Vanessa Bell

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Vanessa Bell
Roger Fry Vanessa Bell.jpg
Portrait of Vanessa Bell, 1916
by Roger Fry (1866–1934)
Vanessa Stephen

(1879-05-30)30 May 1879
London, England
Died7 April 1961(1961-04-07) (aged 81)
Alma mater King's College London
OccupationPainter, interior designer
(m. 1907)

Vanessa Bell (née Stephen; 30 May 1879 – 7 April 1961) was an English painter and interior designer, a member of the Bloomsbury Group and the sister of Virginia Woolf.


Early life and education

Vanessa Bell, 1902 George-Beresford,-Vanessa-Bell.jpg
Vanessa Bell, 1902

Vanessa Stephen was the elder daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Duckworth. [1] The family included her sister Virginia, brothers Thoby (1880–1906) and Adrian (1883–1948), half-sister Laura (1870-1945) whose mother was Harriett Thackeray and half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth; they lived at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Westminster, London. She was educated at home in languages, mathematics and history, and took drawing lessons from Ebenezer Cook before she attended Sir Arthur Cope's art school in 1896. She then studied painting at the Royal Academy in 1901.

Later in life, she alleged that during her childhood she had been sexually abused by her half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth. [2]

Private life

Lady Ottoline Morrell, Maria Nys (later Huxley), Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, 1915 SomeBloomsburymembers.jpg
Lady Ottoline Morrell, Maria Nys (later Huxley), Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, 1915

After the deaths of her mother in 1895 and her father in 1904, Vanessa sold 22 Hyde Park Gate and moved to Bloomsbury with Virginia and brothers Thoby and Adrian, [3] where they met and began socialising with the artists, writers and intellectuals who would come to form the Bloomsbury Group. The Bloomsbury Group's first Thursday evening meetings began at Bell's house in Gordon Square. [1] Attendees included: Lytton Strachey, Desmond MacCarthy and, later on, Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant.

She married Clive Bell [3] in 1907 and they had two sons, Julian (who died in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War at the age of 29) [1] and Quentin. The couple had an open marriage, [3] both taking lovers throughout their lives. Bell had affairs with art critic Roger Fry and with the painter Duncan Grant, [1] with whom she had a daughter, Angelica in 1918, whom Clive Bell raised as his own child. [4]

Firle Parish Churchyard, 2017 Firle Parish Churchyard, 2017.jpg
Firle Parish Churchyard, 2017

Vanessa, Clive, Duncan Grant and Duncan's lover David Garnett moved to the Sussex countryside shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, and settled at Charleston Farmhouse near Firle, East Sussex. John Maynard Keynes was also a close friend and frequent member of the household, until his relationship with Lydia Lopokova, whom Bell disliked [5] . At Charleston, Bell and Grant painted and worked on commissions for the Omega Workshops established by Roger Fry. Her first solo exhibition was at the Omega Workshops in 1916. [6] On April 7, 1961, Bell died from a brief illness at Charleston, Firle and was buried in the Firle Parish Churchyard. When Duncan Grant died in 1978, he was buried next to her.


Jean de Menasce, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Eric Siepmann 1922 Jean de Menasce; Vanessa Bell (nee Stephen); Duncan Grant; Eric Siepmann, 1922.jpg
Jean de Menasce, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Eric Siepmann 1922

In 1906, when Bell started to think of herself as an artist, she formed the Friday Club to create a place in London that was more favourable to painting. [7] Vanessa was encouraged by the Post-Impressionist exhibitions organised by Roger Fry, and she copied their bright colours and bold forms in her artworks. In 1914, she turned to Abstraction. [8]

Bell rejected the examples of Victorian narrative painting and rejected a discourse on the ideal and aberrant qualities of femininity. She also designed book jackets for all of her sister Virginia's books that were published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf's publishing company, the Hogarth Press. [9]

Bell is one of the most celebrated painters of the Bloomsbury group. She exhibited in London and Paris during her lifetime, and has been praised for innovative works and for her contributions to design. [10]

Bell's paintings include Studland Beach (1912), [11] The Tub (1918), Interior with Two Women (1932), and portraits of her sister Virginia Woolf (three in 1912), Aldous Huxley (1929–1930) and David Garnett (1916). Bell also worked with Duncan Grant to create murals for Berwick Church in Sussex (1940–42). [12]

In 1932, Bell and Grant were commissioned to produce a dinner service for Kenneth Clark. [13] With oversight from Kenneth's wife Jane Clark, they produced the Famous Women Dinner Service: 50 plates painted with portraits of notable women throughout history. The collection eventually passed on to a private collector, and passed out of public view until 2017. The full collection was exhibited in London in early 2018. [14]


In 1916, Bell's first solo exhibition was held in the Omega Workshop in London, a prominent place for exhibitions which supported young artists and introduced design work to the public. Bell became the director of the Omega Workshop around 1912.

Iceland Poppies (1908) was exhibited at the New English Art Club in the summer of 1909. It was praised by Walter Sickert and marks Bell's artistic maturity. [7]

Designs for a Screen: Figures by a Lake (1912), gouache on board, was influenced by Nabis paintings by Édouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis and might have been a part of Bell's exhibit Design for Screen, which was shown at the Friday Club Exhibition in February 1912. [15]

Design for Overmantel Mural (1913), oil on paper, depicts herself and Molly MacCarthy naked in Bell's studio at 46 Gordon Square.

Street Corner Conversation (also created in 1913) features four individuals in conversation amidst massive geometrical forms.

Summer Camp (1913), oil on board, illustrates a summer camp organized at Brandon on the Norfolk-Suffolk border near Thetford.

By the Estuary (1915), oil on canvas, is a modestly scaled landscape showing her fondness for clarity of design in which segments of contrasting color harmonize.

Nude with Poppies (1916), oil on canvas, is a preliminary design for a headboard which Bell painted for Mary Hutchinson.

In 2021, Bell was one of four featured women artists at an exhibition at the Laing Gallery, Newcastle. [16]

Media portrayal

Bell was portrayed by Janet McTeer in the 1995 Dora Carrington biopic Carrington , and by Miranda Richardson in the 2002 film The Hours .

Bell is the subject of Susan Sellers' 2010 novel Vanessa and Virginia and of Priya Parmar's 2014 novel Vanessa and Her Sister. In 2015 she was portrayed by Phoebe Fox and Eve Best in the BBC mini-series Life in Squares . [17]

Bell was portrayed by Emerald Fennell in the 2018 film Vita and Virginia .

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The Omega Workshops Ltd. was a design enterprise founded by members of the Bloomsbury Group and established in July 1913. It was located at 33 Fitzroy Square in London, and was founded with the intention of providing graphic expression to the essence of the Bloomsbury ethos. The Workshops were also closely associated with the Hogarth Press and the artist and critic Roger Fry, who was the principal figure behind the project, believed that artists could design, produce and sell their own works, and that writers could also be their own printers and publishers. The Directors of the firm were Fry, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.

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Julian Bell

Julian Heward Bell was an English poet, and the son of Clive and Vanessa Bell. The writer Quentin Bell was his younger brother and the writer and painter Angelica Garnett was his half-sister. His relationship with his mother is explored in Susan Sellers' novel Vanessa and Virginia.

Firle Human settlement in England

Firle is a village and civil parish in the Lewes District of East Sussex, England. Firle refers to an old-English/Anglo-Saxon word fierol meaning overgrown with oak. Although the original division of East Firle and West Firle still remains, East Firle is now simply confined to the houses of Heighton Street, which lie to the east of the Firle Park. West Firle is now generally referred to as Firle although West Firle remains its official name. It is located south of the A27 road four miles (9 km) east of Lewes.

Charleston Farmhouse

Charleston, in East Sussex, is a property associated with the Bloomsbury group, that is open to the public. It was the country home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and is an example of their decorative style within a domestic context, representing the fruition of more than sixty years of artistic creativity. In addition to the house and artists' garden, Charleston hosts a year-round programme of Bloomsbury and contemporary exhibitions in a suite of galleries designed by Jamie Fobert Architects which opened in September 2018. Two restored barns are home to The Threshing Barn café and The Hay Barn where events and workshops are held throughout the year. The outer studio at Charleston hosts a permanent display of Bell and Grant's Famous Women Dinner Service, and there is also a shop selling Bloomsbury-inspired art, homeware fabrics, fashion, books and stationery.

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Barbara Hiles

Barbara Hiles Bagenal (1891–1984) was an artist associated with members of the Bloomsbury Group, primarily Vanessa Bell and Saxon Sydney-Turner. She was a long-time friend of fellow "Bohemian" and artist Dora Carrington.

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Anne Olivier Bell was an English art scholar. She was part of the Bloomsbury Group and best known for editing the diaries of Virginia Woolf. As a member of the Monuments Men, she was responsible for the protection of cultural artefacts in Europe during the Second World War and earned the military rank of Major.

Henrietta Catherine Garnett was an English writer.


  1. 1 2 3 4 Jones, Marnie (Winter 1985). "Review: Her Own Story". The American Scholar. 54 (1): 130. JSTOR   41211148.
  2. Dunn, Jane. (1990) A Very Close Conspiracy: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. London: Jonathan Cape, pp. 20-21. ISBN   9780224022347
  3. 1 2 3 Jones, Marnie (Winter 1985). "Review: Her Own Story". The American Scholar. 54 (1): 131. JSTOR   41211148.
  4. Archive Journeys: Bloomsbury
  5. author., Mackrell, Judith (17 October 2013). Bloomsbury ballerina : Lydia Lopokova, imperial dancer and Mrs John Maynard Keynes. ISBN   978-1-78022-708-5. OCLC   893656800.
  6. Shone, Richard. (1999) The Art of Bloomsbury Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, and Duncan Grant. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 137-138. ISBN   0691049939.
  7. 1 2 Frances Spalding. "Bell, Vanessa". Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 21 February 2015.
  8. Chilvers, Ian. "Bell, Vanessa". The Oxford Companion to Western Art. Ed. Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 21 February 2015.
  9. Catlin, Roger. "A sister's bookish art for her sister, Virginia's, publishing company, the Hogarth Press". Washington Post.
  10. Vanessa Bell and Dora Carrington: Bloomsbury Painters. Gillian Elinor. Woman's Art Journal. Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 1984), pp. 28-34. Woman's Art Inc. Stable URL:
  11. Tickner 1999.
  12. "Introduction to the Berwick Murals". Berwick Church. Archived from the original on 2017-09-16. Retrieved 2016-12-07.
  13. Leaper, Hana (30 November 2017). "The Famous Women Dinner Service: A Critical Introduction and Catalogue". British Art Studies (7). doi: 10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue-07/hleaper . ISSN   2058-5462 . Retrieved 1 December 2017.
  14. "Decades Before Judy Chicago's 'The Dinner Party,' Virginia Woolf's Sister Made a Set of Dinner Plates Celebrating 50 Historic Women | artnet News". artnet News. 2018-03-29. Retrieved 2018-11-25.
  15. Shone, Richard. The Art of Bloomsbury. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1999.
  16. "Challenging Convention at Newcastle's Laing Art Gallery places spotlight on four outstanding woman artists". The Northern Echo. Retrieved 2021-08-02.
  17. "BBC2: Life in Squares: Credits – Episode 1". BBC Online . Retrieved 10 August 2015.