Vanessa Bell biography in Biographies from the artzine on artrepublic.com
British painter and interior designer Vanessa Bell was an established part of the avant-garde Bloomsbury group. The influence of post-Impressionism, Henri Matisse and Cubism can all be seen in her most innovative works, which frequently fused fine art and decorative design.
Vanessa Stephen (later Bell) was born in May 1879 in Hyde Park Gate, the eldest child of the eminent literary scholar and critic Leslie Stephen and his second wife Julia Duckworth. Vanessa and her brothers and sister, Thoby, Adrian, and Virginia (later Virginia Woolf) were largely educated at home. Her childhood home was one wherein intellectual pursuit, particularly of a literary kind, were encouraged. There was a broadness of cultural pursuit and Vanessa’s interest in drawing was encouraged, leading to her attending the Royal Academy Schools for formal training.
After the deaths of her mother in 1895 and her father in 1904, Vanessa instigated a move to 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, with her siblings. Here they began a life of less constrained conventionality. Her brother Thoby invited his friends from Cambridge University to the house and Vanessa started the ‘Friday Club’, a club for artists which met at the house. From these informal gatherings, known as ‘at homes’, a core set of people emerged – the Stephen siblings, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf, Duncan Grant and David Garnett – to which the name ‘Bloomsbury’ would become attached.
Duncan Grant and Roger Fry (who entered the Bloomsbury group in 1910) both had a significant influence on Vanessa’s art. Influenced by Roger Fry’s deep interest in modern French art, her painting became more boldly simplified and shorn of all detail and intrusive sentiment. The Tate explains how “her willingness to experiment places her in the forefront of the avant-garde, and she was one of the first in England to essay a non-representational style.”
Vanessa married the art-critic Clive Bell, with whom she had two sons, Julian (who died in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War) and Quentin. Their marital relationship didn’t last and they spent much of their lives living apart, although they nevertheless maintained close and affectionate relations. In their open marriage, Vanessa had affairs with the art critic Roger Fry and with the painter Duncan Grant, with whom she a daughter, Angelica, in 1918 (whom Clive Bell raised as his own child).
Along with Duncan Grant and Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell was named a Director of the Omega Workshops, a Bloomsbury venture which sought to remove what they saw as the false division between the fine and decorative arts. Roger Fry was keen to see the key ideas of Post-Impressionism, such as bright colours and bold, simplified forms, applied to interior design. Vanessa, with Duncan Grant worked together on commissions for the Omega Workshops and decorating the rooms of their home Charleston Farmhouse, in East Sussex, where they had moved to shortly before the outbreak of World War I.
Vanessa Bell lived at Charleston, which remained a great inspiration for her painting, until her death in 1961. She is recognised as a central member of the Bloomsbury group and a major contributor to British portraiture and landscape art in the 20th century.
“As for us we’re in a huge state of excitement having just bought a Picasso for £4. I wonder how you’d like it. It’s ‘cubist’ and very beautiful colour, a small still life” (Letter from Vanessa Bell to Virginia Woolf, 19 October, 1911)