Sunday, 3 May 2020

Still life: strange lives

In which I reflect on two paintings in The Wilson, Cheltenham’s art gallery and museum, closed like all such places in the time of Coronavirus. My account of ‘Window, Still Life’ was written during the first week of the lockdown, when we were all still wondering what lay ahead; it appeared as a short contribution to the Summer Newsletter of the Friends of The Wilson, and I reprint it here in a slightly altered form. I wrote down my thoughts on ‘Patience’ in week six of this strange half-life with its compensations as well as its griefs.

The Wilson is shut,* but a painting in the Friends’ Gallery by the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell stays in my mind. It’s called ‘Window, Still Life’ (fig. i) and just now we are all living rather still lives, most of us with plenty of time for gazing out of windows. I doubt, though, if any of us have a view quite as strange, yet strangely resonant, as the scene V. BELL (the italic capitals of her signature just legible in the corner) has painted here.

At first everything seems straightforward. Close to a wide-open window stands a small table on which are positioned two bottles and an earthenware bowl. Behind the table something is propped against the wall – perhaps a canvas on a stretcher. Is this the artist’s studio, the objects on the table placed on what could be a superannuated palette? 

The room appears to be high up: through the window the painter looks out and down on the roofs of much lower buildings. But here the difficulties begin, for the roof lines suggest the houses are crowding together at impossible angles – pressing up indeed against the wall of the studio. No less oddly, a great gabled chimney stack seems to have become dislodged and now hovers between two roofs, one thatched and one tiled. What creates this disturbance is the cascade of trees, huge green boulders blocking out the sky, tumbling down a hillside and colliding with the houses that stand in their way.

So the two halves of the painting confront each other, the studio’s still life opposing the strange confusion outside. Actually, ‘observing’ would be more accurate than ‘opposing’: the two bottles – one a bouteille de vin with orange-striped label and dainty neck, the other a grey broad-shouldered demijohn – stand like a couple, looking out. Isolated behind the window they wait, watching as the chaos comes ever closer: the orange ridge tiles of the nearest roof are even now edging above the windowsill. 

How unexpectedly this image, painted in 1915 just as the long-term horror of the First World War was becoming apparent, speaks also to these our times!

*     *     *

A picture on a wall is defined – you could say, confined – by its frame. Yet  PJ Crook
frequently challenges this idea: sometimes her paintings seem to escape the boundaries of their frame; at others the frame itself becomes absorbed into the painting.  

PJ Crook’s pictures are famously full of people but this one, ‘Patience’ (1983; fig.ii), appears to encapsulate both the idea of self-isolation and the resources needed to retreat from the
world outside. A woman sits at a card table. It’s a sunny day and the door into her garden is open, but she seems content enough inside. And when she tires of the cards her piano lid is up and her music open, ready for her to play. Nor is she exactly alone: besides her cat, there are pictures on the wall – her parents, maybe, on the right, or herself as a young woman with a husband; on the left, perhaps herself when young, with a sister. Everything appears to be neatly in place, just as she wants it: the bowl of apples on top of the piano, the two vases of flowers and the clock with its swinging pendulum, her cheerful rug with its pattern of four rectangles, one inside the other.

This rug appears at first sight not to be lying flat on the carpet; but looking more carefully, we can see that actually it has been painted over the outer, bevelled frame of the picture. Now we realise that the whole room, the whole picture, embraces the frame as though it were part of the canvas. And not just that: there are frames within frames. Across the top corner of the door into the garden, there is a thin black line, the mitred joint of a double frame. This double frame further encloses the woman playing patience while conversely suggesting that her isolation is more apparent than real: the innermost frame is as it were transparent, so we see the cat’s tail through it, not over it.

The relationship between outdoors and indoors matters too. Through the open door can be seen a vista of grass, hedge, trees, clouds and sky. The same vista is presented through the window and twice again, in the picture behind the woman’s head and reflected in the mirror above the piano. In this way she is continually surrounded by the landscape outside her window, even as she is cut off from it. By choosing it for a picture on her wall, she has opted for a virtual reality – just as the people in the other two pictures are her virtual (not her real) companions. 

Structurally, this painting suggests containment, a room framed not once but three times. Yet the picture itself refuses to be confined by these frames: it spills onto, through and over them. Emblematically, therefore, the artist offers us an image not so much of self-confinement as of self-contentment. It’s taken less than two months for terms such as self-isolation and social distancing to embed themselves in our thinking and in the way we live now. This is why I find PJ Crook’s ‘Patience’ both challenging and reassuring: we would not have chosen to live like this but, accepting why we have to, we are learning how to make the best of it.

© Adrian Barlow

Fig. i: You can see a larger image of Vanessa Bell’s ‘Window: Still Life’ on the ArtUK website here.

Fig. ii: You can see a larger image of PJ Crook’s ‘Patience’ on the ArtUK website here.

*Though the Wilson is indeed shut, you can now access its latest show, SISTERHOOD, created by the  artist Danielle Salloum. This exhibition opened in the Summerfield gallery, on the 3rd floor, just before the art gallery and museum (like all others in the country) had to close. Now it has been re-presented as a provocative and often moving virtual show, comparing portraits and lives of twenty women from Trinidad and Tobago with twenty women from Cheltenham and Gloucestershire.  I strongly recommend SISTERHOOD, and you can visit it, free, here.


  1. Beautifully observed, Adrian. Thanks for directing me to these pictures, which perhaps I passed by in my younger days, since they hang in my home town, without giving them the attention they deserve. Your acute observations give a sense of how fluid our relationship to works of art can be, different levels of meaning suggesting themselves to us at different times.

  2. What extraordinary paintings these are, Adrian. I knew, though I confess rather vaguely, that Vanessa Bell was an artist—P J Crook I had never heard of. But the variety of their works – as seen by following your links – takes us into areas of the imagination that we could never have dreamed of. It is fortunate beyond words that so many – dozens, I think – of British artists ploughed their own furrows, and where not overwhelmed by Picasso, Matisse, Bonnard, and all the other great painters working in Europe.

    I have no idea what I would have thought about Vanessa Bell’s ‘Window, Still life.’ But I can now see the menace of that pink chimney stack and those boulder–like trees—threatening like monsters (out of John Wyndham, perhaps) to overwhelm the house. Thank heaven for the colours on the wine bottle’s label—though even these too are hardly reassuring. A claustrophobic painting for our times indeed, Adrian!

  3. Hello Adrian. I remember the Film " Shawshank Redemption" and the qquote by Morgan Freeman...." First you hate it, then you get used to it, then you depend on it" It being the lockdown. Now I feel I have to almost force myself to go out at times.