Bell, Vanessa (1879–1961)

views updated

Bell, Vanessa (1879–1961)

English painter and central member of the Bloomsbury group. Name variations: Vanessa Stephen, 1879–1906; Vanessa Bell 1906–1961. Born Vanessa Stephen at 22 Hyde Park Gate in London, England, on May 30, 1879; died on April 7, 1961; daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen (an author and editor) and Julia (Jackson) Stephen (widow at age 24 of Herbert Duckworth); sister of Virginia Woolf; given private painting lessons, mainly at home, but also studied at Royal Academy and Slade School of Art, London; married Clive Bell, in 1906; children: (with Bell) two sons, Julian (1908–1937) and Quentin (b. 1910); (with Duncan Grant) one daughter, Angelica Garnett (b. 1918, a writer).

Selected paintings:

Lady Robert Cecil (1905); Saxon Sydney Turner (c. 1908); Iceland Poppies (1909); Lytton Strachey (Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London, 1911); The Bathers in a Landscape (Victoria and Albert Museum, 1911); Studland Beach (Tate Gallery, 1912); Landscape with Haystack, Asheham (Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London, 1912); Nursery Tea (1912); Adam and Eve (Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London, 1913); A Conversation (Courtauld Institute Galleries, London, 1913–16); Abstract (Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London, c. 1914);Mrs. Mary Hutchinson (Tate Gallery, 1914); Iris Tree (1915); Self-Portrait (Yale Center for British Art, c. 1915); The Madonna Lily (Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London, 1915); The Tub (Tate Gallery, 1918); Quentin Bell (1919); Interior with a Table, San Tropez (Tate Gallery, 1921); The Open Door, Charleston (Bolton Museum and Art Gallery, 1926); Portrait of Aldous Huxley (c. 1929–30); Roger Fry (King's College, Cambridge, 1933); Interior with Housemaid (Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead, 1939); Poppies and Hollyhocks (Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London, c. 1941); Self-Portrait (1958);Henrietta Garnett (Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, 1959). Paintings are signed VB, Vanessa Bell, or unsigned.

Vanessa Bell was one of the central figures in the Bloomsbury group, an English literary and artistic coterie which, in the early decades of the 20th century, challenged the conventions and morality of the Victorian era in which they had been raised. A painter, she lived at the center of an influential circle of friends, of whom the most famous was her younger sister, the novelist Virginia Woolf . Bell was, says her biographer Frances Spalding , "composed of paradoxes: a prey to vagueness, she could be unusually sharp; chilling formality went hand in hand with a quick sensitivity; she upheld the controlling power of reason yet was a victim of her emotions and intuitions and was led to subterfuges that denied

honesty." In her personal life, she appeared immune to moral convention. Bloomsbury historians, including her children, continue to debate whether her unusual personal life was an exhilarating example of individual liberty or a baleful case of self-denial and deception.

Her father was Sir Leslie Stephen, a formidable Victorian patriarch, famous for his agnosticism, and the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. They lived in solid upper-middle-class comfort in Kensington but Vanessa, Virginia, and their two brothers, Thoby and Adrian, suffered a succession of domestic disasters as children. Their mother Julia Stephen , who had previously been married to Herbert Duckworth, died unexpectedly in 1895 when Vanessa was 16. A half-sister, Stella Duckworth , took over their upbringing, but she too died two years later, aged only 28, of peritonitis. To make matters worse, Vanessa and her sister Virginia had to endure as teenagers the unwanted sexual advances and abuses of their half-brother George Duckworth. Despite these difficulties, Vanessa was already studying doggedly to become an artist, learning from her father's example to work with diligence and single-minded concentration. She studied drawing from a fellow of the Royal Academy, Arthur Cope, took lessons from John Singer Sargent, and then won a competitive exam to enter the Royal Academy schools to study painting technique. She worked on drawing nude models three days each week and disliked being taken from her art work to attend the society functions which her family and class required. As Virginia wrote: "Underneath the necklaces and the enamel butterflies was one passionate desire—for paint and turpentine, for turpentine and paint."

When Vanessa was 25, in 1904, their father also died. He had encouraged his daughters to read widely, and they were far more rigorously educated than most young women of their social class. But they were denied the chance of going to college and had to enjoy it vicariously through their brothers instead, each of whom went to Cambridge. From Cambridge, Vanessa's brothers brought home a succession of fascinating and intellectually gifted friends, many of whom belonged to the elite "Apostles" club. Among these visitors, who in turn were fascinated by the beauty and intelligence of the Stephen sisters, were Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, and Clive Bell, all of whom were to become famous in their own right in later life.

Vanessa and Virginia, determined to live a more independent life after their father's death, moved with their brothers from Kensington to a big house in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury (the area of London around the British Museum), which was then unfashionable for people of their class and carried a hint of bohemianism. They were anything but starving artists, however, having inherited plenty of money, and they took the attendance of servants for granted. Vanessa was the more practical sister (Virginia had already suffered her first bout of mental illness), and she arranged all the buying and selling. The Thursday night salons they held there (around which the mythic ideal of "Bloomsbury" developed) were modeled on the Cambridge Apostles' meetings, often with one of the family members or friends giving a talk or a reading from a work in progress. They prided themselves on their absolute commitment to honesty and truth, and swore to obliterate what seemed to them the insincerity and hypocrisy of the Victorians, their parents. Others in the circle, which met in various forms well into the 1920s and 1930s, were E.M. Forster, Roger Fry, Desmond McCarthy, and Leonard Woolf (who later married Virginia). The two sisters were lifelong friends but felt competitive with one another. Vanessa Bell was older, stronger, healthier, more practical, and had children, all of which stimulated Virginia's envy, while Vanessa always thought of herself as being overshadowed by her sister's literary genius.

Clive Bell, an art critic, fell in love with Vanessa and twice proposed to her, but she turned him down. He proposed a third time just after her oldest brother's death in 1906; this time, she accepted, even though, according to the rest of the family and friends, he was unworthy of her. Henry James, the American novelist who lived in England and knew the family, wrote that Clive was a "quite dreadful-looking little stoop-shouldered, long-haired, third-rate" man. But for a time, she seemed fully content. Virginia described her sister, seen walking with Clive. "She had a gauze streamer, red as blood flying over her shoulder, a purple scarf, a shooting cap, tweed skirt, and great brown boots. Then her hair swept across her forehead, and she was tawny and jubilant and lusty as a young God." After their marriage, the couple took over the Gordon Square house while Virginia and Adrian, the surviving brother, moved to Fitzroy Square nearby.

The marriage began with enthusiasm and mutual rapture but became unconventional and unstable. Soon after the birth of their son Julian in 1908, Clive Bell began a flirtation with his sister-in-law Virginia (even though she had also written of him very disparagingly) and later had sexual affairs with many other women. Between 1911 and 1913, Vanessa Bell was in love with the art critic Roger Fry, whose 1910 exhibition in the Grafton Gallery had helped bring European post-Impressionist artists to popular notice in Britain. This affair began when Vanessa and Clive went with Fry to Constantinople and rural Turkey. She was taken ill and only discovered later that she had been pregnant and then suffered a miscarriage. (Her second son Quentin, born only a month earlier, had been left with a

nurse back in England.) Fry resourcefully found local remedies and supervised a hasty return to Britain. At the same time, he realized that the two of them had fallen in love. Later she wrote that with Fry, "I realized what an absolutely enthralling companion had come into one's life. Our feelings jumped together at each new sight; for the first time there was someone who could convey his feelings and show that he understood mine." But they disagreed on matters of art. Fry was a better promoter and critic than creative artist, and, being 13 years older than she, sometimes seemed to her more like a father figure than a lover. After two stormy years, she broke off their relationship when she felt it had become a "dead, drab affair," causing him years of anguish and forlorn hope that they might revive it. She did remain his friend and admired him to the end of his life: Virginia Woolf later wrote his biography.

In 1914, and for most of her life afterwards, Bell began to live with another artist, Duncan Grant, even though he was a homosexual and had a series of passionate relationships with other men throughout their lives together. He was six years younger than her and almost 20 years the junior of Roger Fry. Most of Bell's close friends then, and later, were homosexuals, and she seemed to relish their company. In 1914, in a letter to economist John Maynard Keynes, himself bisexual and one of Grant's lovers (Keynes would later marry Lydia Lopokova ), Bell showed how far she had thrown off the repressive conventions of her father's era. "Did you have a pleasant afternoon buggering one or more of the young men we left for you? It must have been delicious. I imagine you … with your bare limbs intertwined with him and all the ecstatic preliminaries." With Grant, despite his preference for men, she did have sex occasionally, with the result that they had a child, Angelica, in 1918. Spalding describes Vanessa Bell as "voraciously maternal" in her devotion to her children, but Grant was certainly not voraciously paternal; he and Clive Bell were both willing to go along with the convenient fiction that Clive was Angelica's father.

But the real shared love of Vanessa and Duncan was painting. Clive Bell and Roger Fry were both aestheticians who loved to discuss art and theorize about it, whereas she and Grant preferred actually to create it, and unlike many men of his generation he enthusiastically encouraged her to carry on improving her technique. As Germaine Greer observed in her history of women artists, The Obstacle Race, many male artists were indifferent to the work of their female contemporaries and offered no encouragement. Even in the Bloomsbury circle there was a case in point, Dora Carrington , who in early life had been an enthusiastic and talented painter. The total indifference to her art shown by Lytton Strachey, whom Carrington loved, discouraged her to the point of abandoning it altogether.

Bell's own paintings often relied on the use of blocks of color. Spalding observes that:

Vanessa Bell disliked story-telling in art; she shared the Bloomsbury belief that art only achieves unity and completeness if it is detached; she selected her subjects for the reflections, shapes, colours, patterns, lines and spatial relationships that they presented.

A popular post-Impressionist, she did not win a prominent place in English art-history, and her work is valued as much because it illustrates the characters and settings of the Bloomsbury Group as for its intrinsic merits.

In 1916, she began to rent a farmhouse named Charleston in the south English county of Sussex, so that Grant and his lover David "Bunny" Garnett could work there as farm laborers instead of being drafted to fight in the First World War. She later bought the house and lived there for the rest of her life. Though Grant moved in with her permanently, his male friends also came to stay for long periods, while Vanessa's husband Clive Bell, fully aware of the complex emotional affairs of the house and still on friendly terms with his wife, also stayed sometimes for months at a time and brought his women friends along. As Janet Malcolm writes: "What could be a better riposte to Victorian hypocrisy and dreariness than a husband who brought his mistresses around for amused inspection and a lover who was gay? By any standard the Bell-Grant household was the strange one, and in the 1920s there were still plenty of people who could find it excitingly scandalous."

Her commitment to art never wavered: it runs like a rod of steel through her life, an unbending central core of conviction.

—Frances Spalding

In the 1920s, Bloomsbury became a well-known feature of English intellectual and artistic life. Duncan Grant had his first solo exhibition of paintings in 1920, and Vanessa Bell had hers two years later, when she was 43. Her former lover, Roger Fry, gave the exhibition a favorable press review, but artists she was not personally attached to were also enthusiastic. From then on, she was able to get commissions for portraits and mural decorations and to make a decent income from painting. Her brother-in-law, Leonard Woolf, ran the Hogarth Press, and Bell was a regular cover designer and illustrator for its novels and poetry, including the first editions of Virginia Woolf's novels. Grant and Bell began to spend part of most years at a French farmhouse, La Bergere, in Provence, and they befriended many of the prominent European artists of the era, Picasso, Derain, and Matisse, after the breach of the war years.

In 1932, Bell's lifelong friend Lytton Strachey, who had become famous with his books Eminent Victorians and Queen Victoria, both masterpieces of anti-Victorian debunking, died of cancer. Two years later, her old lover and longtime friend Roger Fry also died. Much worse was to follow. In 1937, her oldest son Julian, who had volunteered to fight with the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, was killed at the Battle of Brunete. And in 1941, suffering from recurring "voices" and fits of derangement, her sister Virginia Woolf committed suicide by drowning. This succession of tragedies cast a severe shadow over the rest of Vanessa Bell's life. But she was extremely resilient. She had painted a group portrait of the Bloomsbury Group in the 1920s, using her common method of putting each of the figures in a distinctive pose but leaving the faces blank. In the 1940s, she returned to the theme and did another group portrait, this time with the faces fully formed, and showing hung paintings of the group's dead members (Strachey, Fry, and Virginia Woolf) on the walls behind those who were still living.

The incestuous quality of friendships and relationships among the Bloomsbury clique was never shown more vividly than when Bell's daughter Angelica, fathered by Duncan Grant, became the wife of her father's former boyfriend David Garnett, who was now a minor novelist. Angelica Garnett 's much later memoir Deceived by Kindness (1984) knocked a good deal of bloom off the Bloomsbury rose. It gave a withering account of her mother's complicated emotional life, arguing that Vanessa Bell had masochistically degraded herself in living with Grant, whose succession of homosexual lovers continued into old age. "Self-denigration and timidity became a habit," wrote Angelica, "expressed outwardly in drab, unstylish clothes, a shrinking from society, and the constant reiteration that Duncan's work was so infinitely better than her own." In later years, Bell routinely declined social invitations and, as she aged, became reluctant to meet anyone new, while remaining loyal to her oldest friends.

Bell and Grant spent most of the Second World War years back at the Sussex farm. Her younger son Quentin, who had also become a painter, suffered from tuberculosis and was declared unfit for military service so he passed the duration of the war working as a laborer on the nearby farm of Maynard Keynes. The life of rural painting, varied by trips to France and sometimes Italy, resumed after the war. Vanessa Bell realized that the Bloomsbury Group was becoming a historical phenomenon and soon became impatient with interview requests from the aspiring biographers of Keynes, Strachey, Fry, and her sister Virginia. Unable to drive, she found it difficult to travel and went less and less frequently to London. She died in 1961, greatly mourned by her surviving friends and relatives. As her biographer Spalding wrote, it was she who had kept the Group together. "Her hospitality is one reason why the disparate individuals who composed Bloomsbury continued to meet, to retain a group identity long after the circumstances that had helped shape their homogeneity had vanished."


Bell, Quentin. Bloomsbury. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968.

Edel, Leon. Bloomsbury: A House of Lions. NY: Avon, 1979.

Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race. London: Secker and Warburg, 1986.

Malcolm, Janet. "A House of One's Own," in The New Yorker. June 5, 1995, pp. 58–79.

Marler, Regina, ed. Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell. NY: Pantheon, 1993.

Spalding, Frances. Vanessa Bell. NY: Harcourt Brace, 1985.

suggested reading:

Bell, Vanessa, edited by Lia Giachero. Sketches in Pen and Ink: A Bloomsbury Notebook. London: Hogarth Press, 1998.


University of Sussex Library; British Library Manuscript Department; Tate Gallery Archives.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia