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