According to Rebecca Birrell, there was nothing remotely still about the still lifes that British female painters produced in the first third of the 20th century. While Vanessa Bell’s apples, Gluck’s flowers and Nina Hamnett’s saucepan might appear to speak of modest ambitions and domestic self-containment, Birrell argues that these works positively buzz with political resistance, queer desire and an unshakable refusal to stay within the frame. You just need to know how to look.
Take a picture such as Dora Carrington’s Staffordshire Dogs of 1917. Birrell suggests that Carrington, as she was always known, may have initially painted the kitsch china ornaments perching on the fussy mantelpiece because they reminded her of the provincial late-Victorian childhood that she was so determined to escape. With their mass-produced “salmon pink noses” they were the antithesis of her new life as a Slade-trained artist who excelled at life drawing. And yet, in their aesthetic parody of domestic fidelity, this canine couple chimed with Carrington’s own unorthodox relationship with Lytton Strachey. Strachey was the older gay writer with whom Carrington lovingly cohabited while simultaneously declaring herself allergic to marriage. Both took other lovers, with Carrington even acquiring a husband, yet their primary allegiance remained to each other. Staffordshire Dogs, with its nostalgic cosiness and noses the unnatural colour of fish, becomes for Birrell the perfect representation of Carrington’s queer homemaking.
Birrell’s blend of art criticism and biography works best when it is tethered to real-world calculation. She is particularly good at teasing out the stubborn material facts that underpin the most serene of still lifes. Having opened her book with an account of how Vanessa Bell came in 1918 to paint her own version of Cezanne’s famous Les Pommes, relocating the floating fruit of the French 1870s original to a china-plated corner of her own kitchen table, Birrell then proceeds to think carefully about the economic privileges that make Bell’s restaging possible. Who has gone to the market specifically to buy the apples, she wonders. “Who returned home acutely conscious of time (not her own); who rinsed the apples in the sink, who placed them in china (recently polished)?” Birrell then names 13 of the housemaids and cooks and nannies to whom Bell paid tiny wages to keep her house clean and her children fed so that she could get on with the important business of making significant art out of everyday objects.
All of this comes together – and promptly falls apart – in Bell’s The Kitchen at Charleston of c1943. Two world wars and a revolution in domestic and social life have intervened since the painting of Apples, yet Bell has come no further in resolving the erasures that allow her to keep painting serene sun-drenched domestic interiors. The Kitchen at Charleston shows Grace Higgens, one of the longest-serving of the Bloomsbury servants, about to start work on making dinner. The mountain of vegetables may be laid out like a luscious Renaissance still life but they will take hours to peel, chop and dice. Before then, Higgens’s spotless pinny will doubtless get grimy and her rosy face become hot, damp and angry as the kitchen range starts to swelter on a hot day. But Bell won’t show us any of this, because she does not herself see it, and the result is best described as a kitchen pastoral.
Bloomsbury privilege is hardly a new topic, but Birrell works hard to show what happened to those female art-workers whose financial precarity kept them on the edge of the group. There is a very brief but shining chapter on Winifred Gill, a part-time art student at the Slade who paid her way by working as babysitter to the children of the art critic Roger Fry. Fry depended on her services because his wife, the artist Helen Coombe, had retreated into severe mental illness brought about, Birrell suggests, by the sickening constrictions of married life.
Whether or not that argument is sustainable, Birrell does an excellent job of showing how Gill’s creativity was swallowed up in her work as manager of Fry’s Omega Workshops, which ran between 1913 and 1919. Omega was the place where fine art met decorative design, and well-heeled punters could browse the very ashtrays and cruet stands that would make their own domestic interiors look like something Bell might have chosen to paint. Gill was in charge of helping Arnold Bennett inspect a candlestick, of packing up a green pottery water cooler for WB Yeats, and admiring Wyndham Lewis trying on a new hat. This left her little time to work on her own watercolour still lifes, and the result is a tiny body of surviving work.
Birrell is acutely alive to the irony that it was Gill’s fate to be overlooked by the very women who made such a big noise about the sacredness of small, intimate items. Virginia Woolf was a frequent visitor to Omega but, secure in her £500 a year and a room of her own, she barely noticed Gill hovering to serve her and certainly never wondered whether the “foolish young woman in a Post-Impressionist tunic” who stepped forward with an obliging smile actually had a name.
This Dark Country: Women Artists, Still Life and Intimacy in the Early Twentieth Century by Rebecca Birrell is published by Bloomsbury Circus (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply