Meet prize-winning painter Frances Bell: 'I wanted to be a traditional artist – that was my passion'

 (Dillon Bryden)
(Dillon Bryden)

When she was 21, painter Frances Bell was living “in the boot of [her] car” scraping by on £10,000 a year. “All the stereotypes about starving in a garret tend to be true,” she says of an artist's early career.

By then, she had completed a course at Charles H Cecil Studios in Florence, which was “small”, “very intensive” and “nothing like a modern university" – more similar to “17th-century training: all about repetition, rigour”.

“I started very slowly doing catastrophically bad commissions ... of friends’ mothers,” she jokes. A year later, aged 22, everything changed. She won the De Laszlo foundation award for young artists. Since then, she has become one of the country's most accomplished and in-demand portraitists.

Based in Northumberland with her husband – she hilariously calls him a “colour blind bumpkin” – and two children, who are 11 and 9, Bell, 41, often travels to London for commissions, which is where we meet one sunny Wednesday morning.

“I am constitutionally not set up for urban life,” she says, but later admits that London “is the heart of our artistic establishment”. And, it’s where the money is.

Among her most high-profile works are portraits of socialite and self-styled ‘Queen Sloane’, Henry Conway, and of the former president of the Royal Society of Portraiture, Andrew Festing – whose own commissions include portraits of the Queen and the Duke of Kent.

Bell’s portrait of Festing got her to the final of The International last year: a renowned competition hosted by The Portrait Society of America.

Frances Bell in her studio (Dillon Bryden)
Frances Bell in her studio (Dillon Bryden)

Prizes, and the patronage behind them, are of vital importance to the future of art, says Bell. She has won 21, including the prestigious Valeria Sykes New Light Prize last year and the William Lock Portrait Prize in 2021. “£20,000,” she says of that one. “That was bloody surreal”.

Our conversation comes at a perilous time for the art market, crippled by funding cuts and the impact of the cost-of-living crisis. Galleries are closing while artists continue to be underpaid. “I meet artists all the time who’ve faced an extraordinary uphill battle – one of which is almost always that they leave with debt from university,” Bell says. “Without prizes, I don’t know how you’d do it.”

The cliché of the struggling artist exists for a reason and it is even more challenging after becoming a mother, Bell says. “You want to keep the thread of your work going. It’s harder to pick up wholesale if you quit for five years and start again. I kept painting [while raising children], which made it harder in the short term but easier in the long run.”

It was Bell’s own mother, an art school graduate, who inspired her love of painting during an idyllic, pastoral childhood in Suffolk, which she describes alternately as “Wordsworthian”, “unsexy”, and “feral in a nice way”.

Bell, a self-described “horsey” child, found she had her mum’s eye for drawing animals. She was sent to school in Yorkshire, where she was blessed with a splendid art teacher, with the equally splendid name of Mr Baby, who nurtured the “tempestuous” young artist. “I was not a foetal prodigy at all,” she adds. "I would get frustrated and throw away the pencils."

In fact, she failed to secure an A in art A-Level. “I got a B,” Bell sighs, quoting from her examiner’s report: “We do not reward these traditional types with As anymore.”

It was the late Nineties and the Young British Artists were in full swing. One of Bell’s school outings had been to Sensation, the landmark 1997 exhibition of contemporary art owned by Charles Saatchi.

Portrait of Andrew Festing by Frances Bell
Portrait of Andrew Festing by Frances Bell

The show became notorious for works including the perverse child mannequins by the Chapman brothers where anuses replaced mouths and noses swapped out for penises. Those were alongside Marcus Harvey’s recreation of Myra Hindley’s police mugshot out of children’s hand prints, Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde and for Marc Quinn’s sculptural self portraits made out of his frozen blood; and of course, My Bed, possibly the most iconic work of Tracey Emin.

“I wanted to be a traditional artist,” Bell says. “That was my passion.” Art schools shouldn’t succumb to the whims and woes of the market, or what’s fashionable at the time, she continues. Even when the vogue is for more conceptual art, “drawing is always going to be useful”.

British schools used to teach drawing as part of primary curriculum: abandoning this has been “a huge loss”, Bell thinks. “It is such an innate thread in our weave to pick up a pencil and draw.”

“You’re building this odd, three-dimensional thing,” Bell says of portraiture. She loves that Instagram has democratised our consumption of art, but adds that nothing can replace seeing paintings in person.

For portraits in particular, the interaction between painter and sitter informs the brushstroke as much as it does the light. You are, Bell says, “distilling and trying to get what they’re saying onto the canvas.”

John E Walker, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in the same year Bell saw the Sensations show, was one such sitter whose conversation was integral to her portrayal.

She was never going to follow his musings on enzymes and adenosine triphosphate (“he did, bless him, try and explain it to me”) – but she wanted to capture “his face as he was talking” and render what she could relate to: his passion.

The artist becomes, in Bell’s words, “an amateur anatomist, an amateur psychologist and an anthropologist” whose job is to translate the atmosphere around their sitters onto the canvas.

Portrait of Hera by Frances Bell, which will be featured in the Royal Society of Portrait Painters' annual exhibition
Portrait of Hera by Frances Bell, which will be featured in the Royal Society of Portrait Painters' annual exhibition

She recently painted a couple semi-nude. “It was incredibly organic,” Bell says, and refreshing to depict the intimacy of a marriage without sexualising it. “No feather boa,” she laughs, miming a model draped suggestively across the sofa.

For hundreds of years, women in paintings were either “saints or sluts”: Da Vinci’s portrait of the Mona Lisa was the first to change the game, and for that “it deserves to be the most famous painting in the world," Bell says.

Though her own painting offers a gentle and naturalistic take on the female form, she is not “censorious” of the male gaze (although “there was a trend where every older woman in a picture I saw had a hot water bottle on her lap... and that really annoyed me”).

While the “pressures of idealism and mannerism” have persisted for centuries in depictions of the female body, some artists – like Rembrandt or Sargent – have produced remarkable examples of female portraiture.

That said, Bell is a big fan of women painting women (“there’s a hashtag for you there,” she quips). The “erotic thing” tends to disappear, to the benefit of the “far more interesting psychological elements” that come to the fore.

Our conversation returns to the artistic establishment and London’s market monopoly. Bell wants to see art schools and galleries spread across the country “in a nice, democratic way”.

Funding is the main issue, but Bell takes a pragmatic view. “It’s always slightly confused me: how are you going to get government funds to individual artists?” She advances what some might say is a controversial idea: financial incentives to encourage erudite collectors to support the arts more. Which, loosely translated, could easily mean: tax breaks for the super-rich in exchange for their artistic patronage.

It's funny, I note, how a conversation about art always turns into a conversation about money. Bell agrees and takes aim at a system that pauperises young artists. “Institutions need to stop saying, ‘oh, it would be really good for [your CV] if you were to work for us... for free,” she says. “You do need the loop of payment, of patronage, to be complete.”

The question of who that patron is throws up further controversy: arguably the most prestigious portrait painting competition in the world for decades was the BP Portrait Award, sponsored by the oil and gas company until 2022.

So, is there a world in which people may visit galleries for free, artists do not struggle, and the entire ecosystem is funded by firms or private individuals with bottomless wallets and a squeaky-clean track record? The answer, of course, is no.

Frances Bell in her garden in Northumberland with her ex-racehorse Definite Wisdom (Dillon Bryden)
Frances Bell in her garden in Northumberland with her ex-racehorse Definite Wisdom (Dillon Bryden)

The biggest companies in the world today – all potential future sponsors – are in tech, a field I’m keen to ask Bell about. “There are huge copyright and ownership questions,” she says of art produced by AI, likening such generators to meat grinders that swallow up and regurgitate content created by real-life artists like her. “There should be a moratorium on accepting artwork [created by a robot] into art competitions.”

For Bell, art created by the human hand will always be superior, and that comes down to the story of how it was produced; of human interaction between painter and sitter. It is something intangible that no algorithm can replicate; and that gives a painting its ineffable vivacity.

“Art is a physical, tactile trade,” Bell adds. Paintings have a “pulse” we can only fully appreciate when we see them hanging in galleries. “You want an artwork to wash over you, despite you having no idea how it was done,” she concludes. “It’s a portal into a world. I don’t mean to sound like a cynic, but no screen can do that.”

Frances Bell’s work will show as part of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters' annual exhibition, 9 May to 18 May;