BELL, Vanessa (1879–1961) and GRANT, Duncan (1885–1978)
Plaque erected in 2023 by English Heritage at 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, Camden, London, WC1H 0PD, London Borough of Camden
VANESSA BELL 1879–1961 DUNCAN GRANT 1885–1978 Artists lived and worked here
There is also a plaque to John Maynard Keynes at this address.
Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were prominent figures in 20th-century British art. Long-term creative companions and partners, they are commemorated by a blue plaque at 46 Gordon Square, the house where the Bloomsbury Group was born.
Vanessa Stephen’s early life
Vanessa Stephen was born in 1879 in Kensington, where the family home was shared with four half-siblings, two brothers, Thoby and Adrian, and a sister, Virginia (later Virginia Woolf), with whom Vanessa was educated at home. Vanessa attended drawing classes at Cope’s School of Art in 1896 and in 1901 entered the Royal Academy Schools.
Gordon Square and the Bloomsbury Group
Vanessa became head of the household when the Stephen children’s mother, Julia, died in 1895. After their father, Sir Leslie Stephen, died in 1904, she and her three siblings left Kensington for then unfashionable Bloomsbury, moving into number 46 Gordon Square, part of a terrace laid out from the mid 1820s by Thomas Cubitt. There they were able to cast off the stifling Victorian upper-middle-class social conventions they abhorred.
From informal social meetings among the siblings’ literary and artistic friends, what became known as the Bloomsbury Group (or set or circle) emerged. Its early associates were Vanessa, Virginia and Thoby Stephen, Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and Saxon Sydney-Turner. Many in the circle had fluid sexual identities, and freedom in personal relationships was key to their moral code: it has been said (by whom is uncertain) that the Bloomsbury set ‘lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles’. The web of unorthodox relationships between the group’s members has sometimes distracted from the radical nature of their art, but was formative to it.
Vanessa married the art critic Clive Bell in 1907, at which point Virginia and Adrian and the group meetings moved to nearby Fitzroy Square, while the Bells stayed at 46 Gordon Square (Thoby had died in 1906). Vanessa and Clive’s sons, Julian and Quentin, were born in 1908 and 1910. The marriage was shaken by an involvement between Clive and Virginia, and later the Bells settled into friendship, while remaining married. At around this time, the writer EM Forster, the economist John Maynard Keynes, the painter Duncan Grant and the artist and critic Roger Fry – for a time Vanessa’s lover – also became regular members of the group.
Number 46 Gordon Square was Bloomsbury’s ‘monument historique’, Clive Bell once said. Vanessa decorated it with washes of light distemper and carefully chosen mementoes from her childhood home. ‘Things that one had never seen in the darkness’, Virginia Woolf remembered in her essay Old Bloomsbury, ‘shone out for the first time in the drawing room at Gordon Square.’ From this room emerged ‘the germ from which sprang all that since came to be called … by the name Bloomsbury’.
In 1910 Fry put on the first exhibition of Manet and the Post-Impressionists in Britain, which included paintings by Degas, Cézanne, Matisse, Van Gogh and others. The controversial show marked a pivotal moment in British culture, representing what Vanessa described as a ‘freedom’ and ‘release’ for British artists that also had a liberating effect on her own art. It was Fry who encouraged Vanessa to paint professionally and in 1910–13 she produced some of her most distinctive work. In 1914 she made her Abstract Painting, becoming one of the first artists in England to paint in an abstract style. Throughout her life, her subjects were home, family, friends, garden and landscape – themes that extended to the decoration of the house itself.
Bell and Grant meet
When Duncan Grant showed a sketch at Gordon Square in 1910, Vanessa Bell asked to buy it. Grant, who was born at Rothiemurchus, Inverness-shire, in 1885, spent his childhood in India and Burma, and after schooling in England took up painting. He attended Westminster School of Art from 1902 and the progressive Académie de La Palette, Paris, in 1906–7, returning to London to spend a term at the Slade School of Art. Lytton Strachey, his cousin, had fallen in love with Grant in 1905, and in 1908 – when Grant first met Vanessa – Grant and John Maynard Keynes became lovers. Keynes was succeeded in Grant’s life by Adrian Stephen, and Grant was soon a regular at both Gordon and Fitzroy Squares.
At Asheham House in Sussex, which Vanessa rented in 1912, she and Grant painted side by side, and she increasingly saw her work in relation to his. At the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1912, Fry hung their paintings alongside those of Continental artists.
Omega Workshops and Charleston
In 1913 Fry, Bell and Grant became co-directors of the Omega Workshops. The Omega was an influential venture employing artists inspired by post-impressionism to revitalise decoration in interiors, and household and other objects. Vanessa’s experiments in the applied arts helped to broaden her attitude to painting.
Meanwhile Bell and Grant became closer and began a lasting partnership. In October 1914 Grant moved in with the Bells at 46 Gordon Square. Two years later he and Vanessa Bell moved with her two sons to Charleston in Sussex, initially so that Grant could undertake the farm work that was a condition of avoiding imprisonment as a conscientious objector.
After the move to Charleston, Keynes rented rooms at number 46, and took over the lease in 1918. Grant decorated Keynes’s rooms at number 46 in that year, Vanessa observing, pregnant, from a sofa. The couple continued to stay at number 46 when in London, as did Clive Bell, until Keynes’s marriage in 1925, after which they stayed elsewhere in the square.
At Charleston, Vanessa Bell accepted Grant’s involvement with David ‘Bunny’ Garnett and other men: the quid pro quo was that she managed her home and work as she wished. Bell and Grant’s daughter, Angelica, was born at Charleston in 1918. Like 46 Gordon Square, the house became a centre for like-minded family and friends.
Later life and work
After the war Bell and Grant contributed regularly to joint exhibitions, while Vanessa also began a long association with the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press, designing distinctive book jackets and illustrations. Concerned that her painting was becoming too like Grant’s, she decided to paint in a separate room. Grant held his first solo exhibition at the Paterson-Carfax Gallery in Mayfair in 1920, and Bell at the Independent Gallery in Mayfair in 1922. Their decorative objects were also in demand: an exhibition at 46 Gordon Square sold out in an hour.
The deaths of Roger Fry in 1934 and Julian Bell in 1937, followed by Virginia Woolf’s suicide in 1941, were severe losses for Vanessa Bell. During the Second World War Bell and Grant’s studios at 8 Fitzroy Street, and much of Bell’s early work, were destroyed in the Blitz. With the Bloomsbury Group broken up and its work increasingly seen as elitist rather than progressive, she withdrew to Charleston and painted largely for herself. She died there on 7 April 1961. Grant also painted almost until his death, on 9 May 1978. He was buried next to Bell in the churchyard of St Peter’s, Firle, near Charleston.
Isabelle Anscombe, Omega and After: Bloomsbury and the Decorative Arts (London, 1981)
Gillian Naylor (ed), Bloomsbury (London, 1990)
Victoria Rosner (ed), The Cambridge Companion to the Bloomsbury Group (Cambridge, 2014)
Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes: A Biography, vol 1 (London, 1983)
Frances Spalding, Vanessa Bell (London, 1983) and Duncan Grant (London, 1997)