Robert Anning Bell - His Life and His Works

by Tolovaj

Robert Anning Bell was one of the most versatile and influential artists of his time. Many of his creations can be seen at the most prestigious locations.

R. Anning Bell was born into a wealthy family where his artistic talent was acknowledged and supported. His uncle was an architect who allowed him to learn the tricks of the trade as an apprentice. After two years, his formal education at University College School, the Westminster School of Art, and the Royal Academy Schools followed. He also spent some time at Academie Julian in Paris and traveled to Italy like most young artists in the second half of the 19th century.

His practical knowledge of architecture and versatile education combined with immense curiosity led to a kind of Jack-of-all-trades who became a decorative artist with activity in numerous fields of so-called greater arts and lesser arts. We can briefly describe him as a decorative artist, but it's probably better to check his work to grab a whole image.

Here are the 10 facts about Robert Anning Bell's life and work:


While many of Anning Bell's contemporaries created in several fields of art, it's hard to find somebody who created and excelled in so many areas.

1. Illustrations

Illustrations were Anning Bell's first serious income. At Nister, he had to adapt to the publisher's expectations for an already established series of picture books. He had more free hands when he worked for Sylvia's Journal and The Yellow Book. His most important work before the end of the 19th century was very likely a series of picture books for Dent called Banbury Cross as an illustrator and designer. His designs stayed in use until 1929.

Beauty and the Beast

The Midsummer's Night Dream in 1895 established his name among the leading illustrators. A series of books with poems by Keats, Spenser, and Shelley followed. We should also mention Tempest and Grimm's Fairy Tales. But in 1902, his career as an illustrator practically ended. Instead, he focused on other areas of his interest, illustrating just two more books in the next decade: Golden Treasury and Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

Relief Honeysuckle
2. Reliefs

Reliefs are a pretty typical creation by Anning Bell. He had an excellent sense of three dimensions, and good skills in painting and sculpting, so reliefs were one of obvious possibilities. He limited copies between ten to twenty, always signed and numbered them, and colored each one by himself, with very variable color palettes. Occasionally, one of his reliefs pops up at an auction. It costs a few thousand dollars.

3. Paintings

Among numerous other creations, we shall never neglect his paintings. Robert Anning Bell used mostly oils and watercolors. Among his favorite motifs were scenes from myths, the Bible, and classical works. He also portrayed more or less known contemporaries.

Will-o-the-Wisp, aquarell
4. Mosaics

The second half of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century was a kind of revival of mosaics. They were popular due to their durability, aesthetics, and new trends in art where decoration and usefulness became inseparable. R. Anning Bell, with an understanding of architecture, was one of the leading artists in the field who won numerous commissions for mosaics. The most famous of them is a series of four mosaics made for the Palace of Westminster - four Patron Saints of the United Kingdom.

Mosaics offered Bell to express his sense of symbolism through the lens of the Arts and Crafts movement, using traditional materials and techniques to create something new yet classical. His mosaics decorate interiors and exteriors. Some critics even named him a champion of mosaics.

5. Bookplates

Bookplates or ex libris are almost forgotten art today but some artists created true artistic masterpieces and earned pretty good money by the way. Robert Anning Bell was one of them. These bookplates were used by folk for three reasons:

  • to mark the spot in the book where you stopped reading to know where to continue,
  • to mark the ownership of the book (so they were highly personalized),
  • to brag about.

Having ex-libris drawn by an artist was a matter of prestige for the owners. On the other hand, artists didn't spend too much time on a specific plate, they knew they would get paid, and each plate worked as promotional material as well. Artists also created bookplates as presents to each other. Robert Anning Bell took careful notes about his designs and it seems he created 87 bookplates.

Most of them are black and white but in rare occasions when he used color, he preferred red.

Bookplate for Mander Brothsrs
6. Stained-glass

Stained-glass art was another occasion to show Bell's talent. It combines his sense of composition, respect for old art, and the need for progression. Everything is fused in timeless beauty. He created stained-glass windows for several churches, and at least one library (in Manchester). He lectured about this specific media to his students at the University. His published book 'A lecture on stained glass' shows his deep understanding of art in a historical context which includes economic, social, religious, and other changes in society through numerous centuries.

He obviously understood the spiritual aspects of colored glass (as he pointed out) and skillfully fused them with the physical properties of the light.

Memorial window at All Saints Church, Wytham, Oxfordshire
7. Profesor

Somebody with so wide and throughout knowledge should always somehow participate in transferring the knowledge from the past to the next generations. Robert Anning Bell was an instructor at the Liverpool University School of Architecture, chief of the Design Section at the Glasgow School of Art, and professor of design at the Royal College of Art in London. He stayed involved in the tuition process right to the end of his life.

The Tempest, illustrated by R. Aning Bell
The Tempest [with Biographical Introduction]


In R. Anning Bell's style, we can clearly recognize the influence of old Italian masters, especially with his clear lines in black and white drawings. But he loved colors and detail as well, so we can add the influence of Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement (check the article about Walter Crane). This means decorative borders and a lot of red hair.

Paintings of redheads by R. Anning Bell
8. Redheads

Redheads have occupied the imaginations of artists for most of history but it's hard to find an era where they so intensely dominated the scene as during the Arts and Crafts movement. Bell loved to portray them too. He portrayed most of the Biblical and mythological figures with red hair. The symbolism of redheads and their emotional impact was simply too strong to resist.

What Do you Think About Redheads in Art?
9. Decorative Borders

Borders were among the signature elements of Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts. They add another dimension to the illustration or painting, often emphasizing the basic message. The border can reflect the mood of the presented character, show less important details that would not work best in the picture, or guide the viewer in a certain direction. Borders, of course, provide a visual structure that was hard-wired into Bell's way of thinking from his early ages in his uncle's studio.

Lady Macbeth in decorative border
10. Personal Life

Robert Anning Bell was married twice. I couldn't find the date of death of his first wife, so I can only presume that he married for the second time as a widower. His second wife, Laura Anning Bell (1867–1950), was a portraitist, who worked mainly in pastels. R. Anning Bell had no kids and died at 70 years old due to respiratory (asthma, pneumonia) complications.

All used images are in Public Domain. The collage made of redheads is used by permission.

Robert Anning Bell's Fan Website
Redheads by Robert Anning Bell

Updated: 04/23/2024, Tolovaj
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Tolovaj on 05/03/2024

The relief is called Honeysuckle and I believe it is exhibited in montreal, Canada. I don't know who was the model.

Tolovaj on 05/03/2024

He sits in the position of power.

Tolovaj on 05/03/2024

Yes, she may be buried elsewhere.

Tolovaj on 05/03/2024

No, Turrell is new name to me.

Tolovaj on 05/03/2024

Yes, it's possible.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/29/2024

My cursor is not cooperating about any artist attributions even as I operate from cooperative Mozilla Firefox.

Might you have that information about where in Robert Anning Bell's numerous productions these in-text images prevail?

DerdriuMarriner on 04/29/2024

The in-text image between the first subheading, Illustrations, and the second, Relief, appears quite aesthetic, quite striking.

That image invites further acquaintance. But my cursor leaves me clueless about artistic attributions even as I operate in Mozilla Firefox!

Would you have the information regarding the where in his work and the who of his subject?

DerdriuMarriner on 04/27/2024

The first in-text image amuses me.

Does it look to you, as it does to me, that Beast is sitting comfortably, with legs crossed, atop a table?

DerdriuMarriner on 04/27/2024

The Findagrave site conserves an image of the burial marker with the information "In loving remembrance of Robert Anning Bell Royal Academician Died in London November 27 1933 in his 71st year Requiescat in Pace His ashes lie under this slab."

That site's informational entry considers Robert Anning Bell as born April 14, 1863, in London and as buried in St. James Churchyard, Piccadilly, City of Westminster, greater London, England.

Does it not look to you, as it does to me, that his second wife, as portraitist and as ex-wife of artist Émile Troncy (April 2, 1860-March 25, 1943), must have been buried elsewhere to merit no mention on the Findagrave site?

DerdriuMarriner on 04/26/2024

It appears that Amy Caroline Ditchham Bell was one of two sisters to Ellen Emily Ditchham (1876?-?) of Chiswick, wife of artist and portraitist Herbert Charles Turrell (1871?-?) of Wimbledon.

Might you have come across the aforementioned artist and portrait painter in your Bell-related researches?

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