Great Britain, Private Collection.
1896, London, Royal Academy, no 1872.
1-896, Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, Autumn Eexhibition of Modern Pictures in oil and water-colours, no 1214 (not for sale).
1897, Leeds City Art Gallery, The Spring Exhibition, no 844.
One of the last Pre-Raphaelites and first representatives in England of the so-called Modern Style or Art Nouveau, one of the most original and complete artists of the Arts and Crafts movement, Robert Anning Bell tried every technique from watercolor and illustration to stained glass and mosaics, including tempera, ceramics, and medals.
Bell began his artistic training under his uncle, the architect Samuel Knight. He then studied at Westminster College of Art with the painter Frederick Brown and at the Royal Academy Schools. In 1887, he left to perfect his education in Paris at the Julian Academy and in the studio of the painter sculptor Aimé Morot, where he stayed a year before going to Italy. Sensitive and curious, Bell developed a passion on the European mainland for diverse influences: works by Symbolists and polychrome sculptures by Morot’s father-in-law, Jean-Léon Gérôme; stained glass windows in Gothic cathedrals; Early Christian mosaics from Ravenna; Early Renaissance masterpieces including Giovanni Bellini’s paintings and Luca della Robbia’s ceramics. All of these would profoundly affect his work throughout his successful career, which included the mosaics for Westminster Cathedral and Parliament created between 1914 and 1922.
In France, Bell became friends with George Frampton (1860-1928), who was both a founding member of the Art Workers Guild started in 1884 and founder of the New Sculpture movement ten years later. When the two artists met, according to the critic Marion Harry Spielmann, Frampton was in “open rebellion against white sculpture.” Upon their return to London, they rented a studio and worked together on a large altar polyptych presented at the Arts and Crafts Society exhibition and installed in the Liverpool Saint Claire Church in 1890. Thanks to Frampton, Bell discovered the polychrome plaster technique which made it possible for him to fully express his talents as painter and sculptor. Framed like pictures, his colored low reliefs made a sensation at the Arts and Crafts exhibitions, a fact which pushed him in 1896 to send not a painting, but a plaster, and more precisely our Ariadne to the annual Royal Academy Salon.
As was usual for the artist, Bell concentrated on a single female figure depicted in profile. Seated on a tree stump, a resigned, introspective Ariadne contemplates Theseus’ trireme sailing away from the island. The only element recalling the myth, and even Antiquity, the ship contrasts with the young woman’s attire composed of a sky blue blouse, a green dress with a laced bodice inspired by the Renaissance, and a red carmine shawl in which abundant pleats constitute the only reminder of Greek tunics. Bell uses the subject as a pretext for a purely plastic and symbolic exercise with reminiscences of Fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin or Agostino di Duccio’s reliefs for the Malatesta Temple in Rimini. As with these Old Masters, his palette is reduced to a few colors dominated by gold itself. In his case, it constitutes the sky streaked with rays of the rising sun, Ariadne’s golden hair, her diaphanous skin, and sinuous highlights on turbulent draperies. Similarly, the naturalism of certain details, such as the grass in the foreground, contrasts with the summary handling of the sea, geometry of the sky, and quasi organic fluidity of the folds. Contours are established in a pure and very graphic line which can be found in his illustrations, such as those for the 1897 edition of John Keats’ poems.
The originality and decorative force of Ariadne would incite the young architect Edwin Lutyens, future constructor of New Delhi, to bring Bell into the ambitious project for the Domaine of Bois des Moutiers in Varengeville-sur-Mer, conceived in the purest Arts and Crafts style as a total work of art, at the request of Guillaume Mallet and Adelaïde Grunelius, a rich French couple. An integral part of the interior decoration, endowed with simple frames, Bell’s low reliefs are placed between the doors which lead to the bedrooms. Without any real subject, these decorative plasters create a special peaceful atmosphere propitious for contemplation and meditation.
The figure of Ariadne was reused by the artist in a watercolor painted in 1900, Music by the Water, conserved in the Tate Gallery .