Clive Bell was born in East Shefford, Berkshire, in 1881. He was the third of four children of William Heward Bell (1849–1927) and Hannah Taylor Cory (1850–1942), with an elder brother (Cory), an elder sister (Lorna Bell Acton), and a younger sister (Dorothy Bell Honey). His father was a civil engineer who built his fortune in the family coal mines in Wiltshire in England and Merthyr Tydfil in Wales, and the family was well off. They lived at Cleve House in Seend, near Melksham, Wiltshire, which was adorned with Squire Bell's many hunting trophies.
Marriage and other relationships
He was educated at Marlborough and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied history. In 1902 he received an Earl of Derby scholarship to study in Paris, where his interest in art originated. On his return to England, he moved to London, where he met and married the artist Vanessa Stephen — sister of Virginia Woolf — in 1907. Reportedly, Virginia flirted with Clive despite her sister's marriage to him.
By World War I their marriage was over. Vanessa had begun a lifelong relationship with Duncan Grant and Clive had a number of liaisons with other women such as Mary Hutchinson. However, Clive and Vanessa never officially separated or divorced. Not only did they keep visiting each other regularly, they also sometimes spent holidays together and paid "family" visits to Clive's parents. Clive lived in London but often spent long stretches of time at the idyllic farmhouse of Charleston, where Vanessa lived with Duncan and her three children by Clive and Duncan. He fully supported her wish to have a child by Duncan and allowed this daughter, Angelica, to bear his surname.
Vanessa's daughter by Duncan, Angelica Garnett (née Bell), was raised as Clive's daughter until she married. She was informed, by her mother Vanessa, just prior to her marriage and shortly after her brother Julian's death that in fact Duncan Grant was her biological father. This deception forms the central message of her memoir, Deceived with Kindness (1984).
According to historian Stanley Rosenbaum, "Bell may, indeed, be the least liked member of Bloomsbury. Bell has been found wanting by biographers and critics of the Group – as a husband, a father, and especially a brother-in-law. It is undeniable that he was a wealthy snob, hedonist, and womaniser, a racist and an anti-Semite (but not a homophobe), who changed from a liberal socialist and pacifist into a reactionary appeaser. Bell’s reputation has led to his being underestimated in the history of Bloomsbury."
Bell died, aged 83, in London.
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Bell was one of the most prominent proponents of formalism in aesthetics. In general formalism (which can be traced back at least to Kant) is the view that it is an object's formal properties which make something art, or which define aesthetic experiences. Bell proposed that nothing else about an object is in any way relevant to assessing whether it is a work of art, or aesthetically valuable. What a painting represents, for example, is completely irrelevant to evaluating it aesthetically. Consequently, he believed that knowledge of the historical context of a painting, or the intention of the painter is unnecessary for the appreciation of visual art. He wrote: "to appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions"(Bell, 27).
Formalist theories differ according to how the notion of 'form' is understood. For Kant, it meant roughly the shape of an object – colour was not an element in the form of an object. For Bell, by contrast, "the distinction between form and colour is an unreal one; you cannot conceive of a colourless space; neither can you conceive a formless relation of colours"(Bell p19). Bell famously coined the term 'significant form' to describe the distinctive type of "combination of lines and colours" which makes an object a work of art.
Bell was also a key proponent of the claim that the value of art lies in its ability to produce a distinctive aesthetic experience in the viewer. Bell called this experience "aesthetic emotion". He defined it as that experience which is aroused by significant form. He also suggested that the reason we experience aesthetic emotion in response to the significant form of a work of art was that we perceive that form as an expression of an experience the artist has. The artist's experience in turn, he suggested, was the experience of seeing ordinary objects in the world as pure form: the experience one has when one sees something not as a means to something else, but as an end in itself (Bell, 45).
Bell believed that ultimately the value of anything whatever lies only in its being a means to "good states of mind" (Bell, 83). Since he also believed that "there is no state of mind more excellent or more intense than the state of aesthetic contemplation" (Bell, 83) he believed that works of visual art were among the most valuable things there could be. Like many in the Bloomsbury group, Bell was heavily influenced in his account of value by the philosopher G.E. Moore.
- Art (1914)
- Pot-boilers (1918)
- Since Cézanne (1922)
- Civilization (1928)
- Proust (1929)
- An Account of French Painting (1931)
- Old Friends (1956)
- "Bell [post Clive-Bell], Arthur Clive Heward". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- InfoBritain Virginia Woolf, 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury http://www.infobritain.co.uk/Virginia_Woolf_Biography_And_Visits.htm
- Rosenbaum, S. P. Georgian Bloomsbury: The early literary history of the Bloomsbury Group, 1910-1914. New York: Palgrave. 2003. Pg 37
- Bell, Clive. Art. London: Chatto and Windus.
- Bywater, William G. Clive Bell's Eye. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975.