Why it's time to save Vanessa Bell from the beasts of Bloomsbury

Self Portrait (detail), Vanessa Bell, c.1915
Self Portrait (detail), Vanessa Bell, c.1915 Credit: Yale Center for British Art
Can a major Vanessa Bell exhibition prove that there’s more to her than a famous sister and a scandalous sex life?

Although she died when I was six, I do have powerful memories of her,” says Virginia Nicholson, referring to her grandmother, the British artist Vanessa Bell. Now 61, Nicholson, an author and social historian, is a long-term trustee at Charleston, the 18th-century farmhouse on the Sussex Downs where Bell lived, with other members of the Bloomsbury Group, from 1916 until her death in 1961, aged 81.

“I spent my childhood holidays at Charleston,” continues Nicholson, whom I meet at her home, a beautiful old farmhouse about 10 miles down the road from Charleston. “After lunch, if we were good, we were allowed into the dining room. Nessa, as she was to me, loved strong black coffee. She would take a sugar lump and say, 'Shall we have a brown duck?’ ” Nicholson smiles. “There was a little white 'duck’ of sugar on her teaspoon, it would fall into the 'pond’ of coffee, then she would hoick it out, and I could eat it. I loved that.”

In Sussex, she felt 'such a savage, as if I could never go to a tea party again'

Next month, Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London will present an exhibition of Bell’s work, featuring 76 paintings and works on paper, as well as photographs, and fabrics that she designed for the Omega Workshops established in 1913 by her sometime lover, the art critic and painter Roger Fry.

Bell is a familiar figure in 20th-century British art: her radically simplified Modernist masterpiece Studland Beach (c. 1912), for instance, is a fixture on the walls of the Tate. Yet, astonishingly, the Dulwich show will be her first major monographic exhibition at a public gallery.

Admittedly, her work has been seen in depth before: in 1999, she was one of three featured artists – alongside Fry and Duncan Grant – in the Tate’s exhibition The Art of Bloomsbury. Until now, though, she has always been considered in relation to her male peers, rather than by herself. “Isn’t that incredible?” says Nicholson. “Women get the raw end. I’m sorry, but men just do get privileged in the arts.”

The Blue Room, Wissett Lodge (detail), Vanessa Bell, 1916 Credit: The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Over the years, Bell’s reputation has suffered from comparison with her long-standing companion Grant, the mostly homosexual painter with whom she lived at Charleston. As early as 1959, Grant had a solo retrospective at the Tate (albeit one that was poorly received); he will be one of the chief subjects of Tate Britain’s exhibition Queer British Art, which will open in April. “Vanessa was always in Duncan’s shadow,” Nicholson says. “As the man, Duncan was simply taken more seriously.”

Bell’s private life also distracts attention from her work. Along with her sister, the writer Virginia Woolf, she broke free from the shackles of Victorian propriety that had confined her at 22 Hyde Park Gate, the London residence of her father Leslie Stephen, an eminent man of letters who edited the Dictionary of National Biography.

In 1904, following Stephen’s death, Bell and her three younger siblings moved to 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury. The house became the centre of a set of like-minded young iconoclasts, all eager to fashion new ways of living. By 1916, when Bell first rented Charleston, she had been a prominent figure in this Bloomsbury circle for more than a decade.

Self Portrait (detail), Vanessa Bell, c.1952 Credit: The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Married to the art critic Clive Bell, with whom she had two sons (Julian and Nicholson’s father, Quentin), she found even greater freedom in Sussex. “I feel such a savage here,” she wrote, with relish, to her former lover Fry, “as if I could never go to a tea party again.” At Charleston, she also had a liaison with Grant, resulting in the birth of a daughter, Angelica, on Christmas Day 1918, who was brought up believing that Bell, not Grant, was her father.

By the Fifties, when Nicholson visited Charleston as a little girl, Bell was living there permanently with Grant – although their relationship, by this stage, was one of companionship founded on a shared preoccupation with painting. “It was very comfortable,” says Nicholson. “My father used to say that they were like two animals in a stable quietly munching at their mangers side by side. They loved to paint together.”

Nicholson – whose husband, William, the Oscar-nominated writer of Shadowlands and Gladiator, is watching films in the other room when I visit – shows me a vigorous oil sketch of her father as a 10-year-old, sitting barefoot at a sturdy table. The picture, which will be on show at Dulwich, was painted by Bell in around 1920 but, she says, “one of the family jokes was that [Bell and Grant] couldn’t tell each other’s work apart unless they’d signed their pictures. 'Is that by me, Nessa?’ 'I’m not sure, Duncan, I think so.’ Duncan, in any case, was terminally vague – and she was quite vague, too.”

A Conversation (detail), Vanessa Bell, 1913-16 Credit: The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

After the outbreak of the Second World War, Bell and Grant shared Charleston with her husband, Clive, forming an unconventional ménage à trois that confirmed Dorothy Parker’s witticism about the Bloomsbury Group – that they “lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles”.

A prurient interest in Bloomsbury helps to explain our ongoing fascination with them – as witnessed by the salacious tone of the BBC’s 2015 drama series Life in Squares.  Before filming began, Nicholson was invited to comment on the scripts, but, she says, “they paid no attention, and it misfired. It did no harm at all to Charleston – the visitor numbers rocketed. But the drama made them come across as a bunch of poseurs jumping in and out of bed with each other. Why were we supposed to be remotely interested in them?” She continues: “Obviously, the sex is fruity and interesting and so on. But a lot of people genuinely love the art and literature of Bloomsbury. Actually, they were pioneers who changed 20th-century culture in Britain.” 

'Virginia was the asexual nervous wreck, but Vanessa was neurotic, too’

One of the aims of the Dulwich exhibition is to disentangle Bell from the knot of Bloomsbury, with its attendant gossip and tittle-tattle. Although the show will contain three of Bell’s four portraits of her literary sister (for whose books, issued by the Hogarth Press, she also designed dust jackets), it will invite us to consider her as a painter on her own terms.

“The big cliché,” says Nicholson, “is always to see Vanessa in relation to Virginia Woolf. So, the writer and the painter; but, also, this ascetic fine mind and asexual nervous wreck – a neurotic, mad, melancholy character – compared with a warm, wonderfully rounded human being, ie Vanessa, who was this sensualist earth mother.”

Inevitably, Nicholson says, this is “a one-sided picture, and totally untrue”. While Woolf would end up committing suicide in 1941, Bell was also “quite neurotic herself – and she was also eccentric. For example, she tended to get things wrong when telling proverbs or stories. She’d say things like, 'Oh, it’s well known that you must grasp the bull by the udder.’ Hang on, what?” Nicholson smiles. “And she always tended to be quite private, which again belies the cliché of someone who was a let-it-all-hang-out kind of hippy.

As she grew older, she became increasingly reclusive. Her half-brother, Gerald Duckworth, would phone and say, 'Is that Vanessa?’ And she’d say, in her completely distinctive voice, 'No, this is the housemaid. Mrs Bell is away for the next month.’ ”

What about Bell’s art – is it any good? “Well, she was prolific, and not all her work is good,” Nicholson says. “But, at her best, Vanessa was capable of monumentality and simplicity. There is a sort of grandeur about her painting that fascinates me.”

The exhibition at Dulwich will focus on Bell’s experimental work of the 1910s, when, inspired by the explosive example of French Post-Impressionist art, which Fry had introduced to Britain in two notorious exhibitions at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1910 and 1912, she was, genuinely, at the forefront of the avant-garde.

Vanessa Bell at Durbins, 1911 Credit: Tate/Tate Images

Her blazing portraits from this period have an audacious coarseness of handling that imparts, as her sister put it, a kind of “rough eloquence”. In 1914-15, she even produced a handful of purely abstract paintings. By the Twenties, though, Bell’s risk-taking had receded, and her resolutely domestic pictures grew increasingly timid and sentimental. For this reason, perhaps, her work, like that of other Bloomsbury artists, is sometimes written off as excessively polite: painting fit only for “a pleasant tea party”, in the words of the disgruntled artists who turned their backs on the Omega Workshops. Even today, Nicholson says, “there are plenty of Bloomsbury-bashers. A lot of it is about class and this feeling that they were ivory-tower champagne lefties. Maybe they have a point.”

Certainly, there is little indication in the art of either Bell or Grant of the tumultuous, catastrophic times through which they lived – even though, in 1937, Bell’s eldest son, Julian, was killed in the Spanish Civil War. “But,” Nicholson continues, “the hate that some people feel for Bloomsbury is also related to something much bigger, which is: what do people want out of art? Anger and protest – or a humanistic delight in quotidian virtues and the joys of sensuality?

“There was an Arcadian feel to Charleston, but it was about self-expression and liberation: the freedom to be who you are, and to love who you want.”

Virginia Woolf (detail), Vanessa Bell Credit: National Portrait Gallery

Moreover, Nicholson believes that one late self-portrait offers a counter-example to the argument that Bell declined as an artist in old age. It dates from 1958, and presents a bespectacled Bell wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat and a spotted green shawl.

“By then, she was clinging on,” Nicholson says. “Her paintings betrayed fragility and a need for stability. But that self-portrait doesn’t have a failure of courage. It’s someone looking at themselves in old age, and not flinching from what they see – which is a very sad, melancholy, isolated old lady.” She pauses. “It’s also the Vanessa I knew. It wasn’t that she was a gorgeous, lovable, cuddly person – she was just someone one wanted to be near.”

Vanessa Bell opens at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 (020 8693 5254), on Feb 8.

Charleston’s Centenary Project is due for completion by 2018. See charleston.org.uk for details