Looking to Sea: Britain Through the Eyes of Its Artists by Lily Le Brun - review by Frances Spalding

Frances Spalding

Oils and Water

Looking to Sea: Britain Through the Eyes of Its Artists


Sceptre 320pp £25

The outward modesty of this book is deceptive. Cool in appearance, quietly elegant in its design and layout, it offers a hint of intimacy, but certainly no swagger. Each of the ten chapters focuses on a single artwork, its title and the artist’s name forming the chapter heading. The book covers a period from 1912 to 2015, beginning with the radical emptiness of Vanessa Bell’s Studland Beach and ending with the wrenching horror of John Akomfrah’s death-by-sea film Vertigo Sea. The ingredient linking all ten works is the sea, this idea having been sparked by an earlier commission for an article based on contemporary artists who took their subjects from the sea. It took on a political edge during the Brexit and migrant crises, when, in both, it became impossible to ignore the role played by the sea. Held within a neatly conceived structure and based on far-reaching research, this book is not only about art but also about national identity, belonging and displacement. It churns with large ideas as well as persuasive arguments.

There is also a playful aspect to Lily Le Brun’s writing. The book begins with her imagining Vanessa Bell’s thoughts as she sat on the beach at Studland, looking at the glittering sea and wondering why she had thought it a possible subject to paint. An oil sketch for the finished work is then described, stroke by stroke, as if the author is watching the artist at work. Looking outwards for relevant historical information, she draws on Bell’s photograph albums as well as period postcards of the beach and its rows of Edwardian bathing tents, one of which forms a prominent compositional element in the final picture. She also ransacks the familiar literature about the early lives of Vanessa and her sister, Virginia Woolf, travelling surprisingly far into the past or into other people’s lives but always returning to the picture with sanity and a conversational tone. Bell ‘did not pick this place because she wished to paint the sea,’ writes Le Brun. ‘She painted it because she was there – she always painted wherever she could – and she was there because the beach was one of the few places where families spent time, informally, together.’

Woolf herself, writing an introduction for one of her sister’s catalogues, observed: ‘Mrs Bell is as silent as the grave. Her pictures do not betray her.’ Le Brun unfolds the concept of ‘significant form’, as expounded by Vanessa’s husband, Clive Bell, and her friend Roger Fry, to explain the

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter