A Woman to Know: Vanessa Bell

I do not think it matters whether one agrees or not as long as one is forced to think. — Vanessa Bell

(image via National Portrait Gallery)


You may not know that Virginia Woolf had a sister: Vanessa. As the older sibling, Vanessa pioneered the way for Virginia to escape her strait-laced upbringing; one legendary story has her secretly removing the pompous chandelier from her family's foyer.

After their parents died in 1905, Vanessa and Virginia relocated to Bloomsbury in London, where they found a chosen family of artists and outcasts. With the legendary Bloomsbury Group, a gathering of queer intellectuals, Vanessa found her voice. She and her husband, the critic Clive Bell, began experimenting with non-monogamy, eventually living apart with their other lovers.

By the 1920s, Vanessa's art blossomed, ripe with color and texture. She held her first solo show in 1922, later painting for theater sets and commercial projects. But she never quite achieved the level of acclaim that alighted on other members of her social circle, like Angelica Garnett and Duncan Grant (her former lover).

Yet one client championed Vanessa above all others: Virginia. The famous writer commissioned her sister to design the dust jackets for all her books. If you're holding a Virginia Woolf first edition, you're holding a piece of Vanessa Bell.

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