Woman artist Vanessa (Stephen) Bell (1879-1961) turned every place that she lived into a living work of art. She had a gift for making people feel comfortable, for entertaining, and creating unique and beautiful places to live. She had a lot of houses, London, the English countryside, and the South of France, aesthetically pleasing places in which to host others. This also enabled her to keep a finger, and even exert a large influence on, the pulse of culture which was a tradition of the women in her maternal family lineage. I suspect she also needed it to carry out her work: painting.
The Charleston House is a farmhouse in Sussex that Vanessa and her partner Duncan Grant and his lover, along with her two sons from her marriage with Clive Bell, moved to in 1916 as conscientious objectors in the beginning of WWI. Together Bell and Grant painted the interior and exterior, furniture, gardens, and onto their own canvases. They lived there off and on for the rest of their lives. Bell delivered her daughter Angelica (fathered by Grant but raised thinking Clive Bell was her father) there on Christmas Day in 1918. The house is now a museum one can visit. https://www.charleston.org.uk/
The house captures the spirit of the woman artist who created, inhabited and maintained it. Bell was free spirit who experienced life through images, form and color and in her work explored the relationship of the three.
Whereas her sister, Virginia (Stephen) Woolf, needed a room of her own to write, Vanessa Bell, needed a home, or two or three. The Stephen women, Vanessa and Virginia were two extremely creative and groundbreaking artists. They took their work seriously, making ample time for it in their lives and supported each other in their respective fields.
Vanessa Bell lived a very non-traditional life. She was one of the founding members of the Bloomsbury group, a collection of Londoners pushing the edges of acceptability in the early 20th century. They were intellectuals and artists, politicians and economic policy makers, attempting to break through barriers around sexuality, marriage, gender and equal rights and accepted standards of behavior. What Virginia managed to do with her pen as a sword bequeathing those of us lucky enough to come after her with intellectual theories and carefully thought through arguments for women’s rights, Vanessa did by example, making herself priority in her life, and her art second only to that. Where Virginia was physically weak and challenged in her emotional life, Vanessa was strong and physically robust, with a demeanor and general approach of “glass half full.”
“Vanessa Bell the painter was as radical as Virginia Woolf the writer. I have come to think her more so. In her simplified portraits and mysterious dream landscapes painted from 1911 onwards, she invented a new language of visual expressiveness. Bell’s . . . still-life paintings of 1914-15 are among the earliest pure abstracts in the Europe of the time”( https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/1999/oct/23/weekend7.weekend3).
Vanessa provided the cover art for most of Virginia’s books and Virginia supported Vanessa’s art and loved her children as her own. With all the challenges of siblings and sisters, they remained close and provided healthy mirroring for one another in a world that would prefer to deny them that.
In Gillian’ Gill’s, Virginia Woolf and the Women Who Shaped Her World, we learn that Vanessa’s great-great-grandmother Thérèse Blin de Grincourt was famed to be the originator of the beauty in the Stephen family line through their mother. The Stephen girls, Virginia and Vanessa, daughters of Julia (Jackson) Stephen and daughter Stella Duckworth, Julia’s by her first husband, were all to carry this beauty.
It was discovered in the year 2000 that this particular ancestress to whom the beauty is attributed was part Bengali, though none of the Stephen women knew this. They believed her to be of French aristocracy. Thérèse did eventually move to France when she was in her fifties with her daughter Adeline Pattle, and her daughters: Adeline, Julia and Sarah, the grandmother and great-aunts of Vanessa and Virginia.
“The relationships among the women in Virginia Woolf’s maternal family—not just sisters and mothers and daughters, but aunts and nieces—were strong and close. The fiercely loving and protective relationship Virginia Woolf had with her sister Vanessa and Vanessa’s three children…echoed a pattern of female relations that dated back at least to the early ninetieth century”(Gill 8).
Though Vanessa and Virginia’s mother Julia was born in India, eventually she and much of the family returned to England, including the Pattle great-aunts, who were fabulously independent, creative and outgoing and eventually became wildly renowned.
“The women of the Pattle family began to make their move from Bengal to southern England during the 1840s. Their husbands had been born in Great Britain and made their careers in India, but the women had all been born, lived their lives, and had their children in India. Once they found themselves settled in the new place they had been told to call home, it did not take them long to discover that there was a foreignness about them that did not please many of their monocultural, monolingual, stay-at-home compatriots; in fact it set their teeth on edge”(Gill 19).
But the great-aunts, Sarah and Julia, were not deterred and went on to create and lead a community replete with entertainment, parties and intellectual gatherings of great popularity that came to be called “Pattledom.”
“By the 1850s, Sarah Prinsep in Kensington and Julia Cameron on the Isle of Wight had created a little mid-Victorian haven of European culture mixed with Indian allure. In its heyday Pattledom was a meeting place for some of England’s most distinguished men— Tennyson, Thackeray, and Browning; Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and John Ruskin. . . in many ways an early avatar of Bloomsbury. Such complex pieces of social machinery tend to seem effortless in retrospect but, on top of a genius for social relations and a generous entertainment budget, they require a lot of hard work and they are usually the work of women. Pattledom was set in motion and kept purring by Sarah and Julia, whose abundant energy galvanized friends to the point of exhaustion”(Gill 22).
Great Aunt-Julia is also better known as the famous woman artist and photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. It seems that Vanessa and Virginia somehow caught the memory of these great-aunts and carried on in their footsteps being the originators of the infamous Bloomsbury group.
Read our posts about Virginia Woolf here:
Virginia Woolf’s Far Reaching Network Within The Web of Women Writers
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway: Being, Non-Being and the Spiritual Continuum Holding Up The World—A Woman Writer on Writing
Women Writers on Writing: Virginia Woolf’s “Angel In TheHouse” and What it Takes To Be A #NastyWoman
Women Writers on Writing: Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own (First Published in London, 1929)
Vanessa and Virginia Stephens’ mother, Julia (Jackson) Stephen, spent much time in this rich and entertaining domain until she married and, after quickly giving birth to three children was widowed very early on. She subsequently married their father, Leslie Stephen, who did not possess or enjoy such showmanship or flamboyant lifestyle. Julia Stephen, giving birth to four more children, was now mother of seven. She dedicated her energy and her life to that of service to her demanding husband and the community at large, almost totally denying herself anything and dying of exhaustion at a young age.
This Vanessa witnessed and then, as if to only add further pain to that loss and example, watched the spectre of her 10-years-older half-sister, Stella-Duckworth, take up the torch of the martyred woman and die in a similar way. This surely affected Vanessa’s future choices and decisions about where to put her energy and perhaps gave her the temerity and determination she displayed in making herself and her art priority #1.
“Her commitment to art never wavered; it runs like a rod of steel through her life, an unbending central core of conviction. Combined with her talent, it led her to play an important part within the history of English painting during the first thirty years of this century and a less central but still distinguished role as a colorist from the 1930s until her death”(Spalding xvii).
Though born in to a literary family, Bell’s interests were always in the visual arts. She was privileged enough to attend schools and workshops to engage and refine her skills. As she matured, she was inspired by the post-impressionists Cézanne, van Gogh and Gaugin who were seen as radical by the English artists of the time.
“Having spent time in Paris as well as seeing Roger Fry’s groundbreaking Post-Impressionist show in 1910, Bell synthesized the Post-Impressionist style to create a unique, modern approach to landscape painting that didn’t exist in England”(https://www.theartstory.org/artist/bell-vanessa/)
She also moved in abstract art for a time, but her main forms were still-life and people in domestic situations. She also firmly established herself as a modernist portrait painter and helped created the Omega workshops together with Roger Fry and Duncan Grant. Out of the Omega workshops came the application of arts to everyday, textiles, furniture and more.
“Unlike other modern artists of the time, Bell did not try to distance herself from domestic life, rather she embraced domesticity in her work, first in her Omega Workshops interior designs and later in the themes of her paintings. Unlike other early modernists who made concerted efforts to avoid such themes, for the Bloomsbury Group, modernism was intricately linked to domesticity. According to Christopher Reed, “Bell’s art testifies to her belief in the home as the crucible in which artists effect the transformation of the personal into the abstract – the more generalized emotions associated with form – that was for Bloomsbury the hallmark of modernism”(https://www.theartstory.org/artist/bell-vanessa/)
Bell did not often philosophize about art or examine her own motivations for being an artist but there is something about her ideas of what art is in this section of a talk she gave at Leighton Park School in 1925:
As an artist “one is almost incapable of being bored. Even a kitchen coal scuttle may become the most exciting continuation of curves and hollows, deep shadows and silver edges, instead of a tiresome thing to be filled with coal, or a half worn out thing that will soon need renewal…Suppose you are drawing a flower. If you are capable of seeing the flower with all its subtleties of form, the way its edges receded are sharp against the space behind, you have to try to express your feeling about those things in line. It must be sensitive, everywhere – nowhere must it become mechanical . . . when art is on the downward grade, skill tends to get the upper hand”(204).
Well-known and appreciated in her time, she continued working well into her older years.
Vanessa Bell is a Nasty Woman Artist.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2022
Gill, Gillian. Virginia Woolf and the Women Who Shaped Her World. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York. 2019
MacCarthy, Fiona. “A radical regained,” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/1999/oct/23/weekend7.weekend3
Spalding, Frances. Vanessa Bell: Portrait of the Bloomsbury Artist. Tauris Parke, London. 1983.