Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Fred and Jessie Etchells at Charleston

‘Frederick and Jessie Etchells painting’ by Vanessa Bell

On a recent trip Dahn Sarf, I was intrigued by the cultural geography of the central Sussex coast. To the East, shabby old Eastbourne. To the West, chic Brighton and Hove. Half way between, logically enough, shabby chic Lewes. And near Lewes, Charleston house – picturesque ex-pad of Bloomsbury painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, temple of shabby chicdom, home of slightly distressed pale grey woodwork, and fount of all Laura Ashliness. Given that Grant and Bell had done their best stuff by 1920, it’s somehow appropriate that, a century on, Bloomsbury survives flickeringly as a lifestyle look, filtered sanitised through a thousand pages of Country Living. (See also Pamela Todd’s Bloomsbury at Home, 1999.)

But however ambivalent one’s feelings towards the Bloomsberries, there are enough modernist echoes at Charleston to make it a very worthwhile visit. The rooms are splendidly cluttered with Bells and Grants and bits and bobs of Omega, some of them even rather good. And one may stroll and muse in the gardens where Virginia mused and strolled, which can’t be bad.

But I was most chuffed to be confronted unexpectedly by no less than Frederick Etchells’ The Dead Mole (1912), currently on temporary loan from the Fitzwilliam (where, apparently, it doesn’t often see the light of day) and hanging at Charleston next to Duncan Grant’s comparable Queen of Sheba. A bit of a shock: I hadn’t realised just what a massive canvas this is – near enough six feet tall. (I’d visualised idly this simple image as a small work.) In the flesh, its size heightens the painting’s impressive and tragic intensity. But what the heck is it about? Are we missing some purely private narrative?

Maybe so, according to Etchells, who later alluded vaguely to an incident involving the mole, “a sort of tramp” to whom he had given “a sort of corduroy suit”, and a visiting small boy. Richard Cork (Vorticism: Origins and Development, 1976) has interpreted this incident as an “inconsequential prank”, but I’m not so sure. Cork here (as usual) trivialises what he doesn’t understand: for him, The Dead Mole shows “wilful eccentricity”, “wayward distortion”, “fanciful proportions”, “stylistic caprice”, “vagaries” and so on. But regardless of its origin, this image is a memento mori, a passage from innocence to experience in an encounter with mortality. One can imagine exactly the same subject painted in a high Victorian populist-realist style, downgrading it to an unexceptional moralist narrative painting, but Etchells has propelled it determinedly into the modern era, giving the content new force. Formally, there may be the odd unresolved feature (the overly solid tree roots at right, for instance), but even as an experiment this works, and it reminds us that, flaws notwithstanding, Etchells was an interesting painter working in some interesting directions that would lead him inevitably away from Grant and Bloomsbury to Lewis and Vorticism.

Despite the post-impressionist brush marks and colours, the balletic exaggeration of the figures recalls Mediaeval art or Greek vase paintings, maybe with a hint of the Italian primitives, perhaps even shaped a little by the aesthetic mannerism of Aubrey Beardsley. This atavistic experimentation with the human form is analogous to the contemporary “wild body” images of Wyndham Lewis, or Duncan Grant’s dancers. It is quite separate to cubist deconstruction of the figure, though maybe permitted by it. And Etchells certainly enjoyed an elongated leg with a pointed toe, as this Group of Figures shows. (Not shown in the image here of The Dead Mole, though properly part of the work, is its geometrically decorated frame – an Etchells trademark. This photo, incidentally, seems to give the piece a greenish cast, which I don’t recall in the real thing. No photography by visitors is permitted at Charleston.)

A similar handling of the figures appears even more overtly in Etchells’ smaller tempera painting The Entry into Jerusalem, also from 1912, which does hang permanently at Charleston and was once owned by Grant. (“Openly whimsical … a caricatured Christ … fantastically elongated”, according to Cork, who seems to have lost it completely with this one.) The composition may not be entirely resolved here, but the figures work well, and you can see what Etchells is aiming for. (Again, the photo here seems to exaggerate the blues and the background yellow. And again, the patterned frame is not shown.)

Frederick was not the only Etchell hanging out with Grant and Bell in 1912, though. To the left of the fireplace in the Studio at Charleston hang two modest but pleasing paintings, both cubistoid trios of figures, by Jessie Etchells. She is remembered more as sister to Frederick than as a painter in her own right, so it’s good to see these. (To me, in the daylight, Three Figures, 1912, had more of a dull greenish look to it, giving the electric blue of the tree trunks a high contrast. The colours seem similarly lightened and separated in this photo of The Opera Box, also 1912, which I noted as done in dark browns and yellow ochres, like a Sickert theatre interior, rather than the washed out blues, crimsons and yellows here.)

Three Figures

The Opera Box

Jessie and Frederick Etchells with Julian Bell

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