Vanessa Bell was born in Hyde Park Gate, London, the eldest child of the eminent literary scholar and critic Leslie Stephen and his second wife Julia Duckworth. At the time of Vanessa’s birth Stephen was engaged as editor of the multi-volume Dictionary of National Biography and his was a home wherein intellectual pursuit, particularly of a literary kind, was encouraged. Besides Vanessa there were three other children, Thoby, Adrian and Virginia, and Virginia (later to become Woolf) would most evidence this literary influence. But there was broadness of cultural pursuit, and Vanessa’s interest in drawing was approved whilst she was young, and lead to her attending the Royal Academy Schools for a more formal training in art.
Despite such broadness of cultural interests the household was socially, in many ways a conventional one; and to a degree – or so Vanessa would come to feel – hide-bound in its social customs and expectations. After her father’s death in 1904, Vanessa instigated a move to 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury. Here she and her siblings would live a life of less constrained conventionality. They held ‘at homes’ to which they invited their friends, and soon it was understood by those attending that not only were there few topics of conversation out of bounds, but a certain tenor of conversation – irreverent, ironic and above all psychologically honest – was expected. From these informal gatherings there emerged a core set of people – the Stephen children, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf, Duncan Grant and David Garnett amongst them – to which the name ‘Bloomsbury’ would become attached.
Vanessa married the art-critic Clive Bell. They had two sons, Julian and Quentin, but their marital relationship did not last and for much of their lives they lived apart. They nevertheless maintained close, and for the most part affectionate relations – even during a brief affair which Vanessa had with Roger Fry, a friend, fellow art-critic and sometime professional colleague of Clive’s. This affair was short lived, and Vanessa’s affections were soon directed towards the artist Duncan Grant with whom she was to have her third child Angelica, born in 1919.
Both Roger Fry and Duncan Grant each had an influence on Vanessa’s art. Duncan in more personal ways: she felt spurred to create by him, his influence the result of an eroticised attachment. But theirs was also a collegial relationship: they undertook commissions together for The Omega Workshops, a Bloomsbury venture which sought to supply items of well-designed household artefacts for sale to the public, and they often worked on the same project such as decorating the rooms at their Sussex home Charleston Farmhouse. Theirs was a working relationship not without ambivalence: whilst Vanessa welcomed his creative energies and vision she feared being exposed too much to his influence, and occasionally felt that her own endeavours might be eclipsed by his.
Fry’s influence was less directly personal. Fry had a deep interest in modern French art – indeed it was he who was first to introduce Manet and Post-Impressionism to a scandalised British art establishment when he curated the two exhibitions of their works in 1910 and 1912 respectively. And Vanessa found these exhibitions of profound influence: she began to experiment with strong colours and a bold reductionism in her paintings, and much of her most radical work can be traced to the influence of the Post-Impressionists exhibiting just before the war. She would later return to more traditional methods of representation, but a strength of colour would always characterise her work, and it is as a colourist for which she is now perhaps most admired.