hunts, and to such vigorous ornamentation of Christmas cakes, baked in later years by his daughters, that not a scrap of icing sugar could be seen beneath the crystallised fruit, angelica and silver balls. His extravagant imagination delighted in fantasy and narrative. This became especially noticeable when clay finally took over from paint as his chief means of artistic expression. His terracotta figurines, one of which was entitled Invisible Man Rapes Invisible Woman, prove that nothing was beyond his grasp.
In these small sculptures he seemed to be turning his back on "significant form", to be flying in the face of what had become an established aesthetic orthodoxy. But if there was a teasing element behind his pursuit of the bizarre, erotic and anecdotal, his attitude to art was fundamentally serious. It was also in part shaped by his political awareness of art's relationship with society. This determined both his first book, On Human Finery (1947), a witty, erudite study of fashion, and the collection of essays Bad Art (1989), which attends to the many paradoxes surrounding the notion of "bad" art, not least the fact that bad art is often made out of desire on the part of the artist to produce that which society deems good.
The appearance in 1968 of his short book Bloomsbury signalled his acceptance of another significant role, one he occupied in a unique partnership with his wife, Anne Olivier Bell, whom he had married in 1952. Together they began the task of sorting through the great cache of papers that would explain his family's history and its cultural legacy to the world at large. To scholars of all nationalities, myself included, Quentin Bell offered availability and intelligence, patience and sternness, in an unremitting concern to make sure that the record was not falsified.
Whether he was rebutting the recurrent slipshod use of the term "Bloomsbury" or the wilder sillinesses emanating from the extremes of American and English academic life, he consistently upheld facts and reason against bigotry and false argument. An important link in this development had been his friendship with Leonard Woolf. It might have seemed that Quentin, the maverick nephew with a roguish humour, was ill-suited to the task of writing the biography of Virginia Woolf. But it was Leonard Woolf, the personification of austerity and rationality, who asked him to do it. And despite subsequent biographies, including Lyndall Gordon's prize- winning interior life and, more recently, Hermione Lee's superlative study, Quentin Bell's two- volume Virginia Woolf: a biography (1972) retains authority.
With his sister, Angelica Garnett, and his wife, he also worked successfully toward the preservation of Charleston and its decorations by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, through the setting up of the Charleston Trust. Though this added greatly to the many demands on him, he still found time to hold regular exhibitions, to write a novel, The Brandon Papers (1985), books on the Pre-Raphaelites and the techniques of terracotta, and finally his memoirs, Elders and Betters (1995), which emerged after three failed attempts at autobiography. He also delighted many audiences, at home and abroad, with his unexpected pockets of memory, which further revealed his fecundity and the humane wisdom beneath his sense of fun and profound irreverence.Quentin Claudian Stephen Bell, painter, sculptor, potter, art historian and writer: born London 19 August 1910; Lecturer in Art Education, King's College, Newcastle 1952-56, Senior Lecturer 1956-62; Professor of Fine Art, Leeds University 1962-67; Slade Professor of Fine Art, Oxford University 1964-65; Ferens Professor of Fine Art, Hull University 1965-66; Professor of the History and Theory of Art, Sussex University 1967-75 (Emeritus); married 1952 Anne Olivier Popham (one son, two daughters); died Firle, Sussex 16 December 1996.
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