Vanessa Bell

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
For the American actress, see Vanessa Bell Calloway.
Vanessa Bell
Roger Fry Vanessa Bell.jpg
Born Vanessa Stephen
(1879-05-30)30 May 1879
Died 7 April 1961(1961-04-07) (aged 81)
Charleston Farmhouse, Sussex
Occupation Painter/Interior designer
Spouse(s) Clive Bell (m. 1907–61)
Children Julian Bell (1908–1937)
Quentin Bell (1910–1996)
Angelica Garnett (1918–2012)

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.

Biography and art[edit]

Vanessa Stephen was the eldest daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Duckworth (1846–1895).[1] Her parents lived at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Westminster, London, and Vanessa lived there until 1904. She was educated at home by her parents in languages, mathematics and history, and took drawing lessons from Ebenezer Cook before she attended Sir Arthur Cope's art school in 1896, and then studied painting at the Royal Academy in 1901.

In later life, Stephen claimed that during her childhood she had been sexually molested by her half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth.[2]

Some of the Bloomsbury members, left to right: Lady Ottoline Morrell, Maria Nys (later Mrs. Aldous Huxley), Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell

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 (1880–1906) and Adrian (1883–1948),[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 Vanessa Bell's house in Gordan Square.[1]

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. Vanessa 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]

Vanessa, Clive, Duncan Grant and Duncan's lover David Garnett moved to the Sussex countryside shortly before the outbreak of First World War, and settled at Charleston Farmhouse near Firle, East Sussex, where she 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.[5]

Vanessa Bell's paintings include Studland Beach (1912),[6] 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).

She is portrayed by Janet McTeer in the 1995 Dora Carrington biopic Carrington, and by Miranda Richardson in the 2002 film The Hours alongside Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf. Bell is also the subject of Susan Sellers' novel Vanessa and Virginia and of Priya Parmar's novel "Vanessa and Her Sister".

Bell's gravestone
Vanessa Bell's grave at St. Peter's Church, Firle, Sussex

Art Movement[edit]

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

Vanessa rejected the examples of Victorian narrative painting and rejected a discourse on the ideal and aberrant qualities of femininity. Some of Vanessa Bell’s work were related to her personal life. For example, To the Lighthouse, which was not published until 1927, is about a beach that was a part of Vanessa Bell’s and her sister’s, Virginia Woolf, childhood in St. Ives. [9]

In the end, Vanessa Bell has been praised for producing innovative works during her early maturity and for her contributions to design work later on in her life. [10]


Vanessa Bell’s first solo exhibition in 1916 was held in the Omega Workshop in London. The Omega Workshop was one of the most prominent places for exhibitions of art and it sought to support the art of young artists and introduce design work to the public. Vanessa Bell became the director of the Omega Workshop around 1912

Design for Overmantel Mural (1913), oil on paper. It depicts herself and Molly McCarthy naked in Bell’s studio at 46 Gordon Square. Another one of Bell’s paintings, Street Corner Conversation (also created in 1913), features massive nudes, with their schematic form being related to it.

Summer Camp (1913), oil on board, it was an extended illustration of the interchange of imagery between the artists work for the Omega Workshop and their easel painting. The origin of this painting is when Vanessa Bell went on a summer camp organized at Brandon on the Norfolk-Suffolk border near Thetford. Summer Camp was also a part of the Bryan Ferry Collection.

By the Estuary (1915), oil on canvas, shows how the geometrical abstraction that distinguished Vanessa Bell’s design for the Omega Workshop was also applied in her easel painting. In her wartime paintings, landscape is rarely seen in them. However, this modestly scaled landscape shows her fondness for charity of designs in which segments of contrasting but harmonious color are not distracted by detail.

Nude with Poppies (1916), oil on canvas, is a preliminary design for a head board which Vanessa Bell had painted for Mary Hutchinson. This painting is one of the few of the surviving number of projected designs that are still in existence of the decorated beds from the Omega Workshop period

Designs for a Screen: Figures by a Lake (1912), gouache on board, was influenced by Nabi paintings by Vuillard and Denis. This design for a three-part screen can be dated back to 1912 and might have been a part of Vanessa Bell’s exhibit Design for Screen which was shown at the Friday Club Exhibition in February of 1912. [11]

Iceland Poppies (1908), was exhibited at the New English Art Club in the summer of 1909. It was praised by Sickert and marks her artistic maturity. [12]


  1. ^ a b c d Jones, Marnie (Winter 1985). "Review: Her Own Story". The American Scholar 54 (No. 1): 130. Retrieved 7 March 2015. 
  2. ^ Dunn, Jane. (1990) A Very Close Conspiracy: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. London: Jonathan Cape, pp. 20-21. ISBN 9780224022347
  3. ^ a b c Jones, Marnie (Winter 1985). "Review: Her Own Story". The American Scholar 54 (No. 1): 131. Retrieved 7 March 2015. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Shone, Richard. (1999) The Art of Bloomsbury Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 137-138. ISBN 0691049939
  6. ^ Tickner, Lisa (Winter 1999). "Vanessa Bell: Studland Beach, Domesticity, and "Significant Form"". Representations. No. 65 (New Perspectives in British Studies): 63. Retrieved 7 March 2015. 
  7. ^ Frances Spalding. “Bell, Vanessa.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 21 Feb. 2015. <>.
  8. ^ Chilvers, Ian. “Bell, Vanessa.” The Oxford Companion to Western Art Ed. Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 21 Feb. 2015. <>.
  9. ^ Vanessa Bell: Studland Beach, Domesticity, and "Significant Form". Lisa Tickner. Representations. No. 65, Special Issue: New Perspectives in British Studies (Winter, 1999) , pp. 63-92. Published by: University of California Press. Stable URL:
  10. ^ Vanessa Bell and Dora Carrington: Bloomsbury Painters. Gillian Elinor. Woman's Art Journal. Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring - Summer, 1984) , pp. 28-34. Published by: Woman's Art Inc. Stable URL:
  11. ^ Shone, Richard. The Art of Bloomsbury. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1999. 24 Feb. 2015
  12. ^ Frances Spalding. “Bell, Vanessa.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 21 Feb. 2015. <>.

Further reading[edit]

  • Sketches in Pen and Ink, Vanessa Bell
  • A Passionate Apprentince: the early journals, Virginia Woolf
  • A Moment's Liberty, Virginia Woolf
  • A Very Close Conspiracy: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, Jane Dunn
  • Vanessa Bell, Frances Spalding
  • Duncan Grant, Frances Spalding
  • Deceived with Kindness: a Bloomsbury Childhood, Angelica Garnett
  • Elders and Betters, Quentin Bell
  • Vanessa and Virginia, Susan Sellers (fictional biography)
  • Charleston, Quentin Bell and Virginia Nicholson
  • Virginia Woolf, Hermione Lee
  • "Wicked" (Nessarose), Gregory Maguire
  • Vanessa and Her Sister, Priya Parmar (novel)

External links[edit]