02 August 2011

Vanessa Bell: a Bloomsbury exhibition in Brighton

Bloomsbury foundation member Vanessa Stephen (1879-1961) married Clive Bell (1881-1964) in 1907 and they had two sons, Julian and Quentin. In 1918 Vanessa had a daughter, Angelica, who Clive raised as his own.

Bell's portrait of Virginia Woolf, 1912, Nat Portrait Gall London

Vanessa's work began to appear in exhibits at the New English Art Club during mid 1909 eg Iceland Poppies 1908, full of quiet, restrained naturalism. And see a portrait of her sister Virginia Woolf 1912 (above). The colours were lovely, the brushstrokes were confident and the character of her sister was evident.

As a recognised interior designer, Vanessa exhibited regularly with the London Artist's Association and the London Group. She worked on many decorative schemes, including one project for HMS Queen Mary. Her decorative work was described as simple and colourful. This is evident in many book-jackets that she designed for the Hogarth Press.

Charleston in Sussex

Vanessa and Clive had an open marriage, both taking lovers throughout their lives. Vanessa, Clive, Duncan Grant (1885-1978) and Duncan's lover David Garnett moved to the Sussex countryside shortly before the outbreak of WW1, and settled at Charleston Farmhouse near Lewes in East Sussex. Vanessa’s relationship with her husband Clive remained warm, even when Vanessa fell in love with Duncan Grant in 1913 and decided to live permanently with him. Vanessa and Clive continued to work in the same studios, helping each other out with work.

The Omega Workshops opened in 1913 by fellow Bloomsberry Roger Fry and were established through donations from famous figures of the London arts scene. In addition to offering a wide range of painted furniture, murals, mosaics and stained glass, Omega Workshops Ltd took orders for interior designs. Fry invited Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell to join him as co-directors, and the three of them were the most prolific artists of the Workshops. Omega-designed textiles became very popular.

Photo of the drawing room and its painted decorations

Bell painting, Charleston Drawing Room, c1945, 61 x 51 cm 

If we wanted to see how the Bloomsbury artists rejected the traditional distinction between fine and decorative art, we need look no further than Charleston Farmhouse. Through the years that they lived at Charleston, the home became filled with works of art from Vanessa, Duncan and Clive. Their art was not confined to canvases hanging on walls and was in fact mostly outside the frames; needle-point cushions, decorated lamp shades, books, tables, screens, trays, crockery. They adorned every surface that stood still long enough to be painted. Even the dogs hid, whenever they saw someone walking around with a paintbrush in hand!

Vanessa's paintings retained their traditional content eg outdoor scenes, still-lifes and domestic subjects. But with time, the colouring in her paintings became richer and more detailed with tighter brush strokes; perhaps less exotic. Her significant paintings in the inter-war era include a portrait of Aldous Huxley 1929–30 and Interior with Artist’s Daughter 1932. She was one of the major C20th contributors to British portraiture and genre art.

Photo of the studio and its painted decorations

For this post, I have largely focused on Vanessa’s paintings that depicted Charleston House’s interiors or hung on Charleston walls, as well as photos of Charleston’s interiors that included Vanessa’s (and Grant’s) hand painted surfaces. It is difficult to tell the difference. In the painting called Charleston Drawing Room c1945, for example, the chair was bought for Vanessa by her sister Virginia Woolf and the curtains were painted by Duncan Grant.

During WW2, the Charleston house escaped the German bombs. This allowed Vanessa to continue painting until she died in 1961. Eventually Duncan sold the house to the Charleston Trust, who renovated it and opened it to the public. I recommend the following book: Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden, by Quentin Bell and Virginia Nicholson. Better still, visit Charleston in the heart of the South Downs. It is open to visitors for guided and for self-organised tours. Or you could read blogs with fine photos of the decorative arts that are still at Charleston, Thought Patterns and Little Augury.

Bell painting, Daughter Reading Inside, c1938

Although Duncan Grant originally received more recognition for his work, Vanessa Bell's artwork has become increasingly well known with time. A most interesting exhibition now on is called Radical Bloomsbury: The Art of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, 1905-1925. On display until the 9th October 2011, works from both artists are compared, contrasted and integrated at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Royal Pavilion Gardens. Otherwise visitors can see Vanessa's paintings in: Manchester City Art Gallery and the three main London galleries, the National Portrait Gallery, Courtauld Institute Art and Tate Gallery.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
Charleston is, as you will know, very close to our home in Brighton and is somewhere which we much enjoy visiting. During the week tours of the house, in groups of no more than ten, are guided by volunteers who are exceedingly knowledgeable and who have a deep understanding of the whole Bloomsbury set.

We learn now that there is to be a huge investment in a new building close by to house day courses, lectures and concerts, etc. The plans suggest that it will be totally in keeping with, and sympathetic to, the existing farm buildings.

Next week we shall return to Brighton for a week or so during which time we fully intend to visit the Duncan Grant exhibition currently running at the Art Gallery. A friend, who has been, says that it is exceedingly well worth seeing.

Also, other friends have arranged for us a trip to Monks House, Virginia Woolf's home, to which we have not previously been and to which public access is much more restricted. Doubtless we shall post on it in due course.

columnist said...

I know of the Scottish Colourists, of which I think it fair to say Duncan Grant was a member, but I was not so familiar with his personal history, so I am grateful for being enlightened. Given the upcoiming exhibitions in London, and an impending visit there myself, I will look out for them.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance,

years ago I did one of those Summer University School courses on the Bloomsbury Set. It was fantastic - lectures and tours, thinking about their homes, the Omega Workshops, Central School of Arts and Crafts, Charleston, post-impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912 etc etc.

But I don't remember Virginia Woolf's home at Monks House. Might it have been closed to visitors back then (mid 1990s)? So I really do home you write it up in a future blog post.

Hels said...


you hit pay dirt here :) What a great person and career to examine :)

I best recognise Grant's painting style following the French post-impressionist exhibition that rocketed into the London scene (via Roger Fry in 1910 and 1912). This made sense since Grant often worked with, and was influenced by Fry.

Possibly Grant would have focused exclusively on landscapes and portraits, had he not seen Fry designing textiles and ceramics.

Hels said...


if you have the time, go to Brighton to see the exhition called "Radical Bloomsbury: The Art of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, 1905-1925". It won't close until the 9th October 2011.

Hermes said...

Can't really add anything to another great post. This adds a nice link to the past:


I do remember a quote about her:
"A fellow student, William Rothenstein, later recalled that she "looked as though she might have walked among the fair women of Burne-Jones's Golden Stair; but she spoke with the voice of Gauguin." "
Not quite sure what that means, but memorable all the same.

Alberti's Window said...

I actually learned about Charleston just last week. It sounds like a very interesting place to visit.

The Bloomsbury group was comprised of such interesting people! The members' personal relationships (marriages, lovers, etc.) make the group even more interesting. Thanks for sharing!

Hels said...


thank you. That is so cool.

The curator, Prof David Mellor, actually knew Duncan Grant and Quentin Bell personally. It is as if an unbroken chain links the pre-WW1 works of Vanessa Bell, her husband and her lover... to the second generation of the Bloomsbury Set ... to both the art history students at Sussex and visitors to the Brighton exhibition.

Hels said...


I think even if the Bloomsbury Set were not the best fine artists and decorative artists in the history of European art, they were fun. Of course they had to deal with the catastrophe of WW1 and the loss of children etc, but mostly they lived their lives in an open, honest and colourful way.

And they (or their children) documented everything. They were an art historian's dream.

Bloomsbury fan said...

I can see that the Omega Workshops tried to make money for its owners and workers, but failed. So what actual money did the Bloomsbury artists live off?

Hels said...

Bloomsbury fan

Not only is that a good question for Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant; a regular income stream must have been dicey for all the Bloomsberries.

Virginia Woolf became a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement on social and literary criticism, and wrote several very successful novels. Plus she inherited a comfortable income from an aunt.

Husband Leonard Bell established the Hogarth Press in his own home.

Lytton Strachey wrote Landmarks in French Literature, Eminent Victorians, Queen Victoria and other books himself, plus wrote book and drama reviews to The Spectator magazine. I presume there was also family money when times were tough.

I can’t quite see what Clive Bell lived off. He wrote many excellent books between the wars but they were art or literary in focus and never on the best seller list. Fortunately his father had made pots of money from coal.

Roger Fry earned his money “normally”. He was a published writer with many art histories to his credit, a gallery curator, a university professor and an entrepreneur in the decorative arts. When the Omega Workshops failed, it was a personal body blow to Fry, but it didn’t alter his quality of life.

Hels said...

Sometimes a person accidentally finds very interesting tidbits of information. Country Life (16th Mar 2011) talked about how well connected to the literary set Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell were. Letters survive discussing parties at Edith Sitwell's home.

Val said...

I seem to have always avoided learning about the Bloomsbury artists, but now I want to read more! I'll be down to the library as soon as possible to find out more. Thanks for piquing my interest!

Hels said...


everyone's grandmother was so outraged with the Bloomsbury Set's behaviour that it was no wonder you avoided reading books by them or about them.

I knew they were naughty, before I even knew how smart Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, EM Forster, Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, Lytton Strachey and Duncan Grant were.

Val said...

I doubt if my grandmothers in Nebraska had ever heard of Bloomsbury, let alone Vanessa Bell! I've just avoided modern-ish art generally. However, I find the idea of artists living together in a country house to be very seductive (of course I'm thinking of Kelmscott Manor now!).

Here in Eugene, Oregon, I just went to a lecture and exhibit opening of paintings by David McCosh, who was a professor at the university here. He was also a friend of Grant Wood, and taught at the Stone City Art Colony for the two summers it was open. Again, the idea of a country retreat, a bunch of right-brain fellows, no offices or alarm clocks. . . I'm sure it never worked at as well as it sounded, but it's nice to dream.

Hels said...


this sounds like heaven:
-living in a rural retreat,
-having a studio of one's own,
-having lots of informal dinners with close, cultivated friends who stay for the weekend
- sharing the child care and household tasks with all the adults in the house and
- also having a flat in the city, to supervise the exhibitions and workshops.

The question of inheriting from wealthy parents Vs earning a normal income was a vexed one, of course.

Viola said...

Thank you for another fascinating post, Hels. I love to read about the Bloomsbury Group. They were certainly way ahead of their time!

The book, 'Bloomsbury Ballerina' turned me off the Woolfs a bit, however. It was about Lydia Lopokova, the ballerina who married Keynes. The Woolfs looked down on her and treated her rather badly, especially Vanessa. On the other hand, Lydia, at one stage, apparently persisted in dropping in to Vanessa's flat all of the time and talking a lot. This understandably annoyed Vanessa who was trying to concentrate on her art!

Hels said...


I used to think the original Bloomsbury members simply became annoyed when any literary or artistic want-to-be attached himself to their private group.

But Dora Carrington, another outsider, was accepted into the group while Lydia wasn't. This was surprising since Lydia was no cultural slouch herself. She was a friend of Diaghilev, Picasso, EM Forster, TS Eliot and other important cultural icons. So it sounds a bit like family- or class-snobbery, doesn't it?

Two ironies here. Lydia became Baroness Keynes, thus turning snobbery on its head. And the 100% gay man Keynes adored Lydia for the rest of his life.

Hels said...

The Omega Workshops deserve a post in their own right. In the meantime I refer you to "Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops 1913-19". It was exhibited at the Courtauld Gallery in 2009.

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Hels said...


welcome aboard! You have missed the Brighton exhibition called Radical Bloomsbury: The Art of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, 1905-1925. But you can always visit Charleston Farmhouse next time you are in Britain.

lanne said...

Can someone tell me who painted the nude you see in her livingroom. It's a tall painting and whom it was suppose to be of?


Hels said...


which nude? The male on the easel? They appeared to like nudes all over the place.

Art Contrarian said...

I recommend the post "Vanessa Bell, Modernist Amateur" for a wide range of Vanessa's paintings from pre-WW1 until 1958.


Bloomsbury fan said...

Back again. Why on earth did the daughter Angelica Bell marry David Garnett? The Bloomsbury Group led free lifestyles, but sometimes they went too far.

Hels said...

Bloomsbury fan

The Guardian (16/1/2010) said as follows: When Angelica was 17, her mother took her to one side. She told her that her father was not Bell, but the painter Duncan Grant with whom Vanessa had had a love affair. "It was a fact which I had obscurely known for a long while," Garnett wrote in her ­celebrated memoir Deceived with ­Kindness. Nonetheless, the effect was devastating. Duncan Grant showed little enthusiasm for his daughter, and Vanessa had warned her off talking directly to either Duncan or Clive Bell.

David Garnett was a writer and publisher, an old friend of her parents and a married man. A conscientious objector during the first world war, he had lived at Charleston and worked with Duncan on a nearby farm. In the 1930s, his wife Ray was seriously ill and he began to court the teenage Angelica, impressing her with his man-of-the-world aura.

Aged 23 she married Garnett, now a widower, still ignorant of the fact that he had been her father's lover. Neither of her parents was invited to the ­wedding!!

All very strange.

Her parents were appalled, believing that at 48 Bunny was far too old.