Vanessa Bell

Vanessa Bell

Sister of Virginia Woolf, Bell was an interior designer and a painter.  An influential member of the Bloomsbury group, she was also key in the establishment and running of the world-renowned artistic hub that was Charleston farmhouse in East Sussex. Read more

Vanessa Stephen (later Bell) was born in May 1879 in Hyde Park Gate, in London. She was the eldest of four siblings born to the eminent writer and critic, Leslie Stephen and his second wife Julia Duckworth.

The Stephen children, Vanessa, Thoby, Adrian and Virginia (later Woolf), were educated at home in true Victorian style. They were all encouraged in their individual talents, and Vanessa began drawing lessons relatively early. After her mother’s death in 1895, Vanessa's time was divided between her studies and playing housekeeper for her father and siblings, so it was something of an achievement to be accepted into the Royal Academy Schools in 1899. Five years later, with the death of her Father, she was released from the constraints and responsibilities of the formal family home, which was sold. The Stephen's siblings then moved to 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, and began a new life for themselves, and what would turn out to be an important chapter in artistic thinking in Britain. In response to her brother Thoby's regular Thursday gatherings of his University friends at their home, Vanessa began a Friday Club which developed, in a climate of great change, into the hugely influential Bloomsbury Group.

After the sudden death in 1907 of Thoby from typhoid, Vanessa married Clive Bell, a university friend. Their two sons Julian and Quentin were born in 1908 and 1910, but during this time she also became remote from her husband. In 1911 she began an affair with Roger Fry, one of the Bloomsbury Group, after he had nursed her through an illness while they were all on holiday together in Greece and Turkey. Clive and Vanessa remained close through all their lives, and he continued to support her financially, but their private lives took different paths.

Duncan Grant had met the Bells through the Bloomsbury Group; Vanessa had admired his work, and he was to supplant Fry in her affections. Despite his being a promiscuous homosexual they lived together and remained devoted to each other for the rest of her life.

In 1916 Vanessa Bell moved with her children to Charleston Farmhouse in Firle, near Lewes, where Duncan Grant and his lover at the time David 'Bunny' Garnett followed to work as farm labourers, and to avoid conscription as conscientious objectors.

Bell and Grant established their studios at Charleston Farmhouse, and their work soon transformed the entire house, decorating walls, door panels, fireplaces and furniture, all harmonising with the Omega ceramics and fabrics that had been born out of the collaborations of the Bloomsbury Group.

In 1918, when their daughter Angelica was born, surprisingly, despite in generally going against the mores of their time, they pretended that Angelica was Clive's child, not telling her the truth until she was nineteen.

Bell fulfilled an ambition in 1925 by running courses for children at Charleston with Marjorie Strachey, Clive's cousin, including drama productions for parents and friends. Returning full time to Charleston during the Second World War, Bell remained there until her death in 1961. The house is now renovated and maintained by the Charleston Trust and is open to the public, continuing to host exhibitions of work by current artists in the spirit of its previous occupants.



The National Portrait Gallery's exhibition Virgina Woolf: Art, Life and Vision
is a must see this summer for lovers of art and literature alike. Curated by art historian and biographer Frances Spalding the exhibtion features portraits of the writer by her Bloomsbury Group contemporaries including Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry, as well as photographs by Beresford and Man Ray.

More information can be found on The National Portrait Gallery website