Date of birth: 1 December 1878
Place of birth: Kew, Victoria, Australia
Date of death: 22 October 1966
Place of death: Toorak, Victoria, Australia

George Frederick Henry Bell was the fourth of six children.  Educated at Kew High School, he took painting classes from George Coates. In 1896 he enrolled at the National Gallery of Victoria’s school of art where he studied for six years under Bernard Hall and Frederick McCubbin.  Also an accomplished musician, Bell taught briefly at the National Gallery School, but in 1904 left for Paris, studying first under Jean Paul Laurens at the Académie Julian, then spending time with Spanish teacher Castelucha, also attending Colarossi’s and La Grande Chaumiére.  Bell then headed to London and studied at St Ives and in 1907 was a foundation member of the Modern Society of Portrait Painters, where he exhibited until 1915.  In 1908 he joined the Chelsea Art Club and enjoyed a London life surrounded by Australian expatriates, exhibiting portraits internationally, including the Royal Academy.

George  Bell, Laying the duckboards, France 1917, 1923, Reference number ART03592 George Bell, Laying the duckboards, France 1917, 1923,
ART03592

With the outbreak of the First World War Bell tried to enlist, but his circulatory problems and flat feet saw him rejected as medically unfit.  From 1915-1918, he worked at a munitions factory, and taught at a secondary school.  However, his reputation as a skilled portraitist and landscape painter secured his position as an official war artist.  Appointed on 5 October 1918, Bell proceeded to France with the rank of honorary lieutenant and attached to the 4th Australian Division.

He reached the Western Front too late to witness any fighting, though he was there when the armistice was signed.  As a result, like many other Australian official war artists, most of his pictures concentrated on the aftermath of the war.  Bell depicted the devastated landscapes where the major battles had taken place as well as the day-to-day life of the troops.  He did not seek to glorify either war or those engaged in it, but rather to create a record of the war's destructiveness.  Subjects included the equipment of war, the defeated enemy, and the ruins of the villages and farms.  Bell was keen to show the soldiers indulging in their favourite pastimes, such as gambling and attending race meetings, but also completed a number of oil portraits of senior 4th Division staff.
 

George Bell, Major General William Glasgow, 1919, Reference number ART00107 George Bell, Major General William Glasgow, 1919
ART00107

Bell worked in France and Belgium from October 1918 to April 1919 and returned there again in July 1919.  His commission was terminated 31 December 1919 and he returned to Melbourne in 1920, where he continued to complete occasional commissions for the Australian War Memorial.  Bell became increasingly involved with the Melbourne arts community and was a well-known art teacher during the 1930s and '40s, as well as an influential promoter of the modern art movement in Australia, founding and presiding over the Contemporary Art Society.  In 1966, George Bell was awarded an Order of the British Empire for his service to Australian art, and died later that year in Toorak, Victoria.


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