Teacups, fruit, flowers. Unlike grand mythological or historical subjects, or commissioned portraits, or pictures of ships at sea at sunset, the still life speaks to us of domesticity. Does it have ‘an affective power’ other genres can’t boast? And if so, what is it about the representation of everyday objects that is so moving, and in what ways have women artists made it their own? Rebecca Birrell urges us to ask new questions about gender and genre, domesticity and work. She wants us to look searchingly at Vanessa Bell’s apples in a bowl, Dora Carrington’s two china dogs on the mantelpiece, Ethel Sands’s chintz couch and quiet, well-appointed rooms, Gluck’s flowers, the corner of Gwen John’s lodgings in Montparnasse and Nina Hamnett’s saucepan, and think differently about them in the context of their creators’ lives.
This Dark Country is presented as a blend of group biography and art criticism. The artists formed a loosely linked network (not a group) in an era that saw greater freedoms for women: they could study at art colleges, rent bedsits, reject marriage – seen here as by definition oppressive and toxic to artistic aspiration – and choose alternative kinds of intimacy. Carrington loved Lytton Strachey, a homosexual. One of her best-known paintings is The Mill at Tidmarsh, with its two black swans in the foreground and the mill set slightly back. It has an odd and stirring beauty, a mix of tension and peace. Birrell notes that it was painted before the house became home to Carrington and Strachey in 1918. She reads The Mill at Tidmarsh illuminatingly as an ‘exploration of the genre’s charged threshold’, the mill serving as a stage set for escape from an ‘awful’ childhood and, in Carrington’s words, a ‘communal nest for breakers of the law’ (conscientious objectors as well as queers).
Not all Birrell’s analyses are as happy as this. More than once I found myself thinking: pictures can be made to say anything. The glimpses of the author in the archives turning up previously overlooked drawings or reading in a cold attic at Charleston, Vanessa Bell’s home, are a