Bell, Vanessa

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Vanessa Bell

A member of the celebrated Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers and the sister of author Virginia Woolf, British painter and decorative artist Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) was accomplished in her own right. In the 1910s Bell emerged as one of England's first abstract painters, although she eventually returned to the representational style developed in her youth. Her talent was recognized in a number of solo exhibitions, and she also drew recognition by designing sets for ballet productions. In her later years, she moved to the English countryside, which served as an inspiration for her final works.

Bell was born on May 30, 1879, in the London neighborhood of Hyde Park Gate. She was the oldest child of Leslie Stephen, a well-known writer and Victorian scholar, and Stephen's second wife, Julia Duckworth, both of whom encouraged their daughter's artistic pursuits. She was raised alongside her brothers, Thoby and Adrian, and her sister Virginia, as well as four step-siblings. The children were educated primarily at home, studying history, Latin, French, and mathematics, and they often interacted with the ambassadors, artists, and writers, including Henry James and George Meredith, who visited there. The Stephens spent several summers at Talland House in St. Ives, and there Bell painted, read treatises on art and familiarized herself with the town's large artists community.

Studied Art

Bell's mother died of influenza in May 1895, just before Bell turned sixteen. Soon after, Virginia suffered her first mental breakdown. While stepsister Stella assumed household duties until her marriage two years later, ultimately those responsibilities fell to Bell. Fortunately, the task was not overwhelming, and Bell was also able to begin her art education under the tutelage of Ebenezer Cooke, a noted reformer in art education. From 1896 to 1901, she attended Sir Arthur Cope's art school in London's South Kensington district, considered a training ground for the prestigious Royal Academy. A successful portrait painter, Cope employed many visiting artists from the Academy to teach at his school, including Thomas Faed, Luke Fildes, Andrew C. Gow, W. Q. Orchardson, and Seymore Lucas. On the strength of her work at Cope's school, Bell was accepted into the Royal Academy in 1901. There, she studied with representational painter John Singer Sargent and animal painter John Macallan Swan. "Sargent is teaching most extraordinarily well at the RA," Bell wrote to an absent fellow student, as quoted in Frances Spalding's biography Vanessa Bell. "He gives lessons as you said he did, that would apply to any paintings. They're chiefly about tone. . . . He generally tells me that my things are too grey. The one thing he is down upon is when he thinks anyone is trying for an effect regardless of truth."

Outside of the Academy curriculum, Bell also began to develop a circle of artist friends, as well as an interest in modern art, spurred by her reading of an English translation of Camille Mauclair's The French Impressionists. According to Spalding, the book taught her "that after all living painters might be as alive as the dead and that there was something besides the lovely quality of old paint to be aimed at, something fundamental and permanent and as discoverable now as in any other age." In the winter of 1904-05 she attended a lecture on French impressionism given by Frank Rutter at the Grafton Gallery that further sparked her affinity for the genre.

Formed Bloomsbury Group

When her father died from cancer in 1904, Bell was released from her domestic duties and could now devote herself fully to painting. She traveled to Paris with Virginia, visiting the studios of Rodin and Gerald Kelly. Virginia, who had been under Bell's care, suffered another breakdown upon their return to England and went to live with a family friend and then an aunt while the rest of the Stephens children moved to 46 Gordon Square in the Bloomsbury neighborhood. Following the family's move, Bell briefly attended the nearby Slade School of Art, then began to paint on her own. Meanwhile, Thoby began to invite literary friends from his days at Cambridge University to the house on Thursdays for discussion and camraderie.

Clive Bell, a university friend of Thoby's, attended these literary gatherings and soon became romantically interested in Vanessa. He first proposed to her in 1905, but she declined, as she did after his second proposal in July of 1906. Meanwhile, she began to forge a career for herself as a painter, producing portraits of friends and acquaintances. She received her first portrait commission from a stranger after she exhibited a painting at the New Gallery in April of 1905. That summer, she launched a Friday Club for artists, similar to Thoby's literary group, at the house on Gordon Square. Regular attendees included many friends from the Academy and Slade, including J. D. Innes, Derwent Lees, Maxwell Lightfoot, John Currie, Edna Clark Hall, and Clair Atwood, as well as the painter Henry Lamb. The group held its first exhibition in November of 1905. The participants in Thoby's and Vanessa's circles later became known collectively as the Bloomsbury Group, and their sister Virginia, who had already begun to publish her writing, was at the group's center.

The Stephens family traveled to Greece in the fall of 1906, where both Bell and Thoby fell ill. While Bell recovered, her brother died of typhoid fever on November 20 of that year, upon their return to London. Clive Bell, who had cared for both Bell and her brother, proposed to her a third time two days later, and this time she accepted. The Bells were married on February 7, 1907, at the St. Pancras Registry Office in Bloomsbury, and they honeymooned in Paris that April. They settled at the Gordon Square house, while Virginia and brother Adrian moved to 29 Fitzroy Square, where they soon hosted circles of their own. The Bell's first son, Julian Hewerd Bell was born on February 8, 1908, and was soon followed by brother Quentin Claudian Stephen Bell, who was born on August 19, 1910.

In the fall of 1910, Bell became reacquainted with the post-impressionists, whose work she had previously encountered at the New Gallery, through the paintings of Edouard Manet, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Paul Cézanne, all part of a "Manet and the Post-Impressionists" exhibit at the Grafton Gallery. The exhibit was organized by Roger Fry, an artist and curator with whom the Bells had developed a close friendship. Spalding recounts that the exhibit profoundly influenced Bell, who remarked, "It is impossible I think that any other exhibition can ever have had so much effect as did that on a rising generation . . . here was a sudden pointing to a possible path, a sudden liberation and encouragement to feel for oneself which were absolutely overwhelming."

First Sale

The Bells' marriage was marked by numerous transgressions. For his part, Clive frequently engaged in extramarital affairs and, soon after the marriage, even began a flirtatious relationship with Virginia. Bell, meanwhile, began an affair with Fry when he accompanied her and her husband on a trip to Turkey in 1911. Meanwhile, Virginia married Leonard Woolf on August 10 of that same year. Although the Bells eventually separated, they remained close and Clive continued to support Vanessa financially.

In July 1912, Bell exhibited her work in the Exposition de Quelques Indépendants Anglais, a showing organized by Fry at the Galerie Barbazanges in Paris. In August, she sold her first painting, The Spanish Model, to the Contemporary Art Society. She exhibited in Fry's second post-impressionist exhibition in October, and the following year, she and painter Duncan Grant became co-directors of Fry's Omega Workshops. In January of 1914, she visited the Paris studios of Picasso and Henri Matisse with French emigrée poet and art connoisseur Gertrude Stein. A few months later Bell received her first large decorative commission, a mosaic floor installed at Lady Ian Hamilton's home in Hyde Park. In 1919, she began exhibiting with the influential London Group.

By this time Bell's romantic attentions had begun to shift again, and in 1915 she and Grant began an affair. Despite Grant's professed homosexuality, Bell lived with him for the rest of her life, although she remained close with Fry as well. In October of 1916, Bell and Grant moved to Charleston Farmhouse in Firle, in England's rural Sussex district. World War I had begun and Grant initiated the move in order to avoid conscription by being gainfully employed as a farm laborer. Bell's children, as well as Grant's partner, David "Bunny" Garnett, joined the couple in Firle for the duration of World War I, then returned to London, maintaining Charleston as a summer home. Bell and Grant had a daughter, Angelica Vanessa Bell, on December 25, 1918, although for social appearances she was treated as Clive Bell's child.

Personal Losses

Bell remained in London, working and exhibiting as both a painter and decorative artist, for the next three decades, although she and Grant also traveled widely. Her first major solo exhibition took place at London's Independent Gallery in June of 1922, and many more would follow. During the 1930s she gained additional renown for her work designing sets for ballet productions, and in 1938, she and Grant began informal teaching positions at the Euston Road School.

Bell experienced a series of personal tragedies throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s as well. Fry died following a fall in 1934, and in 1937 her son Julian was killed in the Spanish Civil War. Her emotionally troubled sister, Virginia Woolf, committed suicide in 1941, and by 1942 Bell and her daughter Angelica were estranged, due to Angelica's love affair and eventual marriage to David Garnett. In her later years, Bell lived primarily at Charleston, where she returned to a more representative style of painting. She died there from heart failure on April 7, 1961.


Contemporary Women Artists, Gale Group, 1999.

Marler, Regina, editor Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell, Moyer Bell, 1998.

Spalding, Frances, Vanessa Bell, Ticknor and Fields, 1983.


"Vanessa Bell," Tate Museum, (December 15, 2004).