Vanessa Bell

The Dulwich Picture Gallery's retrospective of Vanessa Bell’s work reveals a spectactularly vibrant artist

Caroline Potter

When it comes to the Bloomsbury Group, it is impossible to separate their lives from their art. Just over a century after her first solo exhibition, the long overdue and much anticipated major retrospective of Vanessa Bell’s work currently on display at the Dulwich Picture Gallery proves her individual worth as an artist, and not merely as a cog in the Bloomsbury wheel. 

One would be hard pressed ever to describe Vanessa Bell as avant-garde, or as a pioneer. Instead there remains a reassuring element of calm domesticity to her work; it is unassuming yet spectacularly vibrant, much like the artist herself.

Born in 1879, the older sister of Virginia Woolf was forced by their father Sir Leslie Stephen to adopt a maternal and in some respects wifely role after the death of their mother Julia in 1895. Though she never pretended to be interested in or concerned with the female suffrage movement, unlike her sister, Vanessa realised that her artistic talent could be utilised as means of escaping the stifling atmosphere of the family home in Hyde Park Gate and embracing a less conventional way of life. She began her studies at the Royal Academy Schools in 1901 and went on to the Slade School of Art in Bloomsbury.

“Wallflowers” (c.1950) (© Christie’s Images) and “Street Corner Conversation” (c.1913) (© The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett)
“Design for Omega Workshops Fabric” (1913); “On the Steps of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice” (1948) (© The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett)

After the death of their father in 1904, the Stephen sisters moved to Bloomsbury, and in 1905 Vanessa founded the Friday Club, originally as an exhibiting society. She and her friends from the Slade would meet at her home in Gordon Square to discuss their ideas about contemporary artistic movements. It was at one of these meetings in 1906 that she was first introduced to Duncan Grant by Pippa Strachey.

Following her marriage to Clive Bell in 1907 and the birth of her sons Julian and Quentin in 1908 and 1910, Vanessa embarked upon a brief affair with her fellow Bloomsbury artist Roger Fry; the pair would continue to collaborate until Fry’s death in 1934. Their most notable joint achievement was the establishment of the Omega Workshops in 1913. Heavily influenced by Post-Impressionism, the workshops provided another outlet for Bell’s fertile imagination, and she focused upon developing her interest in textiles and interior design. After the Hogarth Press was founded in 1917, the Omega Workshops were responsible for the striking covers of Virginia Woolf’s books. Examples of these fabrics and dust jackets are an integral part of the exhibition, and allow for a more three-dimensional appreciation of Bell, as well as the Bloomsbury belief that even the most mundane objects could be endowed with aesthetic value.

“Landscape with Haystack, Asheham” (1912) (© The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett)

The Omega Workshops permitted Bell to put on her first solo exhibition in 1916, and six years later, her second was held at London’s Independent Gallery. The year was also significant for Bell as it saw her move from London to Charleston, a farmhouse in Sussex. By this time, Vanessa and her husband were leading increasingly separate lives, and along with her children, she was accompanied by Duncan Grant and David Garnett, who had both been ordered to do farmwork after refusing to be conscripted. Bell and Grant would decorate the entire house in their own inimitable style and it would become a lasting monument to the ethos of Bloomsbury, and to their unique and indefinable relationship.

“Nude with Poppies” (1916) (© The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett)

Despite Grant’s homosexuality, Vanessa Bell became deeply infatuated with her house guest. Their daughter Angelica was born in 1918, and the truth about her paternity was kept hidden from her for the next 20 years, until a peculiarly Bloomsbury twist saw the young girl marry David Garnett, her father’s former lover. The deception of her daughter must have played upon Bell’s mind, as aspects of her painting reveal. In many instances, such as her famous 1912 portrait of her sister, which is on loan at Dulwich from the National Portrait Gallery, she chooses to leave her subjects’ facial features undefined, their lack of expression encouraging the observer to determine their emotion.

In 1937, Bell was dealt a devastating blow when her son Julian was killed in the Spanish Civil War. Overwhelmed by grief, she suffered a breakdown and the suicide of her sister in 1941 only added to her anguish. Julian had become the principal figure in her life and as Virginia Woolf remarked in her diary after his death, “Julian had some queer power over her — the lover as well as the son.”

Vanessa had struggled with his decision to go to Spain, not only because of her fears for his safety, but because of her own pacifism. Her later works were marked by her profound sense of loss and resignation; however, it is with her earlier ones that the exhibition is chiefly concerned and the delight she took in her family and friends can be seen in every brushstroke. For Bloomsbury, personal relationships were the only thing more important than art for art’s sake and she effortlessly managed to combine her love of the two.

 “The Other Room” (late 1930s) (© The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett)

As the embodiment of the Bloomsbury devotion to aestheticism, Bell’s physical beauty and unashamed enjoyment of her earthy and youthful sensuality is also evident, and is reflected in the rosy cheeks and full lips given to her female subjects. Femininity and motherhood were so central to Bell both as an artist and as a woman that it is fitting the sixth and final room of the exhibition should be devoted to depictions of womanhood in all its forms. Unusually for a member of the Bloomsbury Group, Vanessa Bell wrote no memoirs, nor did she keep a diary. The final work on display is a self-portrait, painted in 1952, nine years before her death. In it, her own face is concealed, leaving us to wonder how she viewed herself and her career. This remarkable exhibition finally sheds some light on both.

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