Vanessa Bell Retrospective

Vanessa Bell, Self –Portrait, 1915, Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett
Vanessa Bell, Self-Portrait, 1915, Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

The first ever retrospective of the important Sussex artist, Vanessa Bell (1879–1961), is the latest exhibition to go on show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

This timely exhibition seeks to place Bell’s work in the context of her life with over one hundred paintings on display. The story of Vanessa Bell’s life has often overshadowed the work which it inspired. But throughout her life she devoted herself to her painting which allowed her to voice her belief in the importance of substance and freedom. Her home at Charleston in Sussex remains a moving testimony to her life – a house transformed by her art.

In London Vanessa Bell had married the art critic Clive Bell and was one of the leading members of what would become known as the Bloomsbury Group. She worked in the Omega Workshops with Roger Fry and collaborated with Duncan Grant in numerous decorative projects and artistic commissions. Both men would eventually become Vanessa’s lovers. Many of her designs embraced the new artistic ideas from the Continent. The abstracted fabric design for the Omega Workshops in watercolour seen here is striking in its modernity but maintains a fluidity underpinned by the use of colour in the composition.

Vanessa Bell, Landscape with Haystack, Asheham, 1912, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts. Purchased with the gift of Anne Holden Kieckhefer class of 1952, in honour of Ruth Chandler Holden, class of 1926. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Vanessa Bell visited her sister Virginia Woolf at her Sussex home, Asheham, in 1912 where she painted ‘Landscape with Haystack, Asheham’. Here the influence of the Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912, organised by Roger Fry at the Grafton Gallery in London, are readily apparent in the way that she employs light, blocks of colour and bold outlines.

It was Vanessa Bell’s love for Duncan Grant and Virginia Woolf which brought about her move to Sussex during the First World War.

Vanessa was living with Duncan Grant, and his friend David Garnett, at Wissett Lodge in Suffolk when Virginia Woolf, wrote to her. In her letters Virginia explained that not only did Charleston house need a tenant but that the neighbouring farmer was short of ‘hands’ to work on the land. Duncan Grant and David Garnett needed to be essentially employed on the land to avoid being called up to fight or the prospect of gaol as conscientious objectors.

Vanessa Bell 1879–1961, Design for Omega Workshops Fabric, 1913, Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

As well as covering the walls and furniture at Charleston with painted decoration Duncan and Vanessa portrayed those who visited and the countryside around them.

A number of remarkable portraits by Bell are included in the exhibition. Her paintings of Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and David Garnett are revealing and remarkably daring in their execution challenging our perception of the world and beauty. Amongst these is a self-portrait painted in 1915. Vanessa sits in a chair her head averted from us as she stares from the canvas deep in thought. There is a strength and resilience in her demeanour.

Vanessa Bell, Wallflowers, undated, Private Collection. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

I have always loved the intimacy of Vanessa Bell’s still lives. The study of wallflowers does not disappoint. The flowers sit in a jug which may well have been decorated by Vanessa at Charleston.

This superb and long overdue exhibition allows us to see Vanessa Bell’s development as an artist and the techniques, themes and subjects which unite her work.

‘Vanessa Bell’ runs at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until the 4th June 2017 and is one of this year’s must see exhibitions. For more information go to

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.