Frances Bell and her commission to paint portraits of two children
Frances Bell recently completed two beautiful portraits of little sisters. She was chosen as the right artist for this commission using the services of our consultant, Annabel Elton.
Frances explained that
‘The family had a broad idea of what they wanted but they hadn’t yet decided on a composition. Eventually we ended up going for portraits of the girls’ heads and shoulders.
It’s usually far more of a collaborative process than parents expect it to be. They have to help the child come through to you. Usually plumbs the parents for information and they give you a lot. When painting children they just sit there and sort of stare at you; they are hardly going to strike up a debate with you, so the parents are really important in helping you to flesh out their character traits..’
Frances, being a mother of two children herself, then went on to discuss the potential challenges that painting children can present, and the ways that she overcomes them.
‘I am very organic in my technique, when dealing with young people they are straight out of nature, they don’t have any sort of private side or public face they are just as they appear.
There is always this wonderful moment when painting children when they are so engrossed in what they are doing that they forget that you are even there… in terms of maintaining a child’s attention and keeping them occupied, well, technology is a wonderful thing – Peppa Pig does wonders!… I had this kind of absurd setup where I had the girls sitting on pedestal after pedestal so that they were up high enough for me to be able to stand and paint them. I had this flowerpot that my mum had given to me years ago and I had an iPad balanced on that.
Of course, when painting siblings there are those genealogical similarities, they definitely look similar, but their characters couldn’t be more different. In this case, the older one was very pensive, reserved and sensitive, she is shy but in a sort of levelling way whereas the younger one is very gregarious and was flying off the walls; she was more of an open book with a lot of open exuberance. The elder one is more like her dad and the younger one is her mother’s doppelganger.’
We later discussed Frances’ use of colour and general attitude towards her palette:
‘Colour-use has to be very mercurial, the girls showed up in these beautiful smock dresses that once belonged to their mother so there was already an enormous sense of history there which is always an artist’s dream. They also came in these mustard tights but we didn’t end up featuring them. I think when you are doing a head and shoulders piece you have to stick to a sort of limited palette because there is a lot of competition on the canvas for attention; I would always lean towards the minimal for small things. You can’t choose colours that suit you and not them, that would indicate a huge misjudge of character.’
Before concluding this interview we asked Frances what she would like people to think about when looking at these pieces. This question of course strikes differently for all artists and naturally lends itself to the larger question of art’s purpose, as such, Frances gave us a particularly poetic answer:
‘I am a big believer in art for art’s sake, I feel like concepts should trail behind begrudgingly so when people look at these pieces I’d like them to just see feeling and personality. It doesn’t need to have a high meaning; I believe that oil portraits are just a human interaction lifted onto the canvas with it’s own throb. For me, as long as I feel like the piece is really breathing, I am happy. – It’s painfully simple in that way.’
A few months prior to this, we were also lucky enough to speak to the girls’ mother about her expectations and anticipations for the portraits. She told us:
‘My husband blew me away with these portraits as a present. It was our 10th wedding anniversary in 2019. Getting a portrait done of the girls was something that had been on my mind but I had no idea how to even approach it, I had a complete mental block. I think my husband heard about the society through a work colleague. He’s very good at following leads. Annabel Elton, who runs a commissions service for the Society to help people like us, made the process so easy and smooth. She’s very clear and she’s so good at discerning when, on seeing the right artists, it’s love at first sight. She’s personable and relaxed and made us feel really excited about the process.’
We wanted something very pure and simple but also to capture something quite thought provoking. When Annabel showed us Frances Bell’s work we just knew she was the one and hearing that she was from Northumberland really cemented the choice. Northumberland is a place where we spend a lot of family holidays and it’s a really special place for the girls.’
We ‘had a call with Frances and then she actually came to London for an exhibition so she came round for tea. She was so welcoming and such a lovely person, she made us feel very relaxed.’
The week before the portraits were to be painted, she told us that she hadn’t actually told the girls too much about the portraits because of how difficult Covid had made it to plan ahead, she didn’t want to get the girls too excited… ‘I’ve had the holiday buckets and spades in the boot of the car for a week now and they keep asking why… I keep having to just say that we might go to the beach if the weather holds up.’
Luckily they were able to go ahead with the plans and Frances was able to complete these gorgeous pieces which will hopefully hang on their home walls for years to come!
Article by Ellie Lachs