As a young Virginia Woolf scribbled her first stories—precursors to her groundbreaking novels, now considered Modernist classics—her elder sister,
, could be found quietly sketching or searching for clay in the garden of their London home. In her diary, Woolf remembers her sister’s early passion for art: “Once I saw her scrawl on a black door a great maze of lines, with white chalk. ‘When I am a famous painter—’ she began, and then turned shy and rubbed it out in her capable way.”
Bell would indeed become a talented painter, although her work has long been overshadowed by the life and accomplishments of her brilliant writer sister. Both were members of the Bloomsbury Group, a group of influential English writers, intellectuals, and artists who rejected oppressive Victorian institutions and embraced creative freedom, sexual permissiveness, and atheism. They became known for their bohemian lifestyles and complex love affairs: The American writer Dorothy Parker famously remarked that the group “lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles.” Bell’s art critic husband, Clive, was in love with Woolf, his sister-in-law, who had an affair with the writer Vita Sackville-West; Vanessa herself took the critic Roger Fry and artist
as her lovers.
Perhaps more for their lifestyles than their achievements, the Bloomsbury figures scandalized their contemporaries. Either way, their appeal has long endured in fiction, film, and scholarship. Bell and Woolf’s sisterhood, in particular, has seen something of a resurgence in popularity, with both a biographical novel and a BBC miniseries about them released in the past two years. And, come February, the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London will stage the first major solo exhibition of Bell’s work in an effort to untangle her from the twisted love affairs of the Bloomsbury circle while positioning her as a pioneering artist in her own right.
From the Victorian Era to Modernity
Born in Victorian-era London, Vanessa Bell née Stephen was raised in an intellectual, upper-middle-class household that frequently opened its doors to leading thinkers of the time. Her father was an accomplished man of letters; her mother, Julia, was a famous beauty and
muse, immortalized in a medieval-esque painting by
and haunting photographs by her aunt
. In terms of personality, Bell and her sister could hardly have been more different. Woolf was witty, temperamental, and outspoken; Bell was calm, reasonable, and maternal. “Until she was fifteen indeed, she was outwardly sober and austere, the most trustworthy, and always the eldest,” Virginia later wrote in her diary.