Vanessa BELL

1879—1961

Vanessa Bell was the daughter of Leslie Stephen, a prominent Victorian man of letters, and older sister to Virginia (who married Leonard Woolf).  During their childhood summers, the Stephen family would decamp from London to St Ives and stay in Talland House, a place of many happy memories for both Vanessa and Virginia (To The Lighthouse was inspired by these holidays). 

At the age of 17, Vanessa began drawing lessons and entered the Royal Academy Schools (1901).  In 1907, after an affair with Roger Fry, she married Clive Bell (the art critic) who helped Roger Fry set up the first Post-Impressionist show in London (1910). She and Bell had two children, Julian and Quentin (Julian died in the Spanish Civil War), and she later had a daughter, Angelica, with the artist Duncan Grant (with whom she settled at Charleston in Sussex for the remainder of her life).

The Stephen sisters were at the centre of the Bloomsbury Group, and all these individuals remained lifelong friends and artistic/intellectual collaborators. Both Bell and Grant were  deeply influenced by the post-Impressionists; they set up the Omega Workshops together for which Vanessa designed fabric prints, and painted furniture and trompes L'oile, and she also designed and illustrated dust-jackets for many of her sister's books. Her work was first noticed by The New Age in Nov 1912 (Vol. 12, No. 3, p 67), although much of her earlier work was lost in a bombing raid during the second world war.

Bell's decorative work at Charleston House and elsewhere is well documented, and the Hypatia Collection of women's writings contains a large selection of books and ephemera of the arts, crafts and writings of the Bloomsbury group. [Exeter University Special Collections, and Penzance, Cornwall]