In 2011 H. R. Bell visited China from autumn into winter, dividing her time between the urban environment of Beijing and the countryside around Lijiang and Shaxi in Yunnan Province. In sharp contrast with her experiences painting in Morocco and also, to a lesser extent, India, in China she found a society convulsed by change.
As with all H. R. Bell’s paintings, it is not the experience of landscape or architecture she is seeking but that of people: how they relate to each other in their daily lives, at work or play, their body language as it finds (mostly unconscious) expression in crowds, in smaller gatherings of family and friends, in individuals as they stand back to withdraw momentarily (and inwardly) from this headlong, lava flow of change.
Punctuating studies of people on the move – in trains or buses (Momentary meetings), hurrying to and from work (Pedalling) – are paintings of figures absorbed in pockets of stillness (Embroidered) with many of them sitting, often on the ground. Such paintings speak simply but eloquently of a fundamental, shared characteristic: the self-sufficiency, perseverance and fatalism, conditioned now by an element of uncertainty arising from precipitate change, that is so marked a trait in China (The weight of today, Company of three). If it can be said that every successful painter seeks to capture something they are looking for in themselves, then this calm, which comes from stopping and looking, expresses not only the subject but how the subject affects the artist and, most relevantly, the impact of the finished work on us, the viewer.
While in the paintings with urban settings the monochrome surface of wall or pavement focuses attention on foreground figures, in Bell’s paintings from the countryside broad, regular crop patterns draw the eye to far smaller figures (an oblique homage perhaps to the Chinese tradition of scroll painting?), yielding subjects once more characterised by titles with a gently philosophic subtext: The weight of today, A passage through time.
Only rarely facing the viewer directly, most of Bell’s figures are seen either from behind or as they interact with one another or as the onlookers of some unseen event. Their solid outlines, caught often in bold colour standing out against a darker background, sometimes suggest movement, but as often just equilibrium: here we stand (or sit), supporting each other but still self-sufficient. There is a long march ahead, time is heavily on our side, in the end we shall get there.
‘Time,’ H R Bell observes, ‘may be a luxury better appreciated by an artist than anyone else.’ To see and capture the mood of a scene so harmonious and magical to the onlooker that, while it lasts, time is suspended suggests an agenda behind the works this remarkable young painter has produced.
Remembered by her contemporaries for her precocious facility in art as a schoolchild, as a student H R Bell briefly left painting behind for a new enthusiasm for art theory and history, which led her to a first class honours degree in the history of art at the Courtauld Institute. There followed a period of two years’ intensive absorption in the traditional techniques of painting at academies of art in Moscow and then St Petersburg. It was only after Bell’s return to her home in the West Country, however, that she made the decision at 26 to commit herself wholeheartedly to a career in painting.
‘What interests me,’ Bell comments, ‘is the way people are.’ Not where – mostly, not even why – but rather, their mystery, how people are when alone, with each other, sometimes in crowds, this is H R Bell’s subject. She prefers to see them in the heat of the day when they are most themselves, intensely absorbed in some practical pursuit, unaware of the onlooker. There is another equally characteristic kind of intensity which sometimes finds expression in these forceful paintings. This is an intensity of contemplation, thought or reverie, which Bell conveys in the eloquent body language of some of her solitary figures.
‘It was my tutors at the Moscow Academy,’ she recalls, ‘who taught me to find my subjects in their entirety, not to get lost in detail. Patience, I was told, is what you must cultivate, move forward little by little with each composition, always with an eye to the effect of the whole, then all will come right and you will know it.’
Perhaps it is because her own ideas and interests had developed well before she had acquired the means to express them that a restless impatience became such a feature in Bell’s approach – a prelude to the arrival of what may be her single strongest quality: the immediate, instinctive grasp of a subject in terms first of colour, then form, which she realises in her inimitable, dynamic way. So crafted, these paintings with their subjects drawn from everyday life compel our attention, stirring a sense of new excitement, elation even, carried off with a startling assurance. Here is, indeed, a fresh and vital new voice which delivers so much and promises even more.
H R Bell was born in Streatley-on-Thames in 1976, great-granddaughter of Frank Gascoigne Heath, a noted painter of the Newlyn School known in his day as the ‘sunshine artist’. In 2000 she graduated from the Courtauld Institute with a first class honours degree in history of art, having specialised in Russian painting and sculpture in the twentieth century. She went on to study at the Surikov Institute in Moscow (2002) and the Repin Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg (2003). Since 2004 Bell has held exhibitions in Henley-on-Thames, Winchester and Truro and has also shown in New York. Represented by Francis Kyle Gallery since 2008, she was a major participant in the Gallery’s 2009 autumn theme exhibition, That gong-tormented Sea: contemporary painters explore the idea and the reality of Byzantium, in preparation for which she spent five months in Istanbul. First solo exhibition with the Francis Kyle Gallery 2011.