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Bell, George Frederick Henry (1878–1966)

by Fred Williams

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

George Frederick Henry Bell (1878-1966), by Norman Arthur Albiston

George Frederick Henry Bell (1878-1966), by Norman Arthur Albiston

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6054541

George Frederick Henry Bell (1878-1966), artist and teacher, was born on 1 December 1878 at Kew, Victoria, son of George Bell, public servant, and his wife Clara, née Barlow. He was educated at Kew High School and was expected by his father to take law at the University of Melbourne: the prospect held little interest for him. He enrolled instead at the National Gallery school where he studied in 1895-1903 under Bernard Hall, Frederick McCubbin and George Coates. He also studied violin with Alberto Zelman senior and junior and played in the Hawthorn Orchestra and in string groups.

In 1903 Bell went to Europe and in 1904-06 studied in Paris under Jean Paul Laurens and later in London and at St Ives with Philip Connard. He joined the Chelsea Arts Club and in 1908 became a foundation member of the Modern Society of Portrait Painters. Bell visited Italy several times, and exhibited portraits and landscapes in a tonal realist manner in France, Germany, the United States of America and England, eventually being hung in the Royal Academy. During World War I he was a schoolteacher, then worked in munitions. From October 1918 to the end of 1919 he was an official war artist to the 4th Division of the Australian Imperial Force; he returned to Australia in 1920 to complete his major war painting, 'Dawn at Hamel 4th July 1918' (War Memorial, Canberra).

Bell started teaching in Melbourne and began his long term as critic for the Sun News-Pictorial in 1923-50. He continued to paint in a tonal academic realist style, but became increasingly uneasy about his approach to art. Throughout the 1920s he played the viola in the University Conservatorium Orchestra. On 21 February 1922 at the Congregational Church, Elsternwick, he had married Edith Lucy Antoinette Hobbs.

In February 1932 Bell and Arnold Shore opened an art school in Melbourne. Later that year Bell formed the Contemporary Group of Melbourne. He suddenly left the school for Europe for sixteen months in 1934-35 in order to question his basic approach. He studied drawing with Iain Macnab, involving himself in the New English Art Club and in the writings and theories of Clive Bell and Roger Fry, which became the foundation of his own painting and teaching. His basic philosophy is summed up in his catalogue appreciation of the Hugh Ramsay Retrospective (National Gallery of Victoria, March 1943): 'had he [Ramsay] lived he would have seen the modern artists experimenting with the same spatial relationships but using colour … as part of the form construction'.

Shore withdrew from partnership a year after Bell's return. In 1937 (Sir) Robert Menzies, while attempting to establish an equivalent to the Royal Academy, threw artists into public controversy. Bell emerged as a leading opponent of the Australian Academy of Art and as a spokesman for 'modern art', and pursued a prolonged public argument with Menzies. In July 1938 he took the lead with a leaflet, To Art Lovers, in forming the Contemporary Art Society of which he became founding president. It was a heterogeneous grouping, however, which included many avant-garde painters, especially social realists, as well as the Post-Impressionists whom Bell led. In 1940, distressed by the activities of laymen and communists, he himself seceded with about eighty followers and founded the Melbourne Contemporary Artists.

Bell introduced into Melbourne the teaching of French Post-Impressionism—but it was Cézanne via the New English Art Club, Iain Macnab and Clive Bell. George Bell became a strong influence on many artists, such as Peter Purves-Smith, Russell Drysdale, Sali Herman and Constance Stokes, and fast became Australia's most influential teacher. He was a close friend of Rupert Bunny and Daryl Lindsay and during the 1940s was a strong advocate of Drysdale, Danila Vassilieff and Ian Fairweather but denigrated, both publicly and privately, the less formal artists Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, John Perceval and Albert Tucker.

Bell painted regularly throughout his long career. He destroyed many of his early works and this, coupled with his penchant for reworking his old canvases, will tend to diminish his stature as an artist. He is represented in most public galleries by portraits, still lifes and early interiors. He was a prolific figure-draftsman in his later years.

Bell was tall and well built with a craggy face and a shambling gait. He built and sailed small craft for most of his life. In old age he suffered from a heart condition, but continued to teach and paint; a retrospective exhibition was held at the Leveson Street Gallery in 1965 and he was appointed O.B.E. next year. Survived by his wife and daughter, he died at his home at Toorak on 22 October 1966, and was cremated. His estate was valued for probate at $194,175.

Select Bibliography

  • Bernard Smith, Australian Painting 1788-1960 (Melb, 1962)
  • J. Hetherington, Australian Painters (Melb, 1963)
  • Age (Melbourne), 5 Nov 1966
  • G. Bell, When Everybody Was Poor (State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Fred Williams, 'Bell, George Frederick Henry (1878–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bell-george-frederick-henry-5192/text8731, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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