Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) was an English painter and interior designer that focused on Post-Impressionism and Abstraction in her art. She had a close relationship with her sister Virginia Woolf and was a prominent member of the Bloomsbury group in the early twentieth century. Bell was something of a freewheeling intellectual who harbored modern perspectives and opinions on feminism, marriage, and the social order of the time. She had an open marriage to fellow Bloomsbury member Clive Bell and had affairs with artists like Roger Fry and Duncan Grant. She was greatly involved with Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops, which brought a lot of attention to her art during her lifetime.
Vanessa Bell’s Childhood in London
Vanessa Stephen was born in May 1879 at Hyde Park Gate in Westminster, London. Born as the eldest daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Duckworth, who both had an established history in this prestigious area of London, young Vanessa had big shoes to fill. She was educated at home in subjects like language and history and even took drawing lessons from Ebenezer Cook, a famous watercolor painter. At the age of seventeen, she went off to further study art at Sir Arthur Cope’s art school, before finally entering the Royal Academy in 1901 to study painting.
Though Vanessa’s childhood was enjoyed in the company of her sister Virginia, as well as her brothers Thoby and Adrian and her half-sister Laura, she spoke of childhood trauma later in life. Her half-brothers, George, and Gerald Duckworth, sexually abused her when she was young, resulting in lifelong scars and a strained relationship with that side of her family. Nevertheless, Vanessa stood out amongst her greatly talented family as both a great artist and someone who was warmly hospitable.
A Tale of Two Sisters: Virginia and Vanessa
Though Vanessa came from a prominent family at the time, perhaps her most well-known relative today is her younger sister Virginia Woolf (née Stephen). Virginia Woolf was an English novelist who is now considered one of the most influential figures of twentieth-century modernism. Vanessa was a champion of her younger sister’s work. She even designed all the book jackets for Virginia’s novels. Though some people didn’t like Vanessa’s book jackets, including Virginia’s husband Leonard Woolf, the sisters continued working together time and time again. Over a period of thirty years, Vanessa created thirty-eight dust jackets for the Hogarth Press, a publishing house run by Virginia and Leonard. Collaborating in this way was a consistent show of their sisterly support for one another and artistic dedication over a lifetime. These book jackets are also a reflection of how prominently both sisters worked with the Bloomsbury group.
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Friendship to Last a Lifetime: Formation of the Bloomsbury Group
Vanessa Bell spent a lot of time at university, including a period at the Ladies’ department of King’s College London, a school many women in the Bloomsbury group attended. After losing her mother when she was just sixteen and her father in 1904, she and her siblings sold the family home in Hyde Park Gate and moved to Bloomsbury in West London. There, Vanessa sought close social connections and began to bond with artists, writers, and intellectuals who would later become members of the Bloomsbury group. Vanessa began hosting a meeting group called The Friday Club at her house, with attendees including her sister Virginia Woolf, economist John Maynard Keynes, Sir Desmond MacCarthy, and Lytton Strachey.
Eventually, Vanessa’s friends and members of her family would be fully formed into what is known as the Bloomsbury group, or the Bloomsbury set. The Bloomsbury group was a collection of artists, writers, and intellectuals in early twentieth-century England that had a great effect on the theories of post-impressionism, significant form, and modernism. Vanessa would go on to be a key figure in fostering connections and providing a safe environment within the group.
Starting a Family: Vanessa’s Relationship with Clive Bell
In 1907, Vanessa married Clive Bell (1881-1964) an English art critic, upon his return to London from studying art history in Paris. Like most of the Bloomsbury men, Clive was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and ran in the same social circles as most of Vanessa’s Friday Club. They ended up having two sons together, Julian and Quentin, who were both writers.
Though Clive and Vanessa had a passionate relationship when they were younger, their marriage was all but over by the beginning of World War I. Rather than get divorced, the two of them chose to have an open relationship and pursue a romance with other people. Their relationship remained amicable and they would even spend holidays together at Charleston farmhouse. Vanessa painted a picture of Clive with the kids in 1924 titled Clive Bell and Family. The Bells experienced a family tragedy in 1937 when their son Julian was killed while serving as an ambulance driver for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.
The Golden Years of the Bloomsbury Group and Vanessa’s Farmhouse
One of the main factors in joining the Bloomsbury group together was the hospitality of Vanessa Bell. Considering the Bloomsbury group was a collective of artists, writers, and philosophers, it was important for them to have space to convene and work together. Vanessa took things a step further with her Charleston farmhouse. At the modernist East Sussex property, the freewheeling artists and visionaries of the Bloomsbury group were able to reject the Victorian ideals of their parents and forge new identities. Many artists and writers lived and worked at the Charleston farmhouse at various points in their lives. The home is filled with modernist décor and serves as an example of the artistic style of the Bloomsbury members within a domestic or everyday context.
Modern Arrangements: Relationships with Roger Fry and Duncan Grant
After the first World War, both Vanessa and Clive Bell decided to open their marriage and pursue other romantic relationships. One such relationship Vanessa explored was with artist and fellow Bloomsbury member Roger Fry. Fry and Bell always had a close friendship throughout their time together in the Bloomsbury group, but their brief romantic relationship redefined the way she viewed art and engaged in creating her own work. Fry was a proponent of post-impressionism, and Vanessa began to experiment and paint more within that genre after being linked to him. In 1911, Fry painted Vanessa Bell in a Deckchair, one of many intimately romantic paintings he would make of Bell during his lifetime.
Though Vanessa had a deep connection to both Clive Bell and Roger Fry at different points in her life, it is said that the love of her life was a fellow painter and Bloomsbury member Duncan Grant. Grant and Bell grew close while they were working with Roger Fry on his Omega Workshops, an influential showcase of the fine and decorative arts. In 1918, Bell gave birth to Grant’s biological daughter Angelica, who Clive Bell would raise as his own until she was an adult. Grant and Bell spent countless hours together at the Charleston farmhouse and Grant even painted a regal portrait titled Vanessa Bell in 1943, giving the world a glimpse of how Vanessa looked through his eyes.
A Post-Impressionist Masterpiece: Still Life on Corner of a Mantelpiece
Though Vanessa Bell created many great paintings in her lifetime, a standout in the post-impressionist genre is her 1914 work Still Life on Corner of a Mantelpiece. In this work, we can see the influences of her brief affair with Roger Fry and her time in the Bloomsbury group. An oil painting depicting handmade paper flowers and boxes on a mantelpiece, this work utilizes abstraction and employs elements of both Cubism and Fauvism in its composition.
Duncan Grant painted this same still life at the same time as Bell with his 1914 painting The Mantelpiece taking a much more literal approach to its depiction than Bell’s. In all, Still Life on Corner of a Mantelpiece is an excellent representation of the direction in which the Bloomsbury group’s art was moving in 1914, as well as demonstrates the early makings of a post-impressionist painting.
Vanessa Bell’s Later Years, Children, and Legacy
As Vanessa Bell grew older, she became less outgoing and preferred to spend most of her time at the Charleston farmhouse with her family and Duncan Grant. Her sister Virginia Woolf sadly died by suicide in 1941, leaving Bell to look inward toward her home and close familial contacts to gain inspiration for her work. In 1959, Bell painted Angelica Garnett and Her Four Daughters, depicting her daughter by Duncan Grant and her grandchildren. In April 1961, Vanessa Bell died in Charleston farmhouse following a period of brief illness, leaving behind a wonderful legacy associated with her home and the Bloomsbury group. She is buried next to Duncan Grant in the Firle Parish Churchyard. The Charleston farmhouse remains open to tourists as a modernist museum.