Vanessa Bell

1879London, United Kingdom | 1961Charleston, United Kingdom

British painter and designer.

The eldest of four children and sister of the future Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell was born to a wealthy and intellectual family: her mother, Julia Jackson, was the niece of a pioneering photographer, Julia Cameron, and one of the favourite models of the pre-Raphaelites; her father was Sir Leslie Stephen, a famous writer and alpinist. As a young woman, in 1901, she studied at the London Royal Academy of Art. After their parents died, the children continued to live together in central London. Within the Bloomsbury Group, Vanessa organised artistic evenings she called the “Friday Club.” In 1907 she married the art critic Clive Bell, with whom she would have two sons. Her early paintings – Iceland Poppies (1908-1909), for example – show the joint influence of the American painters John Singer Sargent and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. She gradually became interested in Impressionism, particularly French post-Impressionism. A great admirer of Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro and Vincent Van Gogh, she painted portraits with synthetic outlines, simplified shapes and bold colours, like the portrait of her sister, Virginia Woolf (1912). She made her first venture into decorative arts in 1910 with the Scottish painter Duncan Grant, with whom she had a daughter, Angelica, in 1918. The pair would work together throughout their lives. She painted boxes with geometric shapes that followed the aesthetic principle her husband had developed: the predominance of the “significant form” and of its outline and colour over the narrative subject. She took part in two exhibitions organised by Roger Fry in 1912: Quelques indépendants anglais (Barbazanges Gallery, Paris) and his second exhibition of post-impressionist art at the Grafton Galleries in London.

The following year, encouraged by Fry, she opened the Omega Workshops with Grant in London’s Fitzroy Square, where Woolf also lived. Inspired by the Wiener Werkstätte (the Viennese workshops) and Parisian fashion and interior design studios like Paul Poiret’s “Maison Martine,” the Omega Workshops employed artists on a daily basis to create fabric patterns, furniture, and interior design projects, thus promoting a dialogue between painting and decorative arts, in a search for equality between major and minor arts. In May 1914, she assisted Grant in Paris in the creation of costumes for Jacques Copeau’s staging of Twelfth Night, and visited the studios of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Upon returning to London, she created a special section devoted to fashion at Omega. She designed original dresses with very simple outlines and cuts, geometric patterns, and bold colours. She continued to paint in a style renewed by her study of decorative arts: four of the paintings she presented in 1916 at the exhibition The New Movement in Art at the Mansard Gallery in London were abstract. That same year she and Grant bought a farmhouse in Charleston, Sussex, where the couple designed all the decoration, colours and patterns of the walls, doors, furniture, tableware, carpets, and garden mosaics. The Omega Workshops closed in 1919. In the 1920s and 30s, the couple divided their time between London, Charleston and France. Bell’s first solo exhibition was held in June 1922 at the Independent Gallery in London. She and Grant designed the interiors of many private apartments, such as Mary Hutchinson’s (1889-1977) in Regent’s Park, as well as book covers for Hogarth Press (run by Leonard and Virgina Woolf), theatre scenery, and costumes. The main subjects of their pictorial repertoire were still lives, landscapes and nymphs. They taught at Euston Road School in 1938. The Arts Council of Great Britain in London held a retrospective exhibition of Vanessa Bell’s work in 1964.

Cécile Godefroy

From the Dictionnaire universel des créatrices
© 2013 Des femmes – Antoinette Fouque
© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
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