Vanessa Stephen was the elder daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Duckworth. The family, including her sister Virginia, brothers Thoby (1880–1906) and Adrian (1883–1948), and half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth, lived at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Westminster, London. She was educated at home in languages, mathematics and history, and took drawing lessons from Ebenezer Cook before she attended Sir Arthur Cope’s art school in 1896. She then studied painting at the Royal Academy in 1901.
Later in life, she alleged that during her childhood she had been sexually molested by her half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth.
Lady Ottoline Morrell, Maria Nys (later Huxley), Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell 1915
After the deaths of her mother in 1895 and her father in 1904, Vanessa sold 22 Hyde Park Gate and moved to Bloomsbury with Virginia and brothers Thoby and Adrian, where they met and began socialising with the artists, writers and intellectuals who would come to form the Bloomsbury Group. The Bloomsbury Group’s first Thursday evening meetings began at Bell’s house in Gordon Square. Attendees included: Lytton Strachey, Desmond MacCarthy, and later on, Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Roger Fry, and Duncan Grant.
She married Clive Bell in 1907 and they had two sons, Julian (who died in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War at the age of 29) and Quentin. The couple had an open marriage, both taking lovers throughout their lives. Bell had affairs with art critic Roger Fry and with the painter Duncan Grant, with whom she had a daughter, Angelica in 1918, whom Clive Bell raised as his own child.
Firle Parish Churchyard, 2017
Vanessa, Clive, Duncan Grant and Duncan’s lover David Garnett moved to the Sussex countryside shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, and settled at Charleston Farmhouse near Firle, East Sussex, where she and Grant painted and worked on commissions for the Omega Workshops established by Roger Fry. Her first solo exhibition was at the Omega Workshops in 1916. On April 7, 1961, Bell died from a brief illness at Charleston, Firle and was buried in the Firle Parish Churchyard. When Duncan Grant died in 1978, he was buried next to her.
In 1906, when Bell started to think of herself as an artist, she formed the Friday Club to create a place in London that was more favorable to painting. Vanessa was encouraged by the Post-Impressionist exhibitions organized by Roger Fry, and she copied their bright colors and bold forms in her artworks. In 1914, she turned to Abstraction.
Bell rejected the examples of Victorian narrative painting and rejected a discourse on the ideal and aberrant qualities of femininity. She also designed book jackets for all of her sister Virginia’s books that were published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s publishing company, the Hogarth Press.
Bell is one of the most celebrated painters of the Bloomsbury group. She exhibited in London and Paris during her lifetime, and has been praised for innovative works and for her contributions to design.
Bell’s paintings include Studland Beach (1912), The Tub (1918), Interior with Two Women (1932), and portraits of her sister Virginia Woolf (three in 1912), Aldous Huxley (1929–1930), and David Garnett (1916). Bell also worked with Duncan Grant to create murals for Berwick Church in Sussex (1940–42).
In 1932, Bell and Grant were commissioned to produce a dinner service for Kenneth Clark. With oversight from Kenneth’s wife Jane Clark, they produced the Famous Women Dinner Service: 50 plates painted with portraits of notable women throughout history. The collection eventually passed on to a private collector, and passed out of public view until 2017. The full collection was exhibited in London in early 2018.
The indoors can be suffocating if they are not in any way connected to the outdoors even if it is just visually. In the painting, Bell has given a natural backdrop to the still life which gives life to the entire canvas. The lifeless objects of the household are on the threshold of where all life resides. The contrast of what is on this side of the window with the outside is intriguing.
Title: Window, still life
Medium: Oil on canvas
Year of Artwork: 1915
Artist: Vanessa Bell
Birthplace of Artist: UK