Vanessa Bell is probably best known as Virginia Woolf's older sister. However, she
was truly a very talented artists. She lived a very different lifestyle that most people would consider strange. Virginia Woolf wrote this about the
life style Vanessa led while living at the Charleston farm house:
"Nessa seems to have slipped civilization off her back, and splashes about entirely
nude, without shame, and enormous spirit. Indeed, Clive now takes up the line
that she has ceased to be a presentable lady-- I think it all works admirably."
Born Vanessa Stephen, in May of 1879, in Hyde Park Gate in London, she was
the daughter of Leslie Stephen, who was a Victorian scholar and writer and his
second wife, Vanessa's mother, Julia Duckworth. Vanessa had many siblings,
including siblings from her father's previous marriages. The most famous
of these siblings was Virginia Woolf.
After Vanessa's mother died in 1895, Vanessa and her siblings moved to the
Bloomsbury district of London, where Vanessa would take over as the mother figure for her family. This role was very difficult on Vanessa due to the
fact that her father was very strict and demanding. Vanessa would struggle
to balance her role as the mother figure along with trying to develop her
While living in Bloomsbury district, Vanessa came in contact with many
artists and studied under Sir Arthur Cope until he died. After his death,
Vanessa would study at the Royal Academy Schools in 1899.
After her father died in 1904, Vanessa's role as housekeeper ended and she
began to concentrate more on her art career and her liberated lifestyle.
Vanessa and her siblings began to entertain friends from the Royal Academy.
They called this the "Friday Club". Out of this club, The Bloomsbury Group
was formed. Members of this group included such people as:
In 1905, during one of the group's meetings, Clive Bell proposed to Vanessa,
but she told him "no". He would propose to her a second time, a year
later, and she told him "no" again. She also turned down proposals from
Leonard Woolf. Vanessa had told Clive that she valued his friendship
greatly but did not want to be married at this time. After her brother, Thoby, died suddenly from typhoid fever in 1907, Clive would propose to Vanessa
once more. This time she accepted his proposal and they were married.
Vanessa and Clive had two sons shortly after they were married. By the
time World War I came about, Vanessa and Clive's marriage was in shambles.
Vanessa was having an affair with Duncan Grant who was a homosexual.
Shortly after their affair began, Vanessa, Duncan, and his lover David Garnett
would move to the town of Charleston, where David and Duncan had to work on the
land to avoid fighting in the war.
Vanessa would live a very eccentric and often strange lifestyle while living
in Charleston. Although she was Duncan's lover, she remained married to
Clive. Clive would often visit his sons and is said to have made remarks
that when he would visit his sons, he noticed Vanessa parading herself around
the house and the grounds nude and sometimes dancing around the yard as if she was in a trance.
In December of 1918, Vanessa would give birth to a daughter she conceived
with Duncan named Angelica. Angelica would later marry David Garnett.
Vanessa contributed to the Omega Workshops that was formed by Roger Fry.
Her relationship with Clive remained amicable even while she was Duncan's lover.
Vanessa and Clive would often work in the same studios, helping each other out
with their works.
Vanessa's work, such as her painting titled "The Iceland Poppies" began to
appear in exhibits at the New English Art Club during the summer of 1909.
Walter Sickert is quoted as saying this about Vanessa's artistic style and
"It's quiet, restrained naturalism was, however, to be exploded a year
later by her experience of post-impressionism."
Vanessa would exhibit regularly with the London Artist's Association and the
London Group. Duncan and Vanessa would lend their support to the Euston
Road School and would also work together on many decorative schemes such as the
work they did for HMS Queen Mary. Through the years that Vanessa and
Duncan lived at Charleston, their home became filled with paintings from
Vanessa, Duncan, and Clive that covered the doors, walls, furniture, and most
any other place that they could put artwork.
Vanessa's work turned to the traditional styles such as, outdoor scenes,
still-lifes, and domestic subjects. Her style was not as flamboyant as it
used to be. The coloring in her paintings became richer and more detailed
with tighter brush strokes.
Vanessa's works seem to offer a sense of anticipation and delight.
Although Duncan Grant would receive more recognition for his works than Vanessa,
her artwork steadily gained critical acclaim. Vanessa's decorative work
was said to be simplistic and outstanding. This is evident in many
book-jackets that she designed for the Hogarth Press.
The 1930s were a difficult time for Vanessa as her very close friend, Roger
Fry died late in 1934, and her son Julian was killed in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War while serving as an ambulance driver.
The 1940s were just as difficult for Vanessa. In 1941, her sister,
Virginia Woolf committed suicide, and in 1942, Vanessa's daughter, Angelica
found out who her real father was, and becoming estranged from her mother, would
marry her father's former lover, David Garnett, who was 25 years older than
During World War II, their home in Charleston was safely out of reach from
the bombs that fell on London. This allowed Vanessa to continue painting
until she died in 1961. Eventually, Duncan would sell the house to the
Charleston Trust, who renovated it and opened it to the public so that the world
may see all of the great artwork contained inside.
Many of Vanessa's artworks are in museums around the world, such as: