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.
Vanessa Stephen was the eldest daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Duckworth. The family, including her sister Virginia; brothers Thoby (1880–1906) and Adrian (1883–1948), and half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth, 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, and then studied painting at the Royal Academy in 1901.
In later life she alleged that during her childhood she had been sexually molested by her half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth.
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, 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. Attendees included: Lytton Strachey, Desmond MacCarthy, and later on, Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Roger Fry, and Duncan Grant.
She married Clive Bell in 1907 and they had two sons, Julian (who died in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War at the age of 29) and Quentin. The couple had an open marriage, both taking lovers throughout their lives. Bell had affairs with art critic Roger Fry and with the painter Duncan Grant, with whom she had a daughter, Angelica in 1918, whom Clive Bell raised as his own child.
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, 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. On April 7, 1961, Bell died from a brief illness at Charleston, Firle and was buried in the Firle Parish Churchyard near Duncan Grant.
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. 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.
Bell rejected the examples of Victorian narrative painting and rejected a discourse on the ideal and aberrant qualities of femininity. Some of Vanessa Bell’s works were related to her personal life. She used her artistry to design and illustrate book jackets. For example, her illustration for To the Lighthouse, the book by her sister Virginia Woolf, which was not published until 1927, is about a beach with lighthouse that was a part of Bell’s and Woolf's childhood in St Ives, Cornwall.
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 during her early maturity and for her contributions to design.
Bell's paintings include Studland Beach (1912), 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 worked with Duncan Grant to create murals for Berwick Church in Sussex (1940-42).
Bell’s first solo exhibition in 1916 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
Design for Overmantel Mural (1913), oil on paper. It depicts herself and Molly MacCarthy naked in Bell’s studio at 46 Gordon Square.
Street Corner Conversation (also created in 1913), features massive nudes with their schematic form being related to it.
Summer Camp (1913), oil on board, was an extended illustration of the interchange of imagery between the artists working for the Omega Workshop. The origin of this painting is when Bell went on a summer camp organized at Brandon on the Norfolk-Suffolk border near Thetford. Summer Camp became part of the Bryan Ferry Collection.
By the Estuary (1915), oil on canvas, shows how the geometrical abstraction that distinguished Bell’s design for the Omega Workshop was also applied in her easel painting. In her wartime paintings, landscape is rarely seen. However, this modestly scaled landscape shows her fondness for clarity of design in which segments of contrasting but harmonious colour are not distracted by detail.
Nude with Poppies (1916), oil on canvas, is a preliminary design for a headboard which 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 Nabis paintings by Édouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis. This design for a three-part screen can be dated back to 1912 and might have been a part of Bell’s exhibit Design for Screen which was shown at the Friday Club Exhibition in February 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 her artistic maturity.
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' novel Vanessa and Virginia and of Priya Parmar's novel "Vanessa and Her Sister". In 2015 she was portrayed by Phoebe Fox and Eve Best in the BBC mini-series Life in Squares.
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